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  • The Citizen and the State:The decline of sovereignty in the Arab world
  • Rami G. Khouri (bio)

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BEIRUT—Watching television news from the Middle East these days has become a repetitive catalogue of suicide bombings, terror attacks, civil wars, foreign military interventions, and occasional attempts to generate cease-fires and deliver humanitarian relief to besieged civilians. Disturbing and dangerous as they are, these are only the surface political symptoms and material consequences of a set of problems that have plagued the Middle East—and its Arab core—for decades. Accurately identifying what is really wrong in the Arab world, and how to start fixing it, is our great collective challenge and, to date, our collective failure. [End Page 113]

Syria and Iraq are the epicenter of today’s troubled Arab political reality. Syria, in particular, has emerged as the battleground for perhaps the greatest combination of local, regional, and global proxy wars to come together in the modern era. We should worry about terrorism and the refugee populations created from these conflicts, especially because Syria and Iraq may be just the tip of the iceberg of the distortions and dangers that define many Arab countries. What we are witnessing in these two places may be the early warning signs of militarization, sectarianism, and collapse that could well spread to other parts of the region, or even beyond through terror groups like Boko Haram in West Africa. We have already seen signs of this in Somalia, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, and even corners of Egypt.

The U.S., Russia, or Iran can send more troops and drones to Syria-Iraq, but this will not resolve the fundamental problem that shakes the Arab world and sends tremors of terrorism, refugees, and fear to other countries. We need to stop fueling wars and sectarian or socio-economic divisions and instead seek to identify and then redress the causes of those conflicts.

Two immediate problems should concern us. First, there is no consensus on the priority dangers we face, their underlying causes, and their reasonable antidotes. Should we focus on trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, promote democracy, generate sustained economic growth, fight sectarianism, reduce local and regional warfare, improve education, enhance women’s rights, or experiment with some other magic bullet? We have no clear idea of where to start in fixing our broken region. Second, no credible mechanisms exist by which local, regional, and international actors can work together to agree on how to calm things down—so expect the violence of Syria-Iraq to remain the norm for some time to come.


It seems critical to identify the turning points when the sustained nationalist development drive that defined the Arab world from the 1920s to the 1970s—and appreciably improved the well-being of entire societies—stalled and shifted into the messy downward slide that has characterized a majority of Arab lives ever since. Over the last four decades, we’ve witnessed political and economic polarization, pauperization, marginalization, vulnerability, and, ultimately, state fragmentation. We must identify why this happened in order to chart out how it might be reversed.

Unfortunately, there is zero evidence that the world is taking steps toward pinpointing the central causes of strife in the Arab world, let alone inching toward a legitimate framework for discussion. Yet for those of us who have spent our lives living and working in the Arab world, we can instinctively feel the underlying problems and inequities—just as African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama, knew in their bones what needed to be fixed in the 1950s. They did not need a local study group or a national commission of inquiry to identify and repair the social ills. Arab men and women across our region live a similar reality. They know what plagues their societies and dehumanizes them, and they also know that it will take years to change this situation, as counter-reform forces will fight to maintain the status quo.

My own sense is that we can trace back most of the problems of today to the cumulative consequences of a single century-long vulnerability that was long...


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pp. 113-121
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