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The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) marches to the beat of its own drum. In an era of populism and ethnic nationalism, the MENA is moving in a direction distinct from global politics. Reviewing the Arab Spring, its historical antecedents, and consequentially, the internal conflicts, the absence of nationalistic tendencies in the modern MENA is indicative of a deeper phenomenon. Despite the Arab Spring being an anti-establishment political upheaval, its evolution since 2011 has led commentators to derisively label it “The Arab Winter”.

The spark began with the discriminatory treatment of a Tunisian fruit vendor. Lacking the sufficient permits to sell his wares, Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation reverberated Tunisians’ angst with the government. From Egypt and Turkey, to Libya and Bahrain, populations poured into the streets demanding change and accountability. The image of Tahrir Square, overflowing with civilians protesting rampant unemployment, poverty, government corruption, and authoritarianism, exemplified the hope and solidarity of the moment. Culminating in the overthrow of the Ben-Ali (Tunisia), Mubarak (Egypt), Gaddafi (Libya), and Saleh (Yemen) regimes alongside the outbreak of the Syrian, Yemeni, and Libyan civil wars, a revolutionary spirit descended upon the Middle East.

An era of democratization appeared to be on the verge of success. During the heady days of the Arab Spring, President Obama shepherded the cause, striving to reconcile American values with American geostrategic considerations. Articulating a vision which subordinated American strategic interests for ideological considerations, Obama asserted, “We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.” The days of the Bush Administration were unequivocally behind Arabs and North Africans. Obama’s public admission of support for self-determination and opposition to repressive, undemocratic – and even allied – regimes was a consequential pillar which finally crumbled.

In retrospect, the promise and hope of the Arab Spring were undermined by developments following 2010. Libya, Syria, and Yemen (and arguably Iraq) – grappling with civil war – are considered failed states today; the democratic election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt culminated in a military coup; millions of refugees have destabilized the region; and lastly, the Islamic State (IS) has challenged state security forces in Iraq and Syria, and has committed mass human rights atrocities. The lone bright spot is Tunisia, which has secured democratic and representative institutions.

Upon reflection the Arab Spring is informative in two regards: first, it demolished historical political and rhetorical orthodoxies; and second, an understanding of recent history is imperative to our understanding and expectations for the future. Depicted in The New York Times’ “Fractured Lands”, Scott Anderson’s insights from traveling the region for over a decade exemplified the desire to hold governments accountable and dismiss the platitudes of the past. Anderson maintained that, “For generations, the region’s dictators had been adroit at channeling public frustration toward these external ‘enemies’ and away from their own misrule. But with the Arab Spring, that old playbook suddenly didn’t work anymore. The disintegration of the Arab political psyche, cemented in the post-1967 Arab political mindset, withered in the face of mass protests. No longer would dictator’s appeal to the Palestinians, or imperialism, or the West to satiate their constituents. More importantly, and central to our discussion, the Arab Spring unearthed the visceral ethnic, tribal, and religious fault-lines many outside the region are unfamiliar with. The Alawites and Kurds, Houthis and Yazidis, have entered the popular lexicon of MENA commentators and provide a glimpse of the legacy upon which the modern nation-states of the region were constructed.

The fragile foundations many post-World War I states were founded on are the subject of ongoing debate. This approach emphasizes that such states (e.g. Iraq, Syria, and Egypt) are imperialistic iterations of Western attempts to superimpose Eurocentric conceptions of statehood on a region unacquainted with such convictions. The Husayn-McMahon Correspondence and the Sykes-Picot Agreement are generally referred to here and the absence of significant historical legitimacy to the political units founded following World War I explain the lack of cohesion and unity seen today.

An equally compelling and popular case is made for the factionalism and sectarian nature of MENA history. Accordingly, the primacy of ethnic, tribal, religious, or clan distinctions are the valuable units-of-analysis here. As former Canadian diplomat John Bell described it, “It is a taboo in the region to dissent with one’s nation or sect, and the opposite is encouraged: competition over unquestioned loyalty, and fatal consequences for betrayal. Distrust is the natural consequence of such hard lines in the sand between ‘us’ and ‘them’.” This argument values the distinctive cleavages between groups to explain the inability to mould behavior and transcend historical grievances. This perspective references the kaleidoscope of violence witnessed in the Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, Yemeni, and Iraqi civil wars as well as the intractability of the Arab-Israeli and Sunni-Shia divide.

Nationalism’s diminished presence in recent MENA politics is telling of a broader phenomenon. The massive influx of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan has led to xenophobic sentiment, but this rhetoric has not coalesced around notions of a nostalgic past. Instead the public discontent is channeled towards regional instability, heightened tensions, and declining economic and social conditions. Gripes about daily privations, rather than Huntington-esque appeals to a “Clash of Civilizations”, define the response to intra-migrant movements in MENA.

Nationalism’s story in MENA is paradoxical. Populism and nationalism are largely absent throughout MENA. Had MENA been states with firm nationalistic histories, perhaps the instability and chaos afflicting the region would be markedly less. The lack of ethnic nationalism today in MENA is a product of overlapping and complex identity crises gripping the region. As P. R. Kumaraswamy of the Middle East Institute argued, “Without exception, all the Middle Eastern states have tried to impose an identity from above. Whether ideological, religious, dynastical, or power-centric, these attempts have invariably failed and have often resulted in schism and sectarian tensions.” It is an identity crisis which leaders have failed to address, explaining the MENA imperviousness to rising tides of aggressive nationalism wading ashore in neighboring Europe.

Photo Source: Creative Commons, AK Rockefeller


Author Ari Blaff

Ari is a Masters of Global Affairs student at the University of Toronto’s Munk School. Previously, he received an MA in History from Western University. Ari specializes primarily on the modern Middle East, American foreign policy, and Israel/Palestine. He is also a senior editor at the Journal of International Law & International Relations (JILIR) and the Vice President of Written Content for the Munk Security Forum. LinkedIn: Ari Blaff

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