Understanding the current power vacuum in the Middle East requires understanding why the previous political order was toppled in the first place, including the repercussions of this failure. One can only comprehend the realities once the following question is asked – who holds power in the region?
Retrospectively, two Iraqi wars and subsequent war on terror only prepared a fertile ground for the fall of the old Arab order. Ignoring external factors, the demise was a piecemeal process until the Arab Spring occurred that sought to undermine the old political order, whose structural foundations had been present for too long. However, the demise of the old system does not mean that the roots of the old power are no longer present and active in the region. In contrast, authorities and police states are still the prevalent modes of governance.
Yet, something more fundamental has changed – the political mindset underpinning the old system did collapse. The collapse of the previous mindset and the prevailing political psychology that now refused to accept the rule of the old system makes the foundations of these authoritarian regimes shakier than before. However, the new order cannot yet take over from the old order.
In the Middle East, the idea of state was not really derived from its citizens but rather the state and its people were set against each other. This binary set-up and lack of public legitimacy essentially led states to seek international alliances and heavy security apparatuses to help them survive. Moreover, the West’s historical involvement and colonial legacy have further exacerbated the system in which local elites merely played a minor role in a Western centric system. This naturally further fragmented the region and deepened the crisis of legitimacy.
State failure essentially meant that the state became an instrument for a narrow group of people, thus limiting the broad concept of citizenship and encouraging the formation of political identities through sectarianism, ethnicity or religion, which also became the primary sources of royalty. However, if the state embodies the interests of a narrow clique, then a change in the group will ultimately lead to a change in the state structure itself. Thus, while the old order is dying, the new one is not yet emerging.
The transitional period will likely last for some time but until the new order emerges, it is important to keep an eye on the emerging features of the order yet to be born. The nascent trends of the interregnum are linked to the foundations of the Arab Spring itself – such as socio-political and economic struggles underpinned by political demands and combined with a domestic context. Importantly, the consequences of the uprising have eclipsed their root causes and the militarization of the uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Libya brought about many harmful external effects, such as refugee crisis, radicalism and the rise of the Islamic State group.
This has been a game changer because it had made us forget about the underlying consequences of the uprising and shifted our attention to the consequences, spending a lot of time, energy and resources. Paradoxically, this change has also undermined the underlying causes of the Arab Spring itself and perpetuated the lifespan of dictatorships. As a result, militias based on identity or interests now constitute a new reality in the region from Libya to Syria to Yemen. As a corollary, zones of influence have emerged, which is mostly obvious in Syria.
All in all, the factors that have contributed to the demise of the old system and the characteristics of the current period point to the issues that must be addressed by the new order if it is to succeed. These mostly include regional conflicts that have acquired strong identity dimensions, secession and centralization that have not proven to be the right operational principle, the emergence of legitimate and representative political elites that is essential for the success of a new regional order and a region-wide ideological reconciliation of Islamists with secularists/nationalists as well as identity-based reconciliation between Sunni and Shia and between Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Iranians.
‘Democracy is Still the Answer for Arab World’ – an analysis by Wadah Khanfar – Chatham House.