The onset of the Arab Spring saw expressions and acts of solidarity throughout the region with those struggling to shake off decades of dictatorship.
This revived long-dormant, proud feelings of pan-Arabism. However, less than four years after protests first broke out in Tunisia, the very territorial integrity of certain states - particularly Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq - is being undermined by conflict and mistrust.
Last month, participants in national reconciliation talks reportedly agreed to turn the republic into a federal state, but differences remain on the number of regions. Nonetheless, the talks have been boycotted by those demanding full independence for the south, which united with the north in 1990 (a brief breakaway in 1994 sparked a civil war).
The revolution that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has galvanized the movement for southern secession, as Yemenis have become more outspoken amid numerous chronic national crises.
On Sept. 26, the south-western province of Fezzan declared itself autonomous. Tribal leaders said the decision was due to the “weak performance” of the government in Tripoli, and its “lack of response to the demands of the Libyan people in Fezzan.” This followed a similar announcement in June by another of Libya’s three provinces, Cirenaica in the east, where the revolution that toppled Muammar Qaddafi began.
If certain communities and regions prefer separation or divorce to an unhappy marriage, then that should be their right.Sharif Nashashibi
Bloomberg reporter Mariam Sami described this as “a sign of growing territorial tensions in the country.” The BBC’s East Africa correspondent Gabriel Gatehouse said the concept of autonomy has “significant popular support in the east, where many people feel they have suffered decades of neglect and discrimination.”
Despite leaders in Fezzan and Cirenaica denying that they seek full independence, their proclamations of autonomy have been strongly condemned by Tripoli. The government’s concerns are not unfounded, particularly regarding Cirenaica, where 80 percent of Libya’s oil reserves are located (the country has the largest reserves in Africa).
As such, if the province seceded, it would fare much better economically, since it would be the sole beneficiary of its oil, rather than sharing the profits with Fezzan and Tripolitania on terms that many people in the east view as unfair. The proceeds are vital to a country struggling to build an economy that was woefully mismanaged under Qaddafi.
Furthermore, when regions maintain and prosper from long-term autonomy, and develop in ways distinct from other parts of the country, there is always the possibility that independence is the eventual outcome, whether or not that was the initial intention.
The ripple effect of the Syrian civil war, as well as markedly rising violence and a growing, mainly Sunni protest movement against the Shia-dominated government, are resurrecting speculation about whether Iraq will remain one state.
“It is not hard to imagine Iraq breaking up as Sunnis and Shias plunge into a vicious sectarian civil war, while the Kurds go their own way in the north,” wrote BBC Middle East correspondent Jim Muir. “A clear worst-case scenario is visible and plausible... The warning signals are already there, not least in the casualty figures from the latest outbursts of violence in many parts of the country.”
Iraq’s territorial integrity depends “a lot” on “the outcome of the struggle in Syria,” added Muir. “If the minority Alawite regime [in Damascus] collapses and the country either breaks up or falls under majority Sunni rule, it may be harder to keep the Iraqi Sunnis within the central government’s orbit.”
Indeed, this community has complained - with justification - of discrimination and marginalization since the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Their protests have become larger and more vocal in the last year, as has the authoritarianism and repression of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Furthermore, the instability in Iraq and Syria has rehabilitated al-Qaeda in the former, and established it in the latter. The organization and its affiliates have vowed to form a unified Islamic state in both countries. In addition, some observers believe that if Iraq and Syria break apart, their respective Sunni and Kurdish territories may merge.
Indeed, Iraq’s Sunni community is largely sympathetic to the mainly Sunni uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by the government in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdish leaders have said they will intervene if necessary to protect their brethren across the border. All parties in Syria’s civil war are receiving direct backing - in the form of money, weapons and fighters - from their ethnic and sectarian kin.
“Iraq is on its way to dissolution,” wrote Henri J. Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Maliki’s “increasingly dictatorial tendencies are ensuring that the country will split along sectarian and ethnic lines.”
There is increasing talk about whether Syria will split up. This would have been unthinkable not long ago. However, in effect the country has already disintegrated into a patchwork of territories ruled by the various parties to the conflict. “As the war expands in scope and brutality, its biggest casualty appears to be the integrity of the Syrian state,” wrote Ben Hubbard, Middle East correspondent for the New York Times.
At the moment, it is difficult to see how this state will be reconstituted. “The geographic divisions are hardening,” wrote Hubbard, adding that the regime is focusing on consolidating its grip on the territories it controls, while making “little effort to reclaim rebel-held areas in the country’s far north and east.”
One scenario being discussed is that of a state in the western, coastal heartland of the Alawite community from which Assad hails, which would also include other minorities such as Christians. Rebels are increasingly fighting among themselves for territorial gain.
The Kurds are reportedly in the advanced stages of setting up an autonomous zone in the north and east, similar to that of Iraqi Kurdistan. While both Kurdish regions deny intentions towards independence, this is undoubtedly due to realpolitik rather than rejecting the idea of their own state, as none of the countries with sizable Kurdish populations - Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey - would accept such an outcome.
In any case, Iraqi Kurdistan has continued to develop with greater independence since Saddam’s ouster, causing increasing friction with the government in Baghdad, particularly regarding the signing of oil deals. The relative prosperity and stability of Iraqi Kurdistan, compared with other parts of the country, will no doubt provide encouragement to Syrian Kurds.
The breakup of Syria is affecting the territorial integrity of its neighbors. “We seem to be witnessing much of the Levant returning to its constituent parts, where the nation-state as a unit of analysis may no longer be valid,” wrote David Lesch, professor of Middle East history at Trinity University, Texas.
“The borders between Syria and Lebanon have virtually dissolved, as have portions of the borders between Syria and its other neighbors, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan,” added Lesch, author of “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.”
Rami Khouri - a columnist at Lebanon’s Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut - concurs: “Syria’s problem, like Iraq’s and Lebanon’s, is that the nature of its pluralistic population means that major demographic groups have strong ties with fellow populations in nearby countries, such as Alawites, Kurds, Druze, Sunnis, and even Christians.
“The main lesson of the current situation in Syria strikes me as being the fragility of the modern Arab state in the Levant and beyond... The slow-motion destruction of the centralized Syrian state will enhance this trend toward the retribalization of the Arab Levant...”
There is of course great peril involved in the creation and recreation of states, regions, borders and statuses in the Arab world. For a people who rightly complain about foreign powers’ divide-and-rule tactics, Arabs seem to be doing a lot of the dividing themselves.
However, many people forget that the parameters of the states that exist today were drawn by Western imperialist forces - primarily Britain and France - in the last century. This was done with regard only for their own interests, not those of the inhabitants they ruled, many of whom strongly opposed either being separated or lumped together.
“What emerged were largely artificial constructions,” wrote Lesch. “Centuries of pre-existing orientations were cast aside.” As such, there is nothing particularly sacred about the existing boundaries, which are the cause of many of the conflicts plaguing the region. It is ironic that many people I know who condemn the redrawing of current borders also rail against those who demarcated them in the first place.
“We may be witness to a generation-long process that will remap much of the Middle East,” wrote Lesch. “What is certain is that the force of history is at work, and the results will not be without continuing tumult and instability amid the hope that what will eventually result may better fit the geographic and demographic makeup of the region.”
The determining factor will be whether change is brought about by choice or by force. The latter will not work - certainly not in the long run - and will cause more harm than good. The former - by way of referendums, as happened with South Sudanese independence in 2011 - is the only equitable, democratic and viable solution. If the peoples of the region can freely decide for themselves, whatever the outcome must be respected, if not necessarily applauded.
If certain communities and regions prefer separation or divorce to an unhappy marriage, then that should be their right. There is always the potential for reconciliation when Arabs get their house in order - and as a pan-Arabist, I would always prefer unity to division - but sadly there is no sign of that any time soon.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash