Egypt’s Crisis Signals the Unraveling of Yet Another Arab Nation-State

  • Share
  • Read Later
Shawkan / Demotix / Corbis

A boy sits on a traffic signal holding the Egyptian national flag during a demonstration against President Mohamed Morsi at Tahrir Square in Cairo on July 2, 2013

When British and French diplomats sat down to draw the boundaries of the modern Middle East, one country required no ruler and compass to define it. People lived in Egypt 10,000 years before the birth of Christ. The specific civilization that left behind the Giza pyramids dates to 2,700 years B.C., and a sense of nationhood was embedded so deeply along the shores of the Nile that the quip of an Egyptian diplomat would become a truism: “Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world,” Tahseen Bashir famously said. “The rest are just tribes with flags.”

So if the land of the pharaohs is being rent asunder by the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, what hope is there for countries still in the gestational stage of statehood? Not 10 years ago in Sana‘a, the capital of Yemen, one of the issues facing then President Ali Abdullah Saleh was how to deal with a sheik who had drawn a gun on a traffic cop who had the temerity to stand in an intersection and halt his car, so that traffic could pass from the cross street. The writ of the central government not only had not reached the rugged mountains to the north of the capital, some from the mountains failed to recognize it in the capital itself.

(MORE: Egypt’s Perilous Countdown: Why Morsi May Lose the Presidency)

This was not the kind of story that would come out of Egypt. “Egypt was always justly proud that it was a kind of monolithic society,” says Ilan Mizrahi, who 10 years ago was second in command of Israel’s overseas intelligence agency, Mossad, known for viewing the region with a cold eye. “The Arab Spring places a question mark over the concept of the nation-state in the Middle East.”

It’s not an uncommon view. Across the chasm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the same assessment is heard from Mohammad Shtayyh, a onetime peace negotiator and senior official in the secular Fatah faction that governs the West Bank. The view from his Ramallah office offers no comfort. “There is a de facto partition of Libya, on tribal lines,” Shtayyh begins. “There is a de facto partition of Iraq, on sectarian and nationalist lines. The most serious thing Syria faces is partition. There is a de facto partition in Lebanon. Palestine is divided between Gaza and the West Bank.”

(PHOTOS: Egyptians Protest the Rule of Morsi, Celebrate Ouster)

“There is a total fragmentation of the region,” Shtayyh tells TIME. “There is a total collapse of the nation-state into tribal regions, and in some regions by sectarian control. The intent is fragmentation.”

It’s not so much a question of borders. The lines of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret compact by which French and British diplomats divided the holdings of the defeated Ottoman Empire in the months after World War I, remain essentially intact. The question is how the people residing within those boundaries see themselves: As citizens? Or as members of a clan, a tribe, a specific faith? In Egypt, most of the sectarian violence in the two years since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak has been directed at Copts, members of the sect that dates to the earliest days of Christianity. But on June 23 four citizens were lynched by fellow Egyptians because they practiced the Shi‘ite strand of Islam, which some in the dominant Sunni line regard as heretical. Never mind that Cairo was founded by Shi‘ites, as was al-Azhar University, the nation’s most esteemed institution. That’s also history.

The primary fault lines in the Middle East are now between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, a gap made deeper and wider each day by the bloodletting in Syria, where the civil war doubles as a religious one: there Sunni rebels fight a regime headed by Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is linked to Shiism both by perception and the ardent support of Iran, leader of the Shi‘ite sphere, and the Lebanon-based Hizballah militia it sponsors.

(MORE: With Egypt in Crisis, Obama Is Treading Cautiously)

These divides were always present, even mapped. But their intensity “was hidden,” Mizrahi points out. “They were silent under tyranny, under iron rulers like Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.” Iraqi nationalism was particularly resilient, likened to a bag of Portland cement at the feet of an old man I interviewed in Baghdad in March 2004. “We are one piece!” he shouted. “Like concrete, solid and strong. If the nation were not like concrete, it would crumble.” Two years later Iraq finally did crumble, the extraordinary self-control that ordinary Shi‘ite and Sunnis had maintained — as their clerics were picked off and religious pilgrims ambushed by extremists — finally collapsed in the rubble of a Shi‘ite shrine bombed by al-Qaeda militants. Those animosities rage to this day.

Iraq’s strife turned out to be a precursor for Syria, where what began as another stirring expression of the Arab Spring — peaceful marches demanding democracy — soon devolved into a maelstrom that has claimed 100,000 lives and driven millions toward blood-soaked partisan banners. In these conflicts, identities get defined by a cold, brutal logic: Who will protect me? The answer: Those most like me. A milestone of sorts emerged online in early June: rebels claimed in Facebook posts that a nephew of Iraq’s current Prime Minister, the Shi‘ite partisan Nouri al–Maliki, was killed in Damascus, fighting on the side of the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s Islamist government entered the fray on the Sunni side, subtly encouraging young Egyptians to travel to Syria to take up arms. The move marks a dramatic deterioration. In August, when President Mohamed Morsi had been in office only a couple of months, he had reached out to Iran, attending a convention of Non-Aligned nations in Tehran and opening direct flights between the two capitals for the first time in 33 years. By April, when the first flights occurred, they were suspended after a week as Sunni fundamentalists in Cairo fulminated in outrage at the presence of Shi‘ites in their midst.

“When states are weak, sectarianism rises,” Lebanese religious scholar Hani Fahs has said, and the Egyptian state grew weaker by the month. Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. State Department official, writes that the Arab Spring “exposed the myth of Arab statehood.” The Presidents overthrown by people power left behind “republics-in-name-only,” Miller says. “When their regimes collapsed, so did the pretentions that the state could provide the foundation for better governance.”

In Egypt, the military has again cast itself as guardian of a nation that lurches in a state of endless crisis. The country went from being a police state under Mubarak to a state of permanent insecurity in his absence, the Muslim Brotherhood turning to its own militias in November in part because even the President had reason to doubt the will of the Interior Ministry to safeguard his Heliopolis palace. Max Weber, the great theorist of the modern state, said the minimum requirement of a nation-state is that it retains a “monopoly on violence.” In Egypt, at least, there’s clearly work to be done. Across the ancient land, 24 people were killed on June 30, according to Human Rights Watch. “The most striking feature of all the violent incidents in which lives were lost,” the group states, “was the absence of security forces.”

MORE: ‘The Day the Revolution Died’: Amid Protests, Egypt’s Military Makes Its Move

65 comments
Mohamed Arafat Al Naidy
Mohamed Arafat Al Naidy

30-6 is a revolution of the people against injustice and tyranny and terrorism, not a military coup, as shown by some

Mohamed Mosleh
Mohamed Mosleh

we toppled down Morsi by peaceful rallies through 33 million people in the streets because he supports terrorism islamists and jihadis supporters of MOrsi supported by Obama and Anen Baterson are making egypt in living hell and real terrorism to become a hive for terrorism enough supporting terrorism american adminstration our army is not facing innocent protesters, they are armed militias like Hamas and Al-Qaeda , it's not a coup , it's war against real terrorism

Engy Fouad
Engy Fouad

Democracy is the rule of people. Egyptians dictated that Morsi is a terrorist. Brotherhood terrorists are threatening Egypt and Palestine national security. Proudly Egyptian Army is saving the whole WORLD from the new nazists. Officially Egypt is in WAR.Total support for Egyptian Armed Forces in her war against terrorism in Sinai. 90 million Egyptian are supporting the Gen. Elsissi in his mission. GAME OVER FASCIST. STOP✋supporting the terrorist regime Morsi and his brotherhood.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

You mean unraveling of another Obama`s so called achievement. It did not take long did it ?

Regio121
Regio121

Uncertain future for any Egyptian its for sure, while some people believe that democracy means "replace an elected official" at any time, a true statement only if the elected is a reasonably and responsible person. The trouble begins when the military force abducted the throne, instead of being a neutral party. Who's going to overcome and force the military to leave the power? the armed forces should stay out, they are to support and alliance to the president. Not to overthrow or coup against the presidency.  

jbwillikers
jbwillikers

The arabs were a noble people with a  rich history. Unfortunately islam came along to trash them all back to a primitive prehistory

rutnerh
rutnerh

The unrest in Egypt and the ME is not sectarian but a rejection of 1300 year old archaic male dominated sharia by younger generations of men and women seeking freedom from religious oppression

JohnMcCarthy
JohnMcCarthy

Thanks, Karl, I like your article.   How tragic that a people who, for thousands of years, built a great country along with such monuments as the pyramids should be torn asunder by religious factions of a faith that is less than two thousand years old. 

MikeD
MikeD

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood unfortunately are not strangers to controversy.

Here is an excellent example of their duplicity away from Egypt - Hamas, their Gaza branch, is leading and exploiting drug trafficking bonanza in their own controlled Gaza Strip:  http://al-taqareer.com/?p=3669

Bassim Malak
Bassim Malak

Message from Egyptian people to American people: When terrorists kill you, don't get angry with them But rather be Angry with the US administration which supports Terrorism!!

Louise Noyb
Louise Noyb

No lesson taken from Gulf disaster. USA's future generations in grave peril.

Alex Sabri
Alex Sabri

U.S. soldiers and the U.S. government! You are no longer welcome in Egypt! Because you helped the terrorist organization to seize power in the government of our Egypt! The U.S. government is the largest supporter of terrorists! We demand an end to interference in our lives .... We - the people of Egypt the country, and the wise men of ancient civilizations that are very different from the many nations of the earth, and we do not accept the intervention of the U.S. government in our lives. In this way, and you have your hands oubrat from Egypt and get away! And to stop interfering in the affairs of our country. I think you should be able to learn from the mistakes of the past! We are not like any other country, we are not Iraq or Palestine or Syria or Sudan and Vietnam. If you bother to read the course of Egyptian history, you will realize they do not know well that we have. We will stop all diplomatic relations with the United States, whose government support for terrorism, and divided the peoples of the same country. Our blood is on your hands! Get out of Egypt! We are not against the American people as a tourist destination! We are not against honest people! But we are against the policy of imposing its will to other sovereign countries!

Rodney Rogan
Rodney Rogan

Dear Shaz Khan it was Egypt who democratically elected the leader of a terrorist organization (the muslim brotherhood) to run their country, so stop trying to blame America for all your problems as the rest of the world are sick and tired of hearing the middle east trying to blame the USA, if you truly want peace and stability in the region KEEP RELIGION OUT OF YOUR POLITICS otherwise shut your mouth !

kal_nini
kal_nini

@SultanAlQassemi At the time it was said, it was probably true. Lets not take it out of its time..we all know its not true today

ameralkindi
ameralkindi

@SultanAlQassemi Then why is this only Arab nation state needs aid money from their tribal neighbors? I could never get the Egyptian mind.

KoukaBambi
KoukaBambi

@SultanAlQassemi Please dont take him seriuosly wall have to accept, respect and trust each other from now on egough siding with the west

Vijay Banga
Vijay Banga

Changes are on anvil in many countries in the region

Shaz Khan
Shaz Khan

America has got their wish. I guess its open season.

Michael Beckerman
Michael Beckerman

Egypt is just yet another perfect example of how important it is to keep religion away from government - and the farther away the better.

Grace Monie
Grace Monie

Look what I found about debt ... "Mortgage" means “death contract.” Though it might not initially seem so, it wasn’t coined that way for a comedic reason. It basically just means that the contract ends, or “dies,” when either the obligation is fulfilled (meaning the house is paid off) or the property is taken through foreclosure. The word was taken from Law French, a language that was based first on Old Norman and Anglo Norman languages, and later influenced by Parisian French and English. Its name derived from its use in the law courts of England, hence “Law French.” The phrase is elaborated on in “Commentaries on the Laws in England,” an 18th century four volume analysis of common law. As it says in the treatise, "[I]f he doth not pay, then the Land which is put in pledge upon condition for the payment of the money, is taken from him for ever, and so dead to him upon condition, and if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant" So always remember, one of the most integral parts of the American Dream is, in fact, a death contract. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/blackstone.asp

Grit-Grace Radioshow
Grit-Grace Radioshow

Egyptians were upset with high gas prices, fuel shortages, and power blackouts in a crumbling economy as well as Morsi spending and borrowing 11 billion dollars from Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian people realize that they can't pay back the debt and there kids and grandkids with be saddled with it. HMMMMM. Sounds very familiar doesn't it? Grit and Grace Show is starting now...http://www.blogtalkradio.com/gritgraceradio/2013/07/03/morsi-clings-to-power-in-egypt-snowden-seeking-asylum

avlav9
avlav9

@karl_vick one in that region should recognize that no Arab/Muslim state has any history of democracy, it simply isn't in their DNA.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@jbwillikers That I agree. When Islam came everything stopped for the Arab world, then leading the world in mathematics and science. What a waste.

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

All the great pyramids were pre 6th century AD, when the Nile provided the perfect location for culture and arts

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@Bassim Malak Who do you mean Obama ? Muslim terrorism has no greater friend than him, I agree.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@Alex Sabri  

i'm sure our policy makers are going to read your angry little post and realize "oh man, he's right. let's leave egypt." we get it. the world hates america. thanks for telling us something we don't know.  get off your soapbox. moron

ameralkindi
ameralkindi

@Som3aW Egypt is not a country. Its a bad joke. And history is just history. You guys have no role in making that history.