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

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.”

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