x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

After uprisings, Arab states need a political vision

The crises in Egypt and Syria are very different, but both have their roots in the absence of shared vision about how the state should operate.

Egypt is "on the brink of collapse", while Syria "is being destroyed bit by bit". It might seem a coincidence that these dire warnings, respectively from Egypt's defence minister Gen Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and the UN envoy to Syria, Lakdhar Brahimi, came on the same day this week. The corollary, however, is that the entire region is in a crisis that bleeds far beyond the borders of these two states.

The situations in Egypt and Syria are obviously very different after two years of Arab uprisings. The former is troubled by riots and partisan bickering, but still clings to a base of social stability and the hope of a peaceful political solution; the latter is mired in a horrific civil war.

But their respective roads to this point have remarkable parallels, not only in the challenges to dictatorial rule raised in 2011, but in their postcolonial histories. For a moment in 1958, the union of these two nations represented a dream of a pan-Arab movement that was meant to be larger than its parts. When the United Arab Republic dissolved three years later into separate military regimes, the groundwork was laid for decades of repressive rule.

The Arab uprisings have, correctly, been called the most momentous political development since the casting off of the colonial powers, and yet in every post-uprising country there is a deep uncertainty and the fear, if not the outright reality, of worsening violence. After decades of strong-arm rule when participation meant only one thing - obedience to the state - every country is struggling to redefine what citizenship means.

Syria's bleak war precludes a meaningful discussion at this point, but it will face the same questions that other countries have engaged, or failed to engage. The answer in a "liberated" Iraq in 2005 and in Egypt in 2011 was the ballot box, but elections by themselves are no guarantor of the rule of law. The polls cemented majoritarian rule at the expense of minorities and, ultimately, a meaningful social compact that would have required both consensus and compromise. In Iraq, this has led to a dangerous domination by Shia parties, while many fear that Egypt is slipping into Islamist authoritarianism, or a return to military rule if Gen Al Sisi's words are not heeded.

Each of these countries has seen wanton violence in this past month, with Syria's bloodshed continuing to worsen. The idea of a philosophical debate in this context might seem unlikely, and certainly there is no magic bullet. But until these societies articulate an alternative to authoritarian rule - in its old form or new - there seems little chance for long-term stability.