Arab fears about Sudan's split have roots closer to home
Voters in southern Sudan may well opt for independence from the north today and obtain prompt international recognition for their state. Should this happen (and many things can go awry in the process), it won't be a repeat of the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1992, an oddity in world history. Still, it won't necessarily reignite the 20 year-long civil war that was fought over the south's future.
Sudan may sit at the geographic and political periphery of the Arab world, yet the prospect of the break-up of a member state of the Arab League is unnerving many across the region. The Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi warned of "a contagious disease" that would affect its neighbours. A few months ago, Prince Saud Al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, remarked: "Sudan, a member of the Arab League, is facing the threat of division. No Arab League member can justify its neutral stand on the issue. We have to support Sudan to overcome these dangers."
Bad timing and fear of Sudan setting a precedent are the main reasons for this angst. For one, Sudan would be breaking up just as Kurdish self-determination sentiments in Iraq are rising. The prospect of seeing Iraq dissolve is still far-fetched but a few weeks ago, the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani made a provocative plea for the right to self-determination. This may have been political manoeuvring during the formation of the Iraqi government, but Mr Barzani still got enthusiastic applause from the audience. The Arab world already lost much balance since Iraq's political transformation - its disintegration would be too disruptive.
In truth, the Arab world has faced many such crises: the Polisario insurgency opposes Morocco in the Western Sahara; Saddam Hussein attempted to annex Kuwait in 1990; and a failed unification process led to the short-lived secession of South Yemen in 1994. Arab officialdom never parted with its principled opposition to re-drawing the region's borders but has done little to address the root causes of separatism and secessionism.
Indeed, those crises are rooted as much in unsettled and disputed borders as in the failure of governance throughout the Arab world. Fixated on building strong, centralised states and perpetuating their rule, Arab leaders have failed to develop models of decentralisation and federalism more in sync with today's developmental needs.
The UAE is truly a unique case in this regard. Its founding fathers designed a federation despite the odds. They understood that this arrangement better protected the survival and development of their emirates rather than the typical go-it-alone approach. The other federal model was born out of trauma and blood in Iraq, once the epitome of the strong Arab state.
Then there is the matter of foreign interference. On blogs and in op-ed pages across the region, there is a conviction that the West is maliciously encouraging Sudanese southerners in their quest for independence in order to weaken the Arab world. Kurds are also suspected of similar western manipulation. Both southern Sudan and Iraqi Kurdistan are resource-rich, so the argument goes that foreign greed explains this suspected interest. In fact, both southern Sudan and Kurdistan are land-locked and politically risky, so western companies have mostly stayed away. And communities that sit on these resources often compete for their control.
Saad Mehio, a columnist for Al Khaleej, goes even further. He blames the coming Sudanese separation on a grand Israeli design to divide the region along sectarian lines and sees a pernicious Israeli hand from Sudan to Iraq. But the Arab world has proven quite adept at dividing itself without external help. Blaming Israel and the West smacks of a desire to have scapegoats rather than progress.
One cannot deny that the Ottoman Empire, and more importantly, the western powers, drew the borders of the modern Middle East. For the overwhelming majority of Arabs, the partition of Palestine remains the ultimate instance of such Machiavellian engineering. That memory runs deep but often obfuscates unpleasant realities. The thinking goes that a unified Arab nation could have risen from the Ottoman-era wilayet without such interference, leaving conveniently aside the fact that Arabs were deeply divided after the First World War.
The Druze and the Alawi of Syria lobbied the French occupiers to set up their own distinct states. Promises of statehood were made to the Kurds and then reneged on. Only the Christians of Lebanon were successful in their efforts.
To be true, some Westerners have yet to give up their re-engineering fantasies, taking comfort in the simplistic view that ethnic and religious identity is carved in stone. When he was a US senator, the US Vice-President Joseph Biden advocated a partition of Iraq into a loose three-region sectarian federation. His proposal got little traction inside the US government but interestingly it echoed a proposal by a senior Iraqi political and Shia leader, Abdul Aziz al Hakim, to create a Shia-super region in Iraq.
And when a fringe US military analyst, Ralph Peters, redrew all the borders in the Middle East in a privately-owned defence journal, many Arabs assumed - wrongly - that his views reflected the nefarious designs of the US administration. Mr Peters created homogenous sectarian and ethnic entities, including a Greater Kurdistan, Baluchistan and a Shia state that extends from Baghdad to the Shia-dominated eastern region of Saudi Arabia.
Ultimately, the coming split of Sudan has less to do with foreign machinations than with bad governance in Khartoum - Sudan ranks third on the Failed States Index - and the rise of sub-and supra-national loyalties throughout the region. Arab states may have centralised political control but they rarely have fostered a sense of citizenship - witness the tensions in Egypt between the Copts and the state. Even cosmopolitan and promising states like Lebanon and Iraq have failed to build modern institutions that combine cultural diversity and a feeling of national belonging. The Sudanese scission will hopefully be a wake-up call to avert similar crises in the future.
Emile Hokayem is the senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies - Middle East
Updated: January 9, 2011 04:00 AM