After three years of ISIS occupation, the Iraqi army reconquered most of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in July. As the self-declared caliphate—the world’s richest terrorist organization—has been losing considerable territory over the last two years, and with the international borders of most states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) still intact, is the survival of the state system in the region still an issue of concern? Does the issue of states, borders, and sovereignty in the Middle East and North Africa still deserve our attention?
There is no doubt that the political transformation processes following the so-called Arab Spring continue to destabilize the MENA region. In light of the civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, pundits were quick to predict that the post-uprisings turmoil would lead to a major redrawing of the post-World War I colonial borders. A radical transformation of the regional state system that rests on these externally imposed—and thus supposedly illegitimate—territorial borders was anticipated. With its vocally propagated claim to erase the (alleged) Sykes-Picot borders and its initially unprecedented territorial expansion, the growing power of ISIS in Syria and Iraq further fed the hype about “the end of Sykes-Picot” and the regional order it denotes. (In fact, the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 did neither impose the mandate system on the region, nor establish Iraq and Syria as two separate states; this would be decided at the San Remo Conference of 1920.)
But contrary to these predictions and myths, the borders of MENA states as signifiers of international legal sovereignty have been surprisingly resilient. This has been the case because the vast majority of regional and international actors and stakeholders have no real interest in the redrawing of borders, favouring the status quo instead. Equally, most of the armed non-state actors, except for ISIS, have been contesting political authority within the state rather than the legitimacy of the internationally- recognized territorial borders.
Even in the case of the most likely candidate for a potential redrawing of borders in the Middle East, Iraqi Kurdistan, the pro-status quo position of international and regional actors seems to prevail. While the US neither openly supports nor categorically rejects Kurdish independence in Iraq, the Iraqi government as well as Iran and Turkey already made it clear that they favour a unitary Iraqi state. It thus remains to be seen whether the Iraqi Kurds will succeed in obtaining de jure sovereignty and international recognition, should the independence referendum scheduled for 25 September pass.
However, statehood and domestic sovereignty in the Middle East and North Africa remain problematic. These notions are linked to the configuration of state authority, territoriality, and the legitimacy of political rule. While this arrangement has always been problematic in the Middle East, the Arab uprisings can be read as the culmination of the legitimacy deficit of Arab states. They expressed the popular discontent against repressive regimes that exclude large sectors of societies from the political process while reproducing socioeconomic inequalities, to the profit of these regimes.
While looking at the region today it is safe to say that the main issues at stake are not the erasing or redrawing of international borders.
Yet, the expectation that the uprisings would prompt reform processes leading to inclusive social contracts between state and society, thereby increasing the legitimacy of political rule, was not met. Egypt under Morsi produced new types of exclusion, and under al-Sisi, authoritarianism increased noticeably. In Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, power struggles degenerated into violent conflicts and wars, with these states witnessing an erosion or complete collapse of state authority. A plethora of armed groups have emerged in the region, exerting control over territories and fulfilling functions that traditionally belong to states, from providing services to controlling borders. While the Iraqi government and the Assad regime, both backed by international actors, have somewhat regained territorial control, two or three main groups (depending on how you count) are fighting over territory, legitimacy, and recognition in Libya. Both Morocco and Jordan initiated reform processes which are however falling short of the expectations of their citizens. In Tunisia, the only country that succeeded in the political reform process, the government is struggling for legitimacy in the face of severe security and economic challenges. Overall, the inherent weakness of many states in the region and their lack of political legitimacy are more precarious today than they were before the Arab uprisings.
The enormous economic challenges that many of these states are facing are not making the renewal of the social contract any easier. Since the Arab uprisings economic growth has declined in most MENA states, with the initial expansionary economic policies being financed by unsustainably high domestic debt levels. The tourism sector and foreign investments have taken a hit because of the repeated terrorist attacks in the region. However, internationally recommended measures to cut down state expenditures, raise revenues, fight corruption, reduce the large informal sector, modernize the state and generate economic growth are generally highly unpopular at home. High unemployment, a massive underemployment of skilled and educated workers, and a low participation of women in the labour force continue to characterize most MENA states today. Considering the “youth bulge” in Arab states, millions of people under the age of 30 will enter the job market in the coming decade. The economic—and political—challenges these states are facing are therefore truly herculean.
True, in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, many borders in the MENA region came under pressure because of conflicts, the collapse of central authority and the growing flows of weapons, fighters, and refugees. Some borders were initially porous but then became closed, as in the case of the Turkish-Syrian border, and different armed groups gained control over specific segments of borders, such as in Syria. Nevertheless, while looking at the region today it is safe to say that the main issues at stake are not the erasing or redrawing of international borders. Rather, what we should worry about is the domestic sovereignty of states and the legitimacy of political rule within these borders. The security situation in the region remains an enormous challenge, as are the reconstruction and political reconciliation processes that would unfold after the ending of the civil wars. But equally worrisome is the unrelentingly dire socio-economic situation in many states—the main triggers of the Arab uprisings in the first place. Without massive financial support by the international community, which is unlikely to happen, one should not bet on the ability or willingness of these states to engage in a serious political and economic reform process anytime soon. The next wave of social unrest and violence rattling the region is only a matter of time.
Featured image credit: ‘Barbed wire’ by Nikolai Ulltang. Public domain via Pexels.