This paper is part of ACW’s fourth book, titled The Arab World Beyond Conflict.
The Arab world comprises 22 countries and more than 400 million inhabitants, a wide geographic spread, multiple religions and languages, distinctive cultures, and many unique histories. There is no reason why the Arab world should not be seen as plural and heterogeneous; yet, what is keeping it from acknowledging and valuing its multiple identities? Why does it have an exclusive view and concept of Arab identity and not an inclusive one that reflects its diverse peoples? Why does a restrictively exclusive concept of Arab identity prevail?
In the post-colonial era, a narrow conceptualization of Arab identity has been instrumentalized to strengthen a limited understanding of religion and state, which excluded people along lineage, ethnicity, patronage, and tribal, confessional, and racial lines. This concerted effort by Arab governments to “elitize” or maintain rigid strata and groups within their societies, based on exclusionary markers of what it means to be Arab, has had a profoundly deleterious impact on Arab societies. Identity politics are essentially counterintuitive: on balance, each individual contains a multitude of attributes and when certain ones are devalued or attacked, they grow in importance and eclipse others.1
Exclusive notions of Arab identity, instrumentalized through undemocratic modes of governance, have created divides both within and among Arab societies that continue to feed violent conflict. Continued conflict in Sudan is perhaps most blatantly emblematic of the destructive nature of the construct of Arab identity as elite and illustrates an increasingly familiar model of governance whereby a predatory regime feeds on identity conflict for survival. These identity dynamics are also at play in the Iraq-Kurdistan conflict, the marginalization of the Shia population in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the government crackdowns on protests in Berber-majority regions in Morocco, and the marginalization of the Coptic minority in Egypt.
The Inadequacy of Identity Formation “in Opposition”
The simplest––but most shallow––way to form an identity is in opposition to an enemy, either in the context of a real confrontation (i.e., in a war, or asserting the right to be and defend oneself) or when dealing with an artificially constructed enemy. Resistance against colonialism throughout North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) in the late 1950s and early 1960s spurred the formation of a collective Arab identity solidified by animosity toward Israel.2 The establishment of Israel happened alongside the nascent nation-building process in the immediate aftermath of the independence movements from colonial powers, and as such, served as a key driver that galvanized the cross-border appeal of “Arabness” and drastically narrowed the markers of Arab identity. As a result, this narrowed definition of Arab identity made it harder for an inclusive and rights-oriented governance model to take hold. Over time, heavily militarized responses to the anti-Israel security dynamics led to a set of serious political grievances for citizens in the Arab world. Suspension of the constitution and rule of law, removal of presidential term limits, and nearly three decades of permanent emergency law in places like Egypt, Iraq, and Libya transformed the hopes for democratic self-governance of postcolonial independence movements into the stifling oppression of authoritarian regimes.
Notably, the fervor that Israel spurred seven decades ago is starting to wane. Israel has become an increasingly less convincing scapegoat to justify overt violations of democratic governance. Instead, in the past two decades, an elaborately constructed view of Iran as an existential threat in the region—both geopolitically and religiously—has been replacing the image held by Israel for seven decades. The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States brought together strange bedfellows: the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Geopolitical collaboration between the three countries commenced with the partnership to arm the Mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s and has since strengthened, thanks to the “global war on terror.” Both Saudi Arabia and Israel share an animosity toward Iran, and both have depicted the Persian neighbor as an existential threat and a menace to the region—an animosity that has echoed in Washington, given both Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s influence in the American capital.3
Today, Arab governments juxtapose Arab identity ethnically in opposition to a Persian Iran and religiously against a Shia-majority neighbor in the middle of a largely Sunni-Muslim Middle East. In this effort, it is hard to underestimate the role, influence, and impact Saudi Arabia has had in promulgating the image of a threatening, nefarious Iran. The kingdom has already been engaged in proxy wars against Iran in both the Yemeni and Syrian theaters. In addition, many internal conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain have manifested Saudi Arabia’s active cold war against Iran.
The Recourse to Islamism and the Rise of Violent Non-State Actors
This faulty conceptualization of Arab identity, and its instrumentalization to facilitate an exclusionary mode of governing, have led to the emergence of two major phenomena: the recourse to Islamism as political opposition, and the rise of violent extremist groups that espouse even narrower models of Arab identity. These two phenomena are a testament to a failed political governance that promulgated an Arab identity designed to create and reinforce divides among its citizens. It is important to note that Arab governments, Islamists, and violent political actors have all instrumentalized identity politics in their political quests.
The emergence of Islamist movements is essentially reactionary. They arose as a means of opposition to unjust rulers and gained prominence by filling the gap left by undemocratic regimes that failed to address the needs of their citizens.4 Harsh treatment of Islamists has further inflamed citizens’ grievances, exacerbated marginalization, and mobilized popular sentiment in favor of Islamists who are often perceived as the “lesser of the two evils.” Violent political groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State espouse even more exclusionary models of identity, centered around narrow understandings of Islam, to further their political goals. Unfortunately, there is plenty of fodder in the discouraging political and socioeconomic conditions of Arab peoples.
The Need for Greater Adherence to the Rule of Law
Five out of the ten most corrupt countries in the world come from the Arab world: Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Syria.5 All of them have devolved into armed conflict, chronic political instability, terrorism, and dire humanitarian crises and violations. Since 2016, global trends have seen a decline in the support of human rights, the absence of corruption, checks on government powers, and the health of civil and criminal justice systems. However, what has been characteristic of the MENA region over the last few decades is its inability to break out of its status-quo stagnation in terms of improving rule of law benchmarks. According to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, the MENA region has consistently ranked in the mid-range in adherence to rule of law; in 2018, it was fourth out of the seven regions surveyed.6 A recent survey of households in the Arab world by Transparency International found that 80 percent of respondents thought that corruption has either increased or remained the same in the past 12 months, with nearly one in three people saying that they paid a bribe to access basic services. Of even additional concern, 68 percent of respondents said that the government is doing badly and failing to fight corruption, and almost a third said they do not report corruption because they fear the consequences. The rule of law sector was particularly worrisome: almost a third and a fourth of individuals who dealt with the courts and the police, respectively, reported paying a bribe.7
In Egypt, the Central Auditing Agency—the country’s highest supervisory authority—reported a new case of corruption every 1.5 minutes; indeed, rising levels of corruption are boosting Egypt’s informal economy to the point that it accounts for nearly 70 percent of the overall economy, according to Transparency International.8 The government’s efforts to address corruption levels have been either symbolic or limited at best. This is evidenced by the case of Hisham Geneina, Egypt’s head of the Central Auditing Authority, who was fired by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and accused of “spreading false news and disturbing the peace” simply for publicly stating that he estimated corruption to cost Egypt nearly $76 billion.9 The damage that these long-term and deep levels of corruption cause to social trust and peaceful stability cannot be overstated.
Certainly, there is a great appetite for reform throughout the Arab world. At the grassroots level, the efforts of civil society players have been heroic despite unhelpful institutional conditions.10 Demographic trends have also pushed the pendulum toward reform, with nearly 65 percent of the population younger than 30.11 Despite this yearning for reform, however, efforts within the status quo have been unfruitful. Historic levels of protests in 2011 motivated reforms by regimes that were in survival mode. They have also come at the expense of loss of life in addition to unprecedented political and social upheaval that have resulted in a mass exodus from Syria, a dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the political fragmentation of Libya, and a still politically fragile Egypt.
Fundamentally, it would be difficult for any meaningful reforms to take root based on the current unsustainable model of governance. Instead, certain fundamental approaches to the concept of Arab identity have to shift. First, there must come the realization that Arab identity needs to allow and embrace the plurality of all its citizens, including individuals’ rights and freedoms. Second, the political leadership cadre must forego the institutionalization of an exclusive conceptualization of Arab identity as the modus operandi of governing. Essentially, a precursor to achieving more democratic models of governance in Arab societies will be to take a hard look at the structure of Arab identity and its relation to the ethnic, religious, national, and individual identities of the Arab peoples. For much of the last century, the cross-border appeal of Arab identity has come at the expense of diversity.
Toward a More Inclusive, Pluralist Arab Identity
Change may be inevitable, but it will not happen overnight, as clearly evidenced by the wave of Arab Spring protests throughout the Arab world that shook decades-old authoritarian regimes. The relative success of the Tunisian case compared to the Syrian or even the Egyptian cases is a function of many factors, chief among them is a strong and steadfast commitment to reform and transition to truly democratic notions of governance. An integral first step toward that goal is to revise the conception of Arab identity—and what it means to be Arab—so that it is reflective and inclusive of the diversity and heterogeneity of the Arab peoples. It is imperative to repudiate the exclusionary and discriminatory ways Arab identity has been promulgated. A democratic and inclusive notion of Arab identity will ease the sense of grievance and marginalization that encouraged violent extremists to flourish. It will also validate Islam as a religious path rather than as a means for dissent and opposition to undemocratic political regimes. In fact, engaged citizens––at the political, social, and economic levels—are at the heart of an inclusive model of Arab identity that caters to all its citizens.
An inclusive model of Arab identity that recognizes the diversity and plurality of the Arab world would do well to espouse the following democratic notions:
- Affirming a commitment to the rule of law. This is a foundational element of any effective transition to democratic systems of governance that strive toward equity and peace for their citizens. Such a commitment includes creating greater collaboration and harmony between constitutional provisions and the practice, enforcement, and implementation of laws.
- Promoting values of individual rights and protections. This will also necessitate valuing women as vital and essential, productive, and equal citizens.
- Guaranteeing freedom of speech and dissent. Basic and mandatory institutional reform must include eliminating laws that restrict the freedoms of speech and dissent and devising and implementing guarantees and rights that allow for greater expression of dissent, opposition, and speech. Such laws are often unenforced or overturned by harshly enforced lèse-majesté laws against “insulting Islam,” “insulting the state,” or “disturbing the peace,” all of which are designed to suppress freedom of speech and expression of political opposition and criticism.
- Ensuring accountability and transparency. Given the very high corruption rates in the Arab world, it is critical that politically independent and well-resourced mechanisms for checks and balances, auditing, and improving governmental institutions’ performance—including through the enactment of legislation that protects whistler-blowers—are adopted and implemented. The United Nations Convention against Corruption12 and the G20 Principles on Beneficial Ownership,13 for instance, provide a helpful set of standards and benchmarks to measure against.
- Providing equitable access to resources, development, and economic empowerment. Such access is critical for envisioning an inclusive form of governance. According to the World Inequality Lab, during the period between 1990 and 2016, the top 10 percent of the population in the Middle East enjoyed about 60-66 percent of the region’s income, while the bottom 50 percent accrued, on average, less than 10 percent of regional income. More alarmingly, the share of income accruing to the top one percent of the population exceeded 25 percent of total regional income.14
Countries of the Arab world have widely divergent governance cultures, practices, and histories and they do not necessarily share common approaches to governance. In fact, it is important to caution against seeing or expecting the Arab world to behave as a monolith; what works in Tunisia is not bound to work in Egypt. However, the five previous recommendations are based on universal values and constitute foundational best practices necessary for any democratic, pluralist governance system. Furthermore, they are all linked to indicators of state success like peace, stability, and economic growth, thus making the right approach also the best one for governing.15 Following these general norms, each country can then continue to develop and improve its system of political governance, one that reflects the choices and plurality of its peoples.
Countries of the Arab world are inherently heterogeneous in ethnicity, religion, culture, history, and languages. The exclusive top-down imposition of a narrow Arab identity has only served to sharpen the sense of “otherness” and deepen feelings of alienation and marginalization among the Arab peoples. The current inclination by some Arab governments to vilify Iran through reshaping Arab identity in opposition to Iran as a perceived political enemy and regional threat is very worrisome and ultimately counterproductive. While the appetite for reform is there, a precursor to any meaningful and sustainable change must first be the adoption of a rights-based, good governance model that recognizes the inherent diversity and plurality of the Arab peoples.
Pluralist and inclusive identity flourishes best in an environment that respects the rights of each human being; it values people as individuals rather than functioning exclusively on group stereotyping. As such, striving for a model of pluralism and inclusivity will not only require a readiness for tolerance and acceptance, but most fundamentally, it will be contingent on an embrace and promotion of rights and protections, freedom of speech, accountability, and transparency. An inclusive “democracy at large” vision for Arab citizenship will help provide a model in which there is little opportunity for violent and/or extremist groups to arise, and where active and politically engaged citizens are included and reflected in what it truly means to be Arab.
1 Fanar Haddad, “Marked for Exclusion: The Problem of Pluralism, State-Building, and Communal Identities in Iraq and the Arab World,” Middle East Institute, August 5, 2014, https://bit.ly/2VCrM7C.
2 P. R. Kumaraswamy, “Who Am I? The Identity Crisis in the Middle East,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 2006), https://bit.ly/2wLeigw.
3 Fred Halliday, Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2000), and The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). For an informative read on minorities in the Arab world, see Albert Hourani’s Minorities in the Arab World (London: Oxford University Press, 1947) and the new edition of his work, A History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, November 15, 2010).
4 Mark Tessler, “The Origins of Popular Support for Islamist Movements: A Political Economy Analysis,” in Islam, Democracy and the State in North Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997). Also see Carrie Wickham’s “Explaining the Success of Islamist Outreach” and “Cycles of Mobilization under Authoritarian Rule” in Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). For a more informative read, see Tarek Masoud’s Counting Islam: Religion, Class and Elections in Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
5 Kinda Hattar, “Middle East and North Africa: A Very Drastic Decline,” Transparency International, January 25 2017, https://bit.ly/2jpViws.
6 “World Justice Project Rule of Law Index,” World Justice Project, January 31, 2018, https://bit.ly/2yb8izE.
7 Transparency International, in partnership with the Arab Barometer network, conducted a survey with 10,797 adult respondents from September 2014 to November 2015 in nine countries and territories: Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen. Data retrieved on November 6, 2018. Full report can be accessed here: https://bit.ly/2otkUdz.
8 Hassan Abdel Zaher, “Corruption costs Egypt $25 billion a year,” The Arab Weekly, September 18, 2015, https://bit.ly/2TBWZ9s.
9 Declan Walsh, “Graft Fighter in Egypt Finds Himself a Defendant in Court,” The New York Times, June 6, 2016, https://nyti.ms/2SGCGaN.
10 Augustus Richard Norton, Civil Society in the Middle East (Boston: Brill, 2005).
11 “The World Bank Population Data Indicator,” The World Bank, https://bit.ly/2scII7k.
12 “United Nations Convention against Corruption,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, October 31, 2018, https://bit.ly/1VkBeHA.
13 “G20 High-Level Principles on Beneficial Ownership Transparency,” G20 Australia 2014, November 15, 2014, https://bit.ly/2TFMJgu.
14 Facundo Alvaredo, Lydia Assouad, and Thomas Piketty, “Measuring inequality in the Middle East 1990-2016:
The World’s Most Unequal Region?” The World Inequality Database, April 2018, https://bit.ly/2RqWb62.
15 The World Bank’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators” identify and measure six dimensions of good governance: https://bit.ly/2cHS3d8. Also, the World Justice Project “Rule of Law Index” provides specific governance factors focused on the rule of law sector; see pp. 36-46 of the latest report: https://bit.ly/2yb8izE.