5 March 2011, by
The modern geography of the Middle East was carved out by British and French colonialists whose sole interest was in sharing the spoils of war between themselves and in maintaining their supremacy over the region in the early part of the 20th century.
The contours of the region, with its immaculately straight lines (see maps of Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Sudan) are much the same today as when they were first drawn up, despite decades of cross-border encroachment and conflict.
Never has an imported concept been so jealously guarded by ruling families and political elites in the Middle East as that of the nation state, together with the holy grail of international relations theory, state sovereignty.
The artificialness of the borders in question is not in doubt. Take a look at any map of the Middle East prior to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France (when the division of the region was finalised with no consideration for the thoughts of the people that lived in it) and you will be hard pressed to find many physical boundaries between, say, Syria to the north-east and Morocco to the west.
What you may find, however, are free-flowing train routes spanning the region. A relic of the old Hejaz Railway, which connected Damascus to Medina, still stands (dilapidated) in the centre of the Syrian capital. It once transported pilgrims to the Muslim holy city in modern-day Saudi Arabia without the need for cumbersome visas and frustrating bureaucrats. But that was obviously some time ago.
Trial and error
Over the course of recent history, Arab leaders have attempted to foster closer unity in the Arab world whether in the form of the 22-member Arab League - "to safeguard the independence and sovereignty [of Arab states]" - or the six-state Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) - as a political, economic and security union in response to the Islamic revolution in Iran.
However, the sanctity of the state itself, and its borders, has been absolute within these blocs.
Possibly the greatest experiment in cross-border union, one which admittedly lasted barely three years, began in 1958, when under a wave of Nasserism sweeping the region, Egypt and Syria (and for a very short period, Iraq) established the United Arab Republic (UAR).
Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s demagoguery and penchant for power, however, and the subsequent economic tumult felt in Syria, soon saw an end to that project in 1961.
Theoretically, Egypt and Syria became one, as part of the UAR. Under a single leadership (with devolved power), the UAR was supposed to foster a spirit of togetherness and spur other countries in the region to join up and expand the union.
That the project failed was in no way a reflection of the Egyptian and Syrian peoples’ desire to forge a single alliance. Together with the then Yemen Arab Republic, the formation of a United Arab States was also mooted.
That was the last we heard of a pan-Arab national project.
Arguably, the 1990s and the 2000s were the decades of cross-border post-nationalism, especially with the rise of Islamic movements as major political actors whose ideology was premised on Islamic ideals that transcended national borders.
Analyse closely the manifestos of some of these movements, however, and also consider their specific origins, and it soon becomes clear that their political ambitions were, and are, ingrained firmly in the states in which they emerged.
As such, the Islamic Salvation Front was a dominant actor in Algeria and Algeria alone, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus is on political reformation in Egypt. The Brotherhood’s offshoots are similarly specifically state-centric.
These movements may well have ideological underpinnings that aim to replicate the glory days of the early Caliphates or the Ottoman Empire, but realism has dictated that they focus their energies within specific national confines. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.
All for one
Given this recent history, then, is the idea of a borderless Middle East still viable? It may well be when you consider that the globalised nature of the world, in its present form, has thrown up possibilities in the region that would have been inconceivable barely a few years back.
More precisely, the political convulsions that the region is undergoing right now have revealed glaringly the extent to which the problems and, potentially, the solutions to the Arab world’s ills are remarkably similar. The political, economic and social suffocation that the people of Tunisia and Egypt have endured, before popular revolutions swept the countries’ dictators from power, were near identical. The political, economic and social ailments suffered in Libya, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen and now Oman are of the same vein.
Obviously, the causes of political unrest across these states are much more nuanced and cannot be reduced to generalisations. However, the future, unsurprisingly, is with the youth, the very demographic that is taking the lead in battling corruption and autocracy and one that is communicating, encouraging and helping others across borders in the spirit and language of togetherness.
Sure, this does not by itself denote that borders are now irrelevant. What it does suggest, however, is that political and economic issues and opportunities cannot be dealt with simply within the confines of borders any longer. The pent-up frustrations of the Arab youth, the economic inequalities, the demands for better representation extend across the entire region. A single voice is emerging in search of a single value: Freedom.
A single political authority is certainly not about to emerge out of the current political turmoil. But such an authority is not necessary. An appropriate governance model for the Arab world to emulate would be that of the European Union (EU). The 27-nation political and economic union is borderless in the sense that its people can live, work and travel in member countries without much hindrance.
Sovereignty is still paramount in the EU but the federalisation of political and economic power is to the benefit of hundreds of millions of Europeans. Granted, the recent economic and financial crisis has called into question the viability of the EU, or more specifically, the single European currency, but the political will remains resolute in defence of the union.
We can probably find a plethora of reasons why a real political and economic union would not work in the Arab world. Take a look at the GCC, for example, a bloc of around 40 million people: After a decade of trying, it is still unable to form a currency union. How are we then to expect over 200 million people to agree on a federally-based political and economic union?
But, this would be to dismiss the thrust towards a common set of goals in the Arab world. Borders are increasingly irrelevant in this new equation. The means of mass communication, interdependency, pan-regional media, ease of access through improved infrastructure, the identification with a cause rather than a country, all suggest that the political awakening in the region may be conducive to a completely different set of political and economic realities.
The nation state as we know it, as it was imposed on the region by colonial powers, is ripe for change. The unleashing of people power has now opened up new possibilities for mapping the Arab world’s future. While protesters across the region have been waving their respective national flags, the cause for which they are fighting and risking their lives extends well beyond their immediate borders.