An article and map in The New York Times’ Sunday edition two weeks ago examined the possibility that current upheavals may cause some Arab states to break up into smaller units. Written by the veteran foreign correspondent Robin Wright, the article created lively discussion among Middle East-focused circles in the United States, and in the Middle East it sparked wild speculation that it evidenced a new plan by Western powers, Israelis and others of evil intent to further partition large Arab countries into many smaller, weaker ones. The title of the article, “How 5 Countries Could Become 14,” naturally fed such speculation, as did the immediate linkage in millions of Arab minds of how British and French colonial officials in 1916-1918 partitioned the former Ottoman lands of the Levant into a series of new countries called Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, while their colonial handiwork had also created new entities that ultimately became independent countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and others.
Wright’s article explored the possibility that Libya could fracture into three units, Iraq and Syria into five units (of Druze, Kurds, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites), Saudi Arabia into five units, and Yemen into two units. Syria might trigger such fragmentation across the region in stressed multisectarian societies. She did not advocate this, but only speculated whether sectarian stresses and conflicts might reconfigure countries that were not designed by the will of their own people.
Most critics of the article and map were horrified by the possibility that foreign powers may once again be at work redrawing the map of the Middle East, reaffirming two of the greatest lived traumas that have long plagued the Arab world: the ability and willingness of external powers to meddle deeply and structurally in our domestic condition, and the total inability of vulnerable, helpless Arab societies to do anything about this.
I understand the harsh reactions by Arabs who fear another possible redrawing of our map by foreign hands, but I fear that this is not really the bad news of the day; the really bad news is the state of existing Arab countries, and how most of them have done such a terrible job of managing the societies that they inherited after 1920.
The horror map is not the one published in the NYT two weeks ago; it is the existing map and condition of the Arab countries that have spent nearly a century developing themselves and have so little to show for it.
Not a single credible Arab democracy. Not a single Arab land where the consent of the governed actually matters. Not a single Arab society where individual men and women are allowed to use all their God-given human faculties of creativity, ingenuity, individuality, debate, free expression, autonomous analysis and full productivity. Not a single Arab society that can claim to have achieved a reasonably sustainable level of social and economic development, let alone anything approaching equitable development or social justice. Not a single Arab country that has protected and preserved its natural resources, especially arable land and renewable fresh water resources. Not a single Arab country that has allowed its massive, ruling military-security-intelligence sectors to come under any sort of civilian oversight. Not a single Arab country that has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign arms and other imports and found itself able to ensure the security of its own land and people. And not a single Arab country that has developed an education system that harnesses and honors the immense wealth and power of millions of its own young Arab minds, rather than corralling those minds into intellectual sheep pens where the mind’s free choice is inoperative, and life only comprises following orders.
This perverse reality of Arab statehood and independence – not any possible future map – is the ugly reality that should anger us, even shame us. We have endured this for over four generations now, unsurprisingly bringing us to the point today where every single Arab country, without exception, experiences open revolt of its citizens for freedom, dignity and democracy of some sort, demands for real constitutional reforms, or expressions of grievances via social media by citizens in some wealthy oil-producing states who are afraid to speak out because they will go to jail for tweeting their most human sentiments or aspirations.
There is not much to be proud of in the modern era of Arab statehood, and much to fix and rebuild along more rational, humane lines. I don’t much care about lines on a map. I do care about the trajectories of our own national management experiences, which have been mostly disappointing, and in some cases profoundly derelict.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 14, 2013, on page 7.