It's tempting to suggest that time will be required to sort all this out. After all, it took a century and a half for the United States -- a country that possessed the physical security, natural abundance, and enlightened leaders the Arabs now lack -- to deal with the issue of racial equality and minority rights. Indeed, as late as the 1950s, America was still very much a preferential democracy.
I understand all of this. And I understand too that colonial powers, followed by cruel and greedy leaders, prevented participatory government, civic responsibility, and a free press -- along with the other elements required for good governance.
But I also understand that however empathetic we may want to be, it shouldn't willfully blind us to certain realities either. And perhaps one of the most disturbing is the accelerating trend -- long present in the Arab world -- toward decentralization and weak state control. The political turbulence of the past few years has only deepened this lack of coherence. And it raises serious questions about whether even basic governance is possible.
It has been said about the Arab states that, with the exception of Egypt, the rest are all essentially tribes with flags. One might put it more delicately today, but the idea that sectarian and ethnic identity, rather than national affiliation, is the driving organizing principle in much of Arab politics is an undeniable reality. This is not to suggest that national identity has been absent in Arab lands -- the question is whether it will ever come first over these other loyalties.
When these societies undergo stress -- particularly in a place like Syria, where Assad is purposefully exploiting sectarian divides -- it's loyalty to the tribe, family, sect, and religious group that provides the primary source of identity and organization. We've seen this in Iraq, where Shias displaced Sunnis as the dominant power, and we're seeing it again in Syria, where Sunnis look to get even with Alawites. Meanwhile, the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq are quite naturally looking to their own interests -- not to those of the so-called nation.
And even in ethnically homogenous Egypt, religious identity defines the fault lines of the country's turbulent political life. President Mohamed Morsy's first allegiance isn't to the notion of an inclusive nation, but to the Muslim Brotherhood's conception of Islamist governance. And let's be clear, membership in the Brotherhood isn't like joining a health club: It requires years to gain entry, and it's a way of life that demands a comprehensive worldview. Like the Eagles' Hotel California, you can check out but you can never leave.
For the past 40 years, the Arab world's religious and sectarian tensions were masked by authoritarian leaders -- some of whom were hostile to American interests (Saddam Hussein, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Muammar al-Qaddafi), and some of whom were U.S. allies (Zinedine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Ali Abdullah Saleh). These autocrats imposed order by repressing their citizens, rewarding privileged elites, and playing on the nationalist pride of their countrymen -- even while they bled the country through their own corruption.