The presidents of the Arab world, however, ruled over republics-in-name-only. When their regimes collapsed, so did the pretentions that the state could provide the foundation for better governance.
In certain cases, the process of incoherence and decentralization pre-dated the Arab Spring. Lebanon has been a non-state for years, and will remain that way so long as its many sects -- Christians, Sunnis, Druze, and Shia -- refuse to enter into a national compact in which they agree to surrender power to the government.
The state of Palestine is split between Hamas and Fatah, creating a kind of Noah's Ark with two of everything -- security services, constitutions, prime ministers, and visions of where and what Palestine is. And Iraq, far from being the coherent whole the Americans dreamed of is a mishmash of Shia authoritarianism, Sunni grievances, and Kurdish autonomy.
In other countries, the arrival of the Arab Spring accelerated the process of decentralization. In Libya, tribal and provincial rivalries are now preventing any meaningful centralized authority. In Yemen, it has probably been tribal coherence, oddly enough, that has provided services and settled disputes, keeping this perpetually failing state from failing altogether. In Syria, decentralization threatens to turn into fragmentation. Whatever emerges at the end of Syria's current dark tunnel, it's unlikely to be a strong, unified state.
Let's be clear about something: The Arab state system isn't going to completely implode. Since the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, respect for borders in this part of the world has proven pretty resilient. Syria's intervention in Lebanon, Egypt's in Yemen, and Saddam's in Kuwait were exceptions -- and all proved temporary.
But just because something calls itself a state doesn't mean it is. If the locals want to delude themselves, that's one thing -- but we can't. A state can have a flag, a parliament, and even recognized borders and not have a central government that's effective and sovereign, let alone possessing the capacity to protect the wellbeing of all of its citizens.
To move beyond the challenges they now face, Arab states need three things they seem unable to produce.