Can the Arab world afford another failed state? - opinion

Beirut, once the “Paris of the Middle East,” is today the capital of a failed state, but this is by no means unprecedented.

 TUNISIA WAS once considered the Arab Spring’s sole success story, but President Kais Saied has dissolved parliament, dismissed the government and assumed autocratic powers.  (photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS)
TUNISIA WAS once considered the Arab Spring’s sole success story, but President Kais Saied has dissolved parliament, dismissed the government and assumed autocratic powers.
(photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS)

The elections in Lebanon, held on May 15, ended in yet another political stalemate, presumably perpetuating that country’s ongoing downward spiral. But Lebanon’s descent into collapse is hardly unique: It is only one of a number of failed Arab states; with the Palestinians knocking on the door to join the club.

The symptoms of Lebanon’s crisis are clear. The economy continues to implode with the national GDP falling from $55 billion to $20.5b. Lebanon’s banks border on insolvency. The currency has lost 95% of its value.

Consumer purchasing power has vanished, with inflation at more than 200%. Unemployment soars, and some 80% of the population is under the poverty line.

Everyday life has become increasingly difficult: The Lebanese experience chronic electricity failures; foodstuffs are increasingly scarce and expensive; the supply of petrol is sporadic at best; medicines are unavailable and hospitals unable to provide critical medical care. Unsurprisingly, six out of 10 Lebanese would leave the country if they could.

Emblematic of Lebanon’s collapse is the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut port explosion. In it, 218 people were killed and some seven thousand injured, but despite promises to identify those responsible “within days,” the investigation meanders on inconclusively; Hezbollah demanding the removal of the presiding judge after he sought to investigate its cronies.

 A BANNER depicting Samir Geagea, leader of Lebanon’s Christian Lebanese Forces party, is seen on a building in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut last week. (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS) A BANNER depicting Samir Geagea, leader of Lebanon’s Christian Lebanese Forces party, is seen on a building in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut last week. (credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS)

The erosion of the Lebanese state has been evident for years in Lebanon’s armed forces that have been dwarfed both quantitatively and qualitatively by the military capabilities of Hezbollah; Iran’s proxy having effective veto power over decisions taken by the country’s nominal national leadership.

Beirut, once the “Paris of the Middle East,” is today the capital of a failed state, but this is by no means unprecedented. Tripoli is the capital of a Libya that exists in name only. Since the fall of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the country has been divided between rival administrations and competing warlords.

Sana might remain the de jure capital of Yemen, but fighting has forced the internationally recognized government to relocate to Aden. Houthi rebels, with Iranian support, have taken the capital and claim that their revolutionary council is the legitimate regime.

In Damascus, President Bashar Assad has prevailed in the civil war but at the price of a destroyed country and an estimated four hundred thousand people killed. Out of a prewar population of 22 million, some 13.2 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, with close to seven million fleeing Syria altogether.

Chronic political instability continues in Iraq with Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi leading a caretaker government struggling to rule over a fractured and war-torn country that faces threats from a resurgent ISIS and Shia militias affiliated with Iran.

While not all Arab countries are failed states, there is no Arab country that is a democracy. Tunisia was once considered the Arab Spring’s sole success story, but this is not the case anymore. President Kais Saied has dissolved parliament, dismissed the government, and assumed autocratic powers.

Will a Palestinian state be different?

DESPITE THE failure of the Arab Spring and the absence of democracy across the Arab world, Palestinians say they will be different, insisting before western audiences that their future state will be a bastion of freedom. Yet their own record of self-government raises serious questions as to the veracity of such a claim.

In Gaza, Hamas tramples on elementary human rights and enforces public conformity with its own view of conservative Islamic practice. Over the fifteen years since it came to power in a violent coup, Gaza has not had an election and Hamas has acted with an iron fist against internal opposition.

The Islamist movement will not tolerate press or online criticism of its rule and clamps down on independent demonstrations, as was seen in its violent response to the March 2019 protests. The demonstrations on the Gaza perimeter fence in 2018 were anything but spontaneous; Hamas calling them on and off in accordance with its own agenda.

Under Hamas rule, Gaza is an economic basket case and the periodic rounds of fighting initiated against Israel have only made the situation far worse. Hamas’s exclusive accomplishment is its avoidance of accountability for Gaza’s dire straits and the successful transfer of that responsibility to the “occupation.”

In the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas has now entered the eighteenth year of his four-year term as president of the PA. Though other political parties exist, his Fatah movement effectively runs a one-party regime. The only significant challenge threatening Fatah’s continued rule is Hamas, which for the most part must work underground. This enables Abbas to present a stark choice to the international community, his continued leadership, or an Islamist takeover.

Under Abbas, independent civil society is restricted, opponents of the regime thrown in jail (some tortured or even killed there) with no parliamentary or judicial accountability over his executive authority.

Abbas may have publicly championed journalist Shireen Abu Akleh as a martyr, but he has no tolerance for a free press, ordering the closure of Abu Akleh’s Al Jazeera office when he objected to its coverage.

As in other autocracies, those following the politics of the PA tend to focus on Abbas’s health and longevity, the widespread assumption being that he will only end his term in office through natural causes. In the meantime, the PA suffers from a process of “Brezhnevization” in which an aged autocrat brings stagnation and paralysis to a political system.

From Israel’s perspective, there is little incentive in seeing an additional failed state on its borders, fertile soil for extremism, violence, and instability. Palestinians too have no interest in becoming citizens of another failed Middle Eastern state.

Although the Oslo Accords left the outcome of final status talks vague, the international consensus is that the endgame should produce Palestinian statehood. The PA is supposed to be the embryo for that future state, but its damaged condition requires intervention.

Twenty years ago, the Americans preconditioned Palestinian statehood on first building “a practicing democracy” and electing a new leadership “not compromised by terror.” Perhaps it is now time for the international community to embrace such a position.

Afterthought: Across Europe and North America there are those who boisterously proclaim their support for Palestinian rights. Yet these activists do not gather outside PLO missions demanding the PA respect the human rights of the Palestinians, nor do they protest Hamas’s theocratic autocracy. How should we understand their singular preoccupation with the Jewish state?

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the incoming chairman of the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.