Post-Arab Spring: The Arab World Between the Dilemma of the Nation- State and the Rise of Identity Conflicts

  • Hassanein AliEmail author
Living reference work entry


The Arab world is one of the most volatile regions in the world suffering from identity conflicts. These conflicts, which revolve around religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal issues, represent the other side of the crisis of nation-state building in the Arab world in the postindependence era. Although identity conflicts are not new to the region, they have intensified after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring. These two events revealed the deep crisis of the nation-state, thereby highlighting the failure of the postindependence ruling elites to establish nation states that can maintain a position of legitimacy and effectiveness. Being both legitimate and effective enables a state to include religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal pluralism within the framework of its national identity, based on the foundations and principles of citizenship, rule of law, respect for human rights, minority rights, and social justice.

Additionally, identity conflicts are linked to two other factors that escalated after the US invasion of Iraq and the events of the “Arab spring.” First, was the increased politicization of religious, sectarian, and tribal affiliations, which was used to serve political ends, either by ruling regimes, political parties, or non-state actors. Second, is the current expansion of the political polarization between the forces of political Islam which rose rapidly after the “Arab spring” on one hand and the liberal, leftist, and national civil forces on the other hand. This polarization reflects the deep gap between the advocates of the “religious state” and the advocates of the “civil state.” The purpose of this chapter is to analyze and interpret the dimensions of the relationship between the deep crisis of the nation–state and identity conflicts in the post-Arab spring era.


Nation-State Identity conflicts Arab Spring Sectarianism Failed states Civil Wars 


The concept of identity conflicts refers to intrastate divisions and conflicts that are related to one or more religious, sectarian, ethnic, or tribal dimensions. Identity conflicts also have its political, economic, and social dimensions, and are often influenced by external interference. The Arab world experienced many identity conflicts in the pre-Arab Spring period, and they increased after the Arab Spring. Due to the collapse of the state institutions, internal conflicts and civil wars broke out in Libya, Syria and Yemen, threatening their existence as political entities. They face the risk of failure and disintegration like Somalia. Many other Arab countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, etc. suffer from state weakness and internal conflicts related to the issue of identity in varying degrees and different forms (Lynch 2016; Kamrava 2016; Hashemi and Postel 2017; Guzansky and Berti 2013; Eshel 2012).

This chapter argues that the identity conflicts in the Arab world are the other side of the crisis of the nation-state building which has its roots in the western colonial stage and has been continued in the postindependence period. The ruling elites failed in many cases to build a legitimate and effective state that can include the societal pluralism (religious, ethnic, sectarian, and tribal) within the framework of a national identity. Therefore, these subidentities have become a big challenge to the state from below (religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal communities) and above (Islamic movements that reject the nation-state and rise the slogans of the Islamic state).

When the state collapses or weakens, it becomes unable to monopolize the use of force (which is one of the most important characteristics of the modern state) and loses the ability to impose its control over its territory and to provide security, protection, and basic needs to its citizens. In this case, citizens will revive their subidentities as an alternative to the national identity embodied by the nation-state. Tribal, religious, ethnic, and sectarian groups provide them with what the state failed to provide in terms of security, protection, and basic needs. Thus, loyalty to these sub entities becomes more important than loyalty to a weak or failed state.

This chapter aims to analyze the dimensions of the relationship between the crisis of nation-state building in the Arab world on one hand, and the escalation of identity conflicts, especially in the post-Arab spring period, on the other hand. In this context, it will highlight the features and causes of the structural crisis of the nation-state in the Arab world. It will also analyze the patterns of identity conflicts that represent the other side of the state crisis and discuss the negative impacts of these conflicts on both the state and society. In addition, the chapter seeks to explore the future of the Arab state in the light of post Arab Spring transformations and to develop some of the conditions and requirements necessary to overcome the worst scenario, the collapse of some Arab states. This worst scenario will create serious negative impacts on the security, stability, and development in the region.

Origins and Causes of the Structural Crisis of the Nation-State Building in the Arab World

The Arab states are currently experiencing a real structural crisis. There are states that are threatened in their presence as political entities such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. There are other states such as Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, and others that do not face the risk of failure and disintegration but suffer from a state of weakness that makes them unable to carry out their main functions effectively and efficiently. This deepens the internal political, economic, social, security crises, and negatively affects the relationship of the state with its society as well as with the abroad. In addition, some Arab states, especially in the Gulf region, suffer from a gap between their political frameworks on one hand and their demographic, economic, social, and technological changes on the other hand. While they have achieved big achievements in economic, technological, and social fields, their political structures still reflect traditional features. In the light of all these and other considerations, the legitimacy of the nation-state in the Arab world has become a major challenge (Corm 2016; Benhabib 2014; Ahram and Lust 2016; Salamey 2017).

It is well-known that the origins of the modern nation-state crisis in the Arab world relates to the period of Western colonialism and settlements of the First World War. Many Arab states are artificial entities because the policies of the colonial powers are based on the division of some regions and the unification of multiple areas into a larger entity. The colonial powers also drew boundaries between many countries according to their own goals and interests, not according to the realities of geography, history, and social entities. The colonial powers also used the minority card and “divide and rule” strategies to achieve their goals. The Sykes-Picot agreements are the best evidence of the role of the colonial powers in creating the roots of the modern nation-state crisis in the Arab world (Mansfield 2013).

While the roots of the structural crisis of the nation-state in the Arab world were associated with circumstances of its establishment, it continued and even worsened after the independence. The fundamental reason for this phenomenon is the failure of ruling elites to establish legitimate and effective states that include religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal subidentities within a national identity that is based on the principles of citizenship, the rule of law, and tolerance. Because of the desire to monopolize power and wealth, the main interest of most postcolonial political regimes was to build repression institutions and establish an authoritarian rule rather than building a strong and legitimate nation-state.

In many cases, postindependence ruling elites have practiced various types of discrimination against some groups of society based on ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines and used this as a mechanism to ensure survival of their regimes. The Assad regime (father and son) in Syria is based on the Alawite community and marginalized the Sunni majority. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s regime relied on its tribal Sunni base and marginalized most of the Kurds and Shia population. In Libya, Qaddafi’s regime used tribal card as one of the main mechanisms to continue in power, by favoring certain tribes and excluding others. All these policies have created a suitable enviroment for the emergence of identity conflicts in the mentioned states (Jazayeri 2016; Al-Sayid 2009; Selvik and Stensile 2011).

In this context, some of the key features of the Arab state crisis include the absence of state independence from the ruler authority and employing its institutions to serve the interests of certain communities which are known for their loyalty to the regime. The Arab state also suffered from the inflation of its administrative structures, the institutionalization of corruption, and the increasing dependence on the outside world (Ayubi 1995). In addition, there is a gap between the state and society, in terms that the state does not have real legitimacy. In this case, subidentities have become a big challenge to the state both from below and above.

The comparative experiences at a global level emphasize that societal pluralism (religious, sectarian, ethnic, linguistic, tribal, etc.) is neither good nor bad. In some societies, societal pluralism has become a source of strength and enrichment to both the state and society. In other societies, it represented a source of division, civil wars, protracted social conflicts, and disintegration of the state itself. The main factor that distinguishes the two cases is the nature of the political system that manages the affairs of the state and society.

The democratic regime with its values, institutions, and procedures allows the management of societal pluralism in peaceful and institutionalized ways, thus consolidating the values of civil peace, stability, a culture of tolerance, and adherence to peaceful methods of conflict resolution. By contrast, the authoritarian regime – which is based on monopolization of power, political exclusion, repression, and violation of human rights – produces a type of authoritarian stability, which soon declines once the security grip of the regime weakens. This explains the rapid disintegration of state institutions and the frequent emergence of civil wars once the regime is overthrown, as happened in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and others.

Identity Conflicts in the Arab World Before and After the Arab Spring

The Arab world experienced many intrastate conflicts in the pre-Arab Spring period because of the failure to build a legitimate and strong state capable of including societal pluralism within the framework of a national identity. In addition, the ruling regimes in many countries were largely involved in distributing the wealth and power according to tribal, ethnic, and sectarian lines. We can refer to the civil war in Sudan, which lasted for decades and ended with the separation of the south; the civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990; and the civil war in Somalia, which began since the early nineties of the last century and ended with the failure and collapse of the Somali state. Iraq also experienced internal wars before and after the American invasion and occupation in 2003 (O’Ballance 1998; Ali and Matthews 1999).

In the Light of the Arab Spring transformations, identity conflicts have escalated in many Arab countries. In Libya, following the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, the central authority disappeared, and the state apparatus and institutions disintegrated. Large areas of the country were falling under the control of armed militias, tribes, and religious organizations. This led to many internal wars influenced by various tribal, religious, political, military, and economic factors. In this context, moderate and radical Islamist parties and organizations emerged, some of which introduced the Islamic identity of the state in exchange for national identity. Also, tribal and ethnic conflicts broke out in some areas for various reasons. For example, the frequent armed confrontations among Arab, Tabu, and Tuareg tribes across the southern regions of Libya (Wehrey 2017).

In the light of the above, the political and security situation in Libya became more complicated and fragmented. There are three governments at the same time, the interim government headed by Abdullah al-Thani, the National Salvation government headed by Khalifa al-Ghawil, and the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord headed by Fayez Alsarraj. Also, there are two armies, the first is under the leadership of Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya, and the second is affiliated to the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord. It controls parts of the city of Tripoli, not to mention the presence of dozens of armed battalions, militias, and tribes, which controls many of the Libyan cities and villages as mentioned above. In addition, there are divisions among the regional and international actors concerned with the Libyan crisis (Sadiki 2012; Vandewalle 2014; Wehrey 2018; Aghayev 2013).

Despite the many attempts to reach a settlement in Libya, the last one is the action plan proposed by the UN envoy to Libya, Dr. Ghassan Salama, in last September 2017 – which centered on the achievement of national reconciliation, issuing a new constitution for Libya, and holding legislative and presidential elections in 2018. Despite the importance of this plan, there are many obstacles which make its implementation difficult, including the continued division at the military and political levels, where there are three governments and two armies. In addition, there are many internal conflicts and confrontations between the tribes, armed groups, and terrorist jihadist organizations.

In Yemen, the state suffered from weakness and fragility in the pre-Arab Spring. The state lost control over its territory consequent to the increased tribal influence and interference, the expansion of al-Qaeda in the Yemen, the repetition of Huthi’s rebellion, and the persistent tendency toward separatism in the south. In the context of this complex reality, the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh used the tribal card as means for the survival of his regime (Boucek and Ottaway 2010; Alley 2010; Juneau 2010). After his departure from power, the Shia Huthi group supported by Iran took control of Yemen in 2014. On 26 March 2015, the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign against the Huthis that continues till now. The protracted conflict in Yemen has its own tribal, sectarian, political, and strategic factors (International Crisis Group 2012, 2013; Schmitz 2012).

Although majority of the parties involved and concerned with Yemeni conflict – including the Arab Alliance, led by Saudi Arabia’s call for political solution of the conflict – there are no immediate signs of a settlement. This means that the war in Yemen will continue for at least the foreseeable future, especially in light of the failure of all previous attempts to settle it. There are several factors which have led to the continuation of the conflict, including the intransigence of the Houthis and their rejection of all solution references (International Crisis Group 2017). In addition to this is the weakness of the Yemeni government and its inability to impose control and security in the areas liberated from Houthi’s control. Also, some political forces in south Yemen began to call again for the separation of the south. In this context, non-Houthi armed actors have been able to strengthen their influence in Yemen, including Islamic State organization (DAESH) and al-Qaeda. DAESH has strengthened its presence, especially in the governorates of Hadramawt, Aden, Lahj, and Abyan. Al-Qaeda had a prominent presence in Yemen in the pre- Arab Spring and strengthened in the light of the conflict in Yemen. Therefore, some of the military operations of the Arab alliance target al-Qaeda strongholds in Yemen.

In Syria, the revolution was initially peaceful, but the regime’s sharp repression response against it led to the rise of armed actions. This paved the way for many local, regional, and international actors to intervene in the conflict with their own goals and agendas. This dramatic change has made Syria the arena for several wars at the same time, which overlap the ethnic, sectarian, religious, political, and strategic dimensions, especially since the al-Assad regime used the sectarian card as one of its mechanisms of survival. It created a state of fear for Shia Alawites and other minorities in case the regime is overthrown (Diehl 2012; Tasopoulos 2014).

Also, some regional actors got involved in the conflict along political and sectarian considerations. Al-Assad regime is still receiving significant military support from both Iran and its ally Hezbollah. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and some other Arab countries have been supporting armed groups opposing the regime (Kassab and Al-Shami 2018).

On the political front, Syrian political opposition forces have been fragmented to the point that they are unable to form a unified front against the regime. In light of this complex reality, the tracks of the Syrian crisis and its conflicts of identity have become dominated primarily by balances and interactions between the external powers (regional and international) that have their presence on the Syrian arena. Due to the divergence of agendas and conflict of interests, attempts to resolve the crisis peacefully through the Geneva and Astana tracks were stalled until now (Rath 2017).

During the years 2017 and 2018, significant developments took place in the Syrian arena. The most prominent of these were the military defeat of Islamic State organization (DAESH) and its expulsion from most of the territories it controlled. In this context, the Syrian regime began to impose its control over more territories supported by the large military role played by Russia on the Syrian arena. This supported Assad regime’s position in any arrangements related to the future of Syria; especially there is a clear shift in the positions of many regional and international parties toward the Syrian regime. The countries that were making Assad’s departure a condition for any real political settlement in Syria such as Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia, the United States of America, and others have changed their positions on this issue.

Despite the importance of the military and political developments that have taken place in Syria in recent times, there is no sign that a political settlement of the crisis and the related identity conflicts are imminent. There are still many complex issues that impede the settlement, including the constitution and arrangements for the transitional period, the nature of the political system, the reconstruction challenge, and the tragedy of refugees and displaced persons. In addition to this, there are other challenges that are the demands of the Kurds of Syria to apply federalism in the country to ensure the establishment of a federal entity, which is rejected by both the regime and the Syrian opposition and strongly rejected by Turkey (Radpey 2016). Under these complex conditions, Syria is likely to remain a model case for state disintegration and identity conflicts, at least in the short and medium term.

Iraq under Saddam Hussein witnessed many ethnic and sectarian conflicts. The regime has used excessive force in dealing with Shiites, Kurds, and Sunni Arab opponents. But identity conflicts have risen sharply in Iraq following the USA invasion and occupation in 2003, especially after Washington dismantled the Iraqi state and its institutions and favored Shiites and Kurds on the one hand and excluded Sunnis on the other hand. In this context, some have spoken of “the awakening of the Shiites,” “the Shiite crescent,” and “the empowerment of the Shiites,” especially after Iraq became “the first state in the Arab world ruled by a Shiite majority.” Accordingly, many religious Shiite and Sunni parties have emerged, thus deepening the process of politicizing sectarianism (International Crisis Group 2014; Walker 2006; Nasr 2006).

As the sectarianism has become strong at the level of politics, it has presented the same force in the fields of media, economy, and finance, where the media has become governed by sectarian tendencies and agendas. The corruption has been institutionalized in the wake of successive governments – especially the Maliki government, which is based on sectarian lines in the distribution of economic and social benefits. All this has contributed to the weakening of the national identity and deepening of the tribal, sectarian, and religious identities. In this context the identity conflicts escalated sharply through ethnic and sectarian violence, forced displacement, and even to the extent of mutual targeting of mosques by Shiite and Sunni elements. All these and others contributed to the creation of suitable environment for the expansion of terrorist jihadist organizations and armed militias such as al-Qaeda, DAESH, and the Shia’s Popular Mobilization Forces (“Al-Hashad al-Shaabi”) (Haddad 2014; Nasr 2006; Fei 2016; Selim 2012; Cole 2003).

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Kurdish problem. Post-Saddam policies and developments contributed to the strengthening of the influence of both Kurds and Shiites at the expense of the Sunnis, especially after the adoption of federalism as a new formula for the Iraqi state. However, the political clashes between the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad continued due to many issues, particularly the disputed areas between the two parties. But the biggest challenge in terms of relationship between the two was the referendum which was organized on September 2017 by Kurdistan Regional Authorities to determine the independence of the territory from Iraq.

Kurdistan Regional Authorities ignored the rejection of the referendum by the central government in Baghdad, the Iraqi parliament (the House of Representatives), and the Federal Supreme Court in Iraq. Also, it ignored the regional and international opposition to the referendum results by Turkey, Iran, the Security Council, and others. More than 90% of the total voters who participated in referendum supported the separation of the territory from the Iraqi state. Against this backdrop, the central governments in Baghdad, Turkey, and Iran have taken aggressive punitive steps against the Kurdistan region. After a series of political skirmishes and some military clashes between the government and Kurdish forces, the government of the Kurdistan region was subjected to rule by Baghdad, and the referendum was nullified, especially as it created more tensions between the political forces within the region (Sowell 2017; Toorn 2017).

The recent Parliamentary elections held on May 12, 2018 in Iraq confirmed that the sectarian dimension continues to have a strong impact on the political process. The two electoral alliances that have won the largest number of seats are the Saeroon Alliance led by the Shia Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s, which came first with 54 out of 329 seats, and the Fatah alliance, which mainly represents Iranian-backed militias named Popular Mobilization Forces, came second with 47 seats. Both are polarized political forces at the Iraqi Political arena.

Although the identity tensions and conflicts have eased a bit as the government of Haider Al-Abadi combats and attains victory in the fight against the Islamic State organization “DAESH,” there is nothing to prevent the renewal of sectarian conflicts at any time. To avoid further escalation of sectarianism, a few conditions are necessary. These include a historic reconciliation between the major components of the Iraqi people (Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds), establishment of a national Iraqi state that breaks with the system and policies of sectarian quotas, ensuring a political system based on the principles of citizenship, providing for the rule of law and respect for human rights, including rights of minorities, as well as reducing external interference in the internal affairs of the Iraqi state.

Since 2003, Sudan has been suffering from internal wars between the governmental forces and many armed movements in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. All these wars are having tribal, economic, and political dimensions. Many serious attempts have been made to resolve these conflicts, but different internal and external forces are sabotaging these efforts (Bassil 2013). Therefore, these conflicts represent a real challenge to the unity of the Sudanese state, especially after the independence of South Sudan in July 2011.These conflicts also deplete state resources, disrupt development plans, and deepen the economic and social crises in Sudan.

Because of the weakness of the Lebanese state and the complexity of its sectarian structure, it remained subject to sectarian tensions, especially under Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, contrary to the state’s official policy (Salloukh et al. 2015). It’s known that there are 18 religious communities officially recognized by the state in Lebanon. The largest of these communities are Shia, Sunni, Druze, Catholic, Orthodox, and Maronite (Al Ariss and Sidani 2016).

Sectarian tensions and political divisions have often disrupted political life in Lebanon. No consensus was reached on the election of Michel Aoun as president of the country until 888 days after Lebanon remained without a president. The processes of forming new governments often face many difficulties because of internal politicization of sectarianism and external interventions.

Since the 1970s, Egypt has been experiencing sectarian tensions between Muslims and Copts. These tensions were related to the rise of Islamic movements (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, and jihadists) before and after the Arab Spring. During these tensions, many Coptic churches and properties were targeted. In general, the tensions and sectarian events that happened in Egypt since the 1970s have been in the context of intellectual and political debate about the nature of the relationship between the Egyptian state and the church. In this context, several scholars discussed and evaluated the response of successive regimes to Copts’ demands (Stephanous 2010; Guirguis 2017; Naiem 2018; Ibrahim 2011).

Over the past two decades, tensions and sectarian confrontations have been a prominent feature of the political and security developments in Bahrain. Shiite groups have engaged in demonstrations and riots, and there have been terrorist attacks and confrontations between security forces and Shiite organizations. The Bahraini government has often accused Iran of interfering in its internal affairs by providing military and financial support to groups that practice violence and terrorism against state and society (Byman 2014; Al-Sayyid 2009; Gengler 2015).

After the Arab spring, many Arab countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and others have witnessed a sharp polarization between the forces of political Islam on one hand, and civil forces of nationalists, liberals, and leftists on the other hand. This polarization reflects the big gap between the advocates of the “religious state” and the advocates of the “civic state.” This polarization is also related to “politicization of religion,” which means using it to achieve political goals. The tensions between islamists and secularists revolved around many issues such as the application of Sharia, the rights of women and minorities, and the exercise of some public freedoms (Cross and Sorens 2016; Lust et al. 2012; Ciftci 2013).

Political and Socioeconomic Dimensions of Identity Conflicts in the Arab World

While identity conflicts in the Arab region are related primarily to religious, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal dimensions, they also have political, economic, and social dimensions. This is linked to the polices adopted before and after Arab spring by ruling regimes in countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and others, where political powers and social and economic benefits are distributed according to ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines (Selvik and Stensile 2011). In addition, in many Arab states, subidentities have been politicized and employed to achieve political objectives for regimes, opposition forces, and armed non-state actors.

As for the economic dimensions of identity conflicts, some examples can be mentioned. In Iraq, ethnic and sectarian tensions and conflicts are partly linked to the issue of oil wealth which is concentrated in the north (Kurds) and the south (Shia), while middle areas (Sunni) are poor. Also, post Saddam era, the Sunni community has been excluded and marginalized politically and economically (International Crisis Group 2013; Haddad 2014).

In Sudan, the long civil war that led to the separatism of the south was linked to economic dimensions, where the south remained the most underdeveloped area despite most of oil wealth within its land. Also, the conflict in Darfur has its own political and economic dimensions, as well as its tribal and ethnic dimensions.

In general, in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, the system of power-sharing based on sectarian quotas has:

…led to a divvying up the national pie along sectarian or ethnic lines, nepotism, cronyism, and corruption proliferated. Electoral laws in both countries were designed to guarantee the continued election of the sectarian elite, enabling politicians to hijack representation in their individual communities. This also allow them to maintain control over state institutions. (Yahya 2017: 7)

External Dimensions of the Identity Conflicts in the Arab World

The identity conflicts in the Arab world also have their external (regional and international) geo-strategic dimensions. Both before and after Arab Spring era, the competition between some regional and international powers for gaining influence and control over the region has posed direct and indirect effects on the intensity and frequency of the intrastate conflicts. In this context, some regional and international powers were involved in many Arab crises and conflicts by creating and supporting local allies and using this as means to achieve their strategic objectives. Also, the local parties involved in these conflicts are associated with regional and international actors that provide them with financial and military support.

Based on the previous analysis, it is possible to refer to what Gause called “The New Middle East Cold War” in which Iran and Saudi Arabia are the main actors. The Cold War between the two states has its influence on many crises and conflicts in the region such as in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and elsewhere (Gause III 2014; Alsultan and Saeid 2017).

Alongside, the United States and Russia have been involved in a cold war over the Syrian arena. In Iraq, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the United States played a prominent role in reviving and feeding identity conflicts in Iraq. It dismantled the Iraqi’s state apparatus and institutions, especially the army, security services, and some other vital institutions. It has also adopted a “sectarian quota” approach to the formation of political institutions as well as post-Saddam governments. Moreover, the US-backed sectarian orientation extended to the electoral law and the new Iraqi constitution. The United States has also favored Shiites and Kurds in exchange for the exclusion and marginalization of the Sunnis (Ismael and Fuller 2009). In addition to all these examples, the Turkish role in both Syria and Iraq cannot be ignored as it is linked to the protracted Kurdish question (Abdel Hameed and Mostafa 2018).

The Islamic State Organization (DAESH) and the Decline Nation- State System in the Arab World

Between 2013 and 2017, “DAESH” expanded its presence in both Syria and Iraq. According to some estimates, it occupied about half of Syria and one third of Iraq. It also removed the internationally recognized borders between the two countries and announced the establishment of the “Islamic Caliphate State” in June 2014. This dramatic change, especially after the defeat of the Iraqi army by DAESH fighters in Mosul, represented the top threat to the nation-state system in the Arab world. It confirmed the weakness and fragility of the nation-state. DAESH’s aggressive practices against Shia and religious minorities contributed to deepen identity conflicts in Iraq. The Islamic state has used the sectarian card and presented:

…itself as a tool of vindication for Sunnis. In its media and face-to-face outreach, the group uses the narratives of Sunni humiliation and discrimination, as well as the goal of bringing the world back to the “correct” path of Islam by fighting apostates (those who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and later defected), infidels (including Christians and other minorities), traitors (Sunnis who do not support the group), and rafidha (a discriminatory Sunni reference to Shia. (Khatib 2015: 8)

In addition, DAESH tried to create internal sectarian strife in both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait by targeting Shia mosques in both countries in 2015. The liberation of the Iraqi and Syrian territories from DAESH control was carried out through a big war in the two fronts. Many local, regional, and international actors participated in this war including the US-led international coalition to fight DAESH in both Iraq and Syria. The military defeat of DAESH does not mean the end of the organization and its Takfiri ideology. Also, it does not mean the end of the structural crisis of the nation-state and identity conflicts in both Syria and Iraq.

The High Cost of Identity Conflicts in the Arab World

The expansion of internal conflicts and civil wars related to the identity question in many Arab countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and others has had major consequences. Most importantly, millions of people were killed and wounded by wars and armed confrontations, many infrastructure, facilities, and services have been destroyed in the concerned countries. This means that large sectors of the population are denied access to the minimum of basic goods and services such as food, clean water, electricity, education, health care, transportation, and housing. This represented a major paradox in countries rich in oil resources such as Libya and Iraq.

In this disastrous situation, post-conflict reconstruction (in the case of ending the conflicts and building peace) has become a major issue in the concerned states, requiring enormous financial resources, new laws and rules, as well as efficient institutions to achieve this goal. All these requirements are not easy to provide. Perhaps the experience of reconstruction in Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era is an ideal case of failure to achieve this goal despite all the resources that Iraq has, compared to countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, and Yemen.

Accordingly, the human and social capital of many Arab countries that are experiencing internal conflicts and civil wars was destroyed. The standard of living of large sectors of the population deteriorated, they relied mainly on foreign aid. The problems of education, health care, transportation, housing, and security have worsened. The result is that the current generation in those countries is headed toward an unknown future in the dark shadows of chaos, insecurity, destroyed infrastructure, and widespread use of weaponry.

Identity conflicts also produced millions of refugees and internally displaced people. For example, according to some estimates, about half the population of Syria is currently refugees abroad or displaced within Syria. The problem of the Syrian refugees has become burdensome for neighboring Arab countries, which suffer mainly from the weakness of their resources and capabilities, such as Lebanon and Jordan. The return of the refugees and displaced people to their homes has become one of the major challenges of post-conflict era in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya (Garriaud-Maylam 2017). All these consequences of identity conflicts will complicate the post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction process. Large amounts of funding, new rules, regulations, and an effective and efficient institutional system will be required to accomplish this task.

The phenomenon of identity conflicts has contributed to the fragmentation of societies, especially considering the spread of violent non-state actors. In addition, these conflicts deepened psychological barriers; revenge desires among the people of one nation; and the spread of a culture of violence, extremism, and terrorism instead of the values and culture of tolerance and moderation. Such profound moral, social, and psychological effects need time to be satisfactorily addressed to reestablish and consolidate the values of civil peace; coexistence; and religious, intellectual, and political tolerance among different groups of society.

In addition, Identity conflicts may lead to state failure and disintegration. Countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen are threatened by their existence as political entities. As this scenario occurs, these countries will become safe havens for armed non-state actors, whether they are terrorist jihadist organizations such as DAESH & al-Qaeda or organized crime gangs.

Conclusion: The Future of the Arab World Between the Protracted Identity Conflicts and the Nation-State Failure

Currently, the Arab world is standing at the crossroads, facing serious challenges and problems at once. After the evaporation of the Arab spring promises in terms of freedom, democracy, human dignity, and social justice, internal conflicts and civil wars have swept through many countries in the region, threatening their existence as political entities. There are also many other Arab states that are vulnerable and fragile, unable to carry out their main functions efficiently and effectively. As a result, the economic and social problems increased, political authoritarianism has been consolidated, opportunities for development and democratic transformation were reduced, and non-state armed actors expanded.

The major issues of the Arab world are being influenced by external powers such as the United States of America, Russia, Israel, Iran, and Turkey. Therefore, we can’t explore the future of the Arab world without taking into consideration their political, military, and economic roles.

There are two main possible scenarios for the future of the Arab world:

First, the continuation of internal conflicts, civil wars, and the state of disintegration suffered by some big Arab countries such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. In this case, these states will become safe havens for armed non-state actors such as terrorist organizations and organized criminal gangs as mentioned above. This scenario will have catastrophic effects on security and stability not only at the regional level but also at the international level.

Second, achieving historic settlements of the wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. However, the reality suggests that the conditions and terms of the settlement in any of these wars do not appear to have matured in the near future. In light of this, the biggest challenge facing the Arab league and the regional and international actors involved in the affairs of the region and its conflicts is how to mature the requirements and conditions of achieving historic settlements of these conflicts, taking into account that some external actors such as Iran, Israel, and others are working to fuel these conflicts not solve them as this serves its objectives and interests.

In this complex situation, a major part of the responsibility lies on the key local actors involved in the conflicts, some of whom view the conflict as a zero-sum game, with a predominant and ambiguous logic, complicating the chances of a political settlement. For example, some Libyan actors are blocking the chances of a political solution in Libya. The Huthis’ persistence has contributed to prolonging the conflict in Yemen, and the divisions within Syria’s political opposition have made it ineffective in the equation of the conflict. In addition, there are deep and persistent divisions between internal political actors in Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan.

The divisions among the regional and international actors involved in the internal strife and wars in many Arab countries are no less dangerous than the divisions and disagreements among the actors at home. The internal divisions are often an extension of the external divisions. Considering the continuing internal and external divisions, it is unlikely that there will be historic settlements to the internal conflicts and civil wars that are afflicting Libya, Syria, Yemen, and to a certain extent Iraq and Sudan, in the foreseeable future.

In the light of the current protracted crises, the Arab world will still suffer at least during the short and medium terms from authoritarianism or semiauthoritarianism, the absence of governance, poor human development record, continuation of identity conflicts, and the expansion of violent non-state actors. Also, it is expected that many Arab states will witness collective protests for economic and social reasons as happened in Tunisia and Jordan during 2018.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of International Studies, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Zayed UniversityDubaiUnited Arab Emirates

Section editors and affiliations

  • Steven Ratuva
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and SociologyUniversity of CanterburyChristchurchNew Zealand
  2. 2.Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific StudiesUniversity of CanterburyChristchurchNew Zealand

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