In an interview published last fall, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned against the eruption of civil war in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Indeed, civil war is an imminent threat in three out of the five Arab countries in the eastern Mediterranean. Political developments in these countries during the past few months have demonstrated the fragility of the political situation there.
If we bring the broader neighborhood into the discussion, this raises the number of states that are failing. Somalia has been a failed state for more than 15 years. The Sudan may be disintegrating, with the South moving toward independence and the western province of Darfur torn apart under pressure of a brutal civil war among the different ethnic and tribal groups.
These unhappy developments cause great concern in Egypt. Its immediate neighborhood to the east and the south is changing rapidly. The regional system around Egypt is disintegrating as a result of the disintegration of its building blocks, i.e., the states. Egypt, a pivotal state in this region for decades, is concerned about both the risks engendered by these developments and their impact on Egyptian interests.
Indeed, for Egypt these developments bring with them only risks--no opportunities of any kind. Failed states are likely to provide a safe haven for terrorism. Although Egypt was able to curb the dangers of domestic terrorism in the 1990s, a new wave of terror cannot be excluded. The past two years' terrorist activities in Sinai seem closely related to the deteriorating situation in Palestine. Iraq provides an ideal training field for terrorists from all around. Darfur could be another magnet for terrorists if the role of the international community continues to be seen as an encroachment on Muslim terrain. Nor is the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia likely to curb the threat of extremism as long as it is perceived as a non-Muslim aggression and national reconciliation is not achieved.
Conflicts in failed states are likely to spill over to the rest of the region through multiple mechanisms. The ethnic and sectarian diversity characterizing many societies allows for the spillover effect to operate. Countries in the Gulf region, in particular, are quite vulnerable regarding the sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon. Destabilization of the Gulf--the economic engine of the entire Middle East, Egypt included--is a serious threat.
Failed states help intensify regional rivalries. Lebanon, Iraq and Somalia have become battlefields for regional and international actors to settle their accounts. Conflicts in these countries are both civil and by proxy. The power vacuum in failed states allows regional powers an opportunity to consolidate their influence at the expense of other regional actors.
Changes in the neighborhood balance of power have a destabilizing effect that creates political and security concerns for Egypt. Certain regional actors are better positioned to take advantage of the power vacuum in failed states. The Ethiopian intervention in Somalia is just an example.
However, it is Iran that benefits the most from the deterioration of order in failed states. Both sectarian and ideological forces fuel many of the civil conflicts around the region and it is Iran more than any other regional actor that can manipulate both to serve its national interests. Its involvement serves as the linkage between civil conflicts in failed states, on the one hand, and the regional rivalry between moderates and radicals, on the other.
Unfortunately, the Middle East lacks an institutional framework that can address the problem of failing states. The Arab League, the only regional institution in place, is not equipped to intervene effectively in failing states. The League's attempts to mediate the Somali conflict have been in vain. The complex situation in Iraq is far beyond the League's capacity. The League secretary general's mediation mission in Lebanon is facing tremendous obstacles. The Arab League has neither the legacy, the experience nor the resources to address situations of civil conflict.
Moreover, the Arab League does not embody a vision of politics, domestic and regional, to guide its mediation efforts. Liberal values, typically needed in order to reconcile rivals in civil conflicts, are to a great extent alien to the Arab League's ideology, however that may be defined. To make things even worse, the Arab League lacks the credibility needed to mediate civil conflicts. The League's members don't share a common vision and interest regarding the diverse conflicts. Rather, the regional divide between radicals and moderates cuts through the ranks of the Arab League. The League can offer a diplomatic forum for its members to communicate, but it cannot develop a common vision regarding conflict in failed states.
The alternative to the absence of a regional institutional framework capable of addressing the risks posed by failed states is the joint efforts made by like-minded states. The coordinated regional policies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the GCC countries is the most viable replacement for the missing regional institutions.
Yet, further adjustments are needed for Egypt's foreign policy to be effectively able to influence developments in its neighborhood. For the past three decades, Egypt has refrained from intervening in the internal affairs of its neighbors. This was Egypt's "Nasser complex", which developed as a reaction to the high cost of the excessive interventionist policies of the 1950s and 1960s. Refraining from intervention in the internal affairs of other states was an essential part of Egypt's perception of its role as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. Now, recent developments in the region require a redefinition of Egypt's role regarding regional stability. Maintaining the status quo sometimes requires as many resources and as much activism as are needed to challenge it.- Published 8/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org