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Middle East

Arab uprisings leave wake of weakened states

The protests that swept through the Arab world have strengthened democracy. But in many places, the state has been severely weakened, giving radical groups space to maneuver and destabilizing an entire region.

An Iraqi policeman stands guard at the site of a bomb attack in Kirkuk

Iraq has been riven by sectarian violence

In March 2003, American troops marched into Iraq and three weeks later dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled. Plans created by then-US President George W. Bush's administration foresaw the emergence of a democratic nation.

With that in mind, the United States made a clean sweep in Iraq - officials, state employees, experts and security experts, in particular, were all fired. The aim was to stamp out the power of Hussein's Baath Party, which had ruled Iraq for 40 years.

The US did achieve that goal but it came at a heavy price - the entire Iraqi state apparatus collapsed. The removal of Baath officials created a dangerous security vacuum, one that Iraq still hasn't recovered from. Terrorism still plagues the country, and sectarian conflicts threaten to tear it apart.

Strong men, weak states

graffit on a wall in Yemen

The message's clear: graffiti on a wall in Yemen

Iraq is the most impressive example in the Middle East for a state which, though it has not failed, is severely limited in its functionality and whose very existence is threatened.

Until 2003, Iraq was also a textbook example of what political scientist Daniel Lambach defined as typical of a failed state.

"Extremely personalized regimes are especially at risk - regimes in which the state is strongly tailored to a specific person," said Lambach, of Duisburg-Essen University.

Iraqi dictator Hussein may have been unseated by the United States, but it's no coincidence that the revolutions in the Arab world swept through countries whose power structure was once largely held together by a central figure: Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen.

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is currently using all means possible to fight to maintain his power. In Sudan, President Ahmad al-Bashar has been facing continuing protests for quite some time.

Power struggles along sectarian lines

A Salafist demonstration in Tunisia

Salafists in Tunesia are sorely testing the state

In addition, most of these countries are struggling in different ways with a problem that Lambach called the second key characteristic of threatened states – the danger of a conflict driven by religion, sectarianism or ideology.

In an extreme form, this phenomenon became apparent in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 when Sunnis, Shiites and Christians fought each other in changing coalitions.

Such conflict fault lines crisscross many of today's endangered states.

Currently, they're most visible in Syria. Much like in Lebanon, neighboring states have joined the fighting in Syria, and they're split along sectarian lines too.

The Sunni-led Gulf states as well as Turkey are supporting the Syrian rebels, the Shiite-led countries of Iran, Iraq and the group Hezbollah have thrown their weight behind the Assad regime.

International players, especially Russia and the United States, have taken a stance and framed their policies by taking sectarian fault lines in the region into account. That has long led to conflicts in Syria's neighbors too. In Lebanon and Turkey, violence has broken out between supports and opponents of Assad.

Limited influence

The Syria conflict has also thrown up a phenomenon that's familiar from Iraq - the limited influence of the international community.

But there's a tendency, Lambach said, to overestimate the clout of big international players.

"The big countries haven't lost their influence because they never had it to begin with," Lambach said.

He pointed to the British who failed in Afghanistan in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century.

"This powerlessness is not specific to our time," Lambach said. "But it shows the limits of geostrategic thinking - you can't establish states against the will of their people."

That's why the international community should rethink its approach, said Martin Beck from the Center for Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. Today, the international community is forced to work together with states and non-state players in equal measure. This two-fold approach requires a refining of political concepts, Beck said.

A demonstration in Sudan

"Change means security" - a demand for the state to do more in Sudan

The global community could seek out local civil society groups to work with that share the same values, he added. "But often they're not the people who have political power. That means you must work together with groups that partially have a different view of the world," Beck said.

Failure to do so leaves the international community dependent on a relatively narrow sliver of these societies and occasionally forces it to its tactics.

"You shouldn't shy away from working together with moderate Islamist groups in order to realize certain constitutional goals within the framework of what's possible," Beck said, adding that Western nations also work together with civil society players in their own countries.

Threat of regional fallout

They may not have failed, but the severely weakened states in the Middle East pose a range of challenges and dangers. The power vacuum in these states attracts Islamist terrorist groups. On the other hand, it encourages - much like in Libya - groups based on clan or tribal affiliations to erode the state by assuming a part of its power.

Terrorist groups in particular use territories beyond the control of the state as a safe harbor and to mobilize themselves. From here, they don't just target the unwilling guest nation but also its neighbors, directly or indirectly. In the worst case, seriously weakened nations can infect and inflame an entire region.

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