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14 August 2014, Gateway House

Federalism for the Arab Republics?

Many Arab Republics are mired in political discord after the departure of the old tyrannical regimes opened up spaces for new struggles. In Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan, attempts to address the turmoil through constitutional reform are facing challenges. Will a democratic federalism be attained when the battles are done?

Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

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Most of the Arab Republics are today in the throes of serious internal political discord. Countries that just a few years ago had seemed united and sturdy, and were significant  in regional and  global affairs, are now split apart in fratricidal conflicts which have killed thousands of people and rendered millions homeless.

At first look, the conflicts raging along traditional fault-lines suggest a resurrection of primordial cleavages.  Closer scrutiny, however, shows that these countries are not so much manifesting a replay of ancient animosities as modern-day competitions for political power and influence: the departure of the earlier tyrannies has opened up opportunities for new political struggles; in the absence of the traditions and institutions of participatory governance, the protagonists are mobilising old ethnic identities as the principal bases for support.

Amidst these contentions in newly-created power vacuums, external players are also active participants (as they have always been in West Asian affairs)—aggravating old divides to suit contemporary purposes, backing individuals and groups which will promote their interests, and building up alliances to obtain modern-day strategic advantages.

Arab Republics under pressure

In Iraq, the Kurdish people got an autonomous status in 1991, but the country has splintered into a vicious sectarian conflict. The national scenario, already subject to extraordinary challenges, now also has a jihadi group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS has occupied large parts of western and northern Iraq, and contiguous territories in Syria. It has proclaimed a cross-border caliphate known as the “Islamic State.”

In terms of exercising political power, the majority Shia community is now restricted to Baghdad and southern Iraq. This has set the stage for a three-way partition of the country into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish territories.

Yemen, after the long reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh (1978-2012), faces internal confrontations on different bases: (1) a Houthi (Shia/Zaidi) uprising in parts of the north; (2) a secessionist movement in the south made up of the old Left and new jihadis; and (3) parties, organised on tribal or religious basis, competing for political power in Sanaa.

Against this fraught background, in February 2014, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi announced a new federal model: the country will be re-named the Federal Republic of Yemen and divided into six provinces, four in the former north Yemen and two in the south.

In Libya, there is a sharp cleavage between two forces: the Islamists with powerful militias, and on the other side the “secular” elements headed by the Gaddafi-era general, Khalifa Haftar, who is leading the “Operation Dignity”. The movement aims to wipe out the Islamists so that order is restored, perhaps in the shape of a new dictatorship led by Haftar. The third force is that of Arab Spring activists and civil society groups who want a democratic order in a federal arrangement.

In 2005, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan entered into the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the southern dissident movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), after which a Government of National Unity was set up in Khartoum, with one vice president representing the south.

However, in a referendum in 2011, South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for secession. A government was set up in the south, with Salva Kiir Mayardit as president and Riek Machar as vice president.  The two leaders soon fell out and are now engaged in a vicious civil conflict. Though the core issue is competition for political power, the conflict is being organised on the basis of tribal mobilisations on both sides.

The instances examined above convey a complex picture of the challenges that beset attempts to address contemporary discords in the Arab world by using constitutional reform based on federalism.

Iraq affirms that, in spite of considerable sectarian violence and the emergence of powerful jihadi forces, the majority still supports a united nation, with strong local autonomies structured on regional rather than sectarian basis. Yemen conveys that the new central leadership has yet to win the confidence of the disgruntled elements in the country, who therefore suspect that foreign interests are at work in promoting the federal proposal.

In Libya, the acute divisiveness and violence have left no chance for reform for some time. Sudan represents a tragedy and also provides a warning: a federal arrangement was attempted in an authoritarian order; it could not work since authoritarian rulers simply cannot share power, even with territorial sub-units. This failure has led to the partition of the country, but even that has not worked due to the absence of a genuine commitment to democracy.

Federalism has to be founded on a democratic order if it is to have any credibility.


The battle lines of contemporary competitions for political advantage in the Arab world are getting drawn in terms of primordial religious, sectarian, tribal, or ethnic identities. This is natural since the tyrannies that preceded them, while giving the public an impression of strength and vitality, were founded on personal caprice. Their basis was not institutional support and popular will that give solidity and sustenance to political systems. Thus, the political arena of the departed tyrant has become the battleground of ethnicities that had been subdued by the authoritarian ruler, often harshly, who saw them as rivals to his monopoly hold on political power.

But an interesting feature of these assertions of primordial identities is that they are not defined as sharply as their leaders would wish for, nor are their aspirations so exclusive as to be beyond negotiation and mutual accommodation. Decades of authoritarian rule have ensured that ethnic assertions just cannot encompass the whole identity of the Arab individual. This individual is sufficiently familiar with modern political norms and experience to assert aspirations that go well beyond primeval associations.

Authoritarian rule has another “achievement” to its credit: however arbitrary the national boundaries of contemporary Arab states, the decades of tyranny have instilled in the states a value and sustainability that transcend their dubious origins. Hence, though the present-day ethnicity-based competitions are fiercely contentious, there is rarely a demand that the national borders be rearranged to suit contemporary aspirations or cross-border identities.

The Kurds in Iraq, divided over four national boundaries, with a century-old struggle for a homeland behind them, and today perhaps in the most propitious of circumstances, are even now not seeking a cross-border homeland. Nor are they likely to seek sovereign status outside Iraq. The most likely scenario is that they will, for the foreseeable future, fulfil their destiny in an autonomous homeland within a federal Iraq that recognises their borders and gives them economic viability and cultural comfort.

The sectarian divide in Syria and Iraq is also unlikely to change national boundaries, nor are provincial borders likely to be re-drawn in either country on sectarian basis. Both these countries are legatees of ancient civilisations and the centuries-old Ottoman millet system based on coexistence. As a result, no part of these lands can be conveniently divided on sectarian basis.

The outlier in this scenario is the jihadi militia, specifically the ISIS, which has asserted a cross-border ambition to overturn the colonial frontiers between Syria and Iraq.  However, such cross-border aspirations, whatever the assertions of the Al-Qaeda and its affiliates might be on the virtual circuit, carry little influence beyond the 15,000 or so jihadi cohorts that constitute the nascent Islamic State. None of the Salafi militia in Syria, nor the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra, has asserted cross-border aspirations, confining their principal interest to regime change in Damascus.

The process of political evolution in the Arab world—from the fall of tyranny to the federal order that espouses national unity while accommodating local aspirations—will be long and painful, with occasional steps backward. But the goal of democratic federalism is clear and will be attained when the ongoing battles are done and calmer times prevail.

Talmiz Ahmad was the Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. He writes and lectures frequently on political Islam, the politics of West Asia, and energy security issue, and has written several books. 

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