Arab states with restive minority populations can face a threat of disintegration.
There is always a strong temptation to view a major development like the independence of South Sudan through the prism of Israel’s own predicament with the Palestinians. For example, on Sunday, the editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that Israel should realize that the division, implemented in the case of Sudan, into two separate countries with the backing of the international community, is the only way to solve a bloody conflict like that between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, in the Arab world, there is a completely different context in which the independence of South Sudan is viewed. In the Arab press, there is not an abundance of articles with analogies between South Sudan and the Palestinians. Since South Sudan held a plebiscite for its independence earlier in the year, there has been almost an obsessive discourse about the breakup of Arab states in the future. In 2010, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi spoke about the division of Sudan spreading like a “contagious disease.”
There are plenty of examples that stand out in 2011 as a result of the uprisings in the Arab world. Libya itself is a candidate for division along tribal lines between Cyrennica in the east and Tripolitania in the west. The re-emergence of South Yemen is increasingly becoming a possibility in the future. Since the start of the 2003 Iraq War, the breakup of the Iraqi state into separate Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni states has always been a real possibility.
Many forget that during the British Mandate period the French used a “divide-and-rule” policy in Syria, creating separate mini-states for the Alawis in the Nusairah mountain districts above Latakia and for the Druze in Jabal Druze, behind the Golan Heights. With Alawite supremacy under the Assad family, and with all its internal problems, Syria is not about to break up into ethnic mini-states. But should the Alawis lose power, then the “Lebanonization” of Syria cannot be ruled out. The independence of South Sudan serves as a reminder that Arab states with restive minority populations can face a threat of disintegration.
The Muslim Brotherhood also voiced its opposition to the independence of South Sudan for Islamist reasons. The Economistreported in January that its leaders saw the emergence of South Sudan as a plot “to close Islam’s gateway to Africa,” where its missionaries are competing with representatives of the Christian churches. Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, has said that the breakup of Sudan is a reminder that “the Arabs and Muslims are still in a state of increasing fragmentation and division.” He has said that there are “conspiracies” behind the secession of South Sudan.
In short, few in the Arab world are celebrating the independence of South Sudan because it might strengthen the case of the Palestinians for declaring a state in September. Israel, like other Western countries, has recognized South Sudan and should offer help to this new country. But in doing so, Israel needs to clarify to the Arab world that it has no interest in the disintegration of the Arab states. The loss of control of Arab governments over rebellious provinces will mostly serve the interests of al-Qaida, which is seeking to penetrate failed states to set up new sanctuaries for future operations. The weakness of the Arab world will also be exploited by Iran.
Does the independence of South Sudan say anything about which way the world is heading? What is clear is that this is not the 1960s, when de-colonization was sweeping Asia and Africa and dozens of new states were becoming independent from the European powers and joining the U.N. South Sudan was born in an entirely different historical context, when large multi-ethnic states set up mostly by Britain and France more than 50 years ago are now coping with increasing forces of disintegration. The weakening of many central governments because of the “Arab Spring” has only accelerated these pressures on these political systems. In short, the Palestinian issue has little in common with this new historical trend.