Arab republicanism was born in the 1940s and 1950s as a result of the successful struggle against European colonialism. In Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, new states were born in a political milieu full of promise. In the past half century, these Arab republics descended into oppressive, familial, corrupt, dysfunctional, and coercive power structures; the potential was squandered.

Four things went wrong. First: all Arab republics adopted Arab nationalism – a notion that encompassed the Arabs’ regeneration after five centuries of subjugation under Ottoman and then European colonialism.  Arab nationalism seemed the political identity of the peoples who speak Arabic, who shared a common history for many centuries, and whose cultural was shaped by the effervescent strides that Arab literature, music, poetry, cinema, and theatre had witnessed in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Arab nationalism sought to transform the cultural identity of the peoples of that part of the world into a political frame of reference. Two factors helped. The retreat of the European powers which had dominated the Arab world in the first half of the twentieth century imbued the region with a sense of revival. The second was the immense charisma of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the undisputable hero of Arab nationalism. Nasser gave a face and a voice to Arab nationalism and filled it with an emotional charge that millions found seductive.

But unifying the people who live in the major geographic area from the Arabian peninsula to the Atlas mountains in North Africa under the notion of “Arab nationalism” was a novel political endeavour. Arabism has always existed as the cultural framework of that part of the world and the identity of the majority (though not all) of its people. It has never, however, been the unifying political context of the peoples of that region. Every attempt to unify that part of the world was undertaken under Islamic – as opposed to Arabic – guises.  From the early Islamic caliphate in the period following the death of Prophet Mohammed to the Ottoman empire, all political states that ruled the millions of Arabs – and non-Arabs – in this geographic area sought an Islamic, rather than Arabic, legitimacy. Indeed, some of the most successful dynasties in this part of the world’s long history were not Arabs, from the descendants of Saladin (the Ayyubids) to the Mamelukes, to the Ottomans, to the Mohamed Ali dynasty in Egypt.  Arab nationalism as a political identity was a modern creation, supported by a rich culture, but not political history. Its destiny (success or failure) depended on how the states that had espoused it (in the 1950s and 1960s) evolved and interacted with their people.

And that was the second mistake.  The new Arab states were supposed to be bottom-up political structures: to take up the wants, needs, and aspirations of their peoples and turn them into state strategies.  Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal company in Egypt and the drive towards industrialisation, Habib Bouguiba’s social development programme in Tunisia, and Howari Boumeddienne’s transformation of the political landscape in Algeria were very promising beginnings. But quickly, these new states metamorphosed into top-down impositions of power, where new elites (in all Arab republics, drawn from the military and security services) held immense power. Gradually, the legitimacy of these states was diluted; and the promise of truly representative states faded.

The regimes also failed to create a sustainable institutional system to support the budding states. In Egypt, Tunisia, and to some extent, Syria, the regimes attempted to solidify their power through creating strong administrative structures and public sectors in the economy.  But these institutions were deprived of power, prevented from growing into pillars of a functioning system, and intentionally retained as vehicles for asserting control over society. In other countries, such as Libya and Yemen, no institutions were built to start with. And in all of these states, no representative parliaments were ever elected. The failure to build an institutional infrastructure denied Arab republics any chance of evolving checks and balances in their political system, and left their societies without the dynamism that a multi-polar political system gives rise to.

The fourth mistake was in the strategic orientation Arab states undertook in the past three decades. Arab republics recognised that Arab nationalism was failing as a basis for legitimacy as well as a way to inspire their societies (in many cases as a result of the modus operandi of the regimes that espoused it as opposed to the merits of the concept itself). The regimes reacted in different ways. In Egypt, the regime moved towards an alliance with the United States and adopting a very distorted form of liberal capitalism that was supposed to defuse the economic pressures that the society was increasingly suffering from. In Tunisia, a more acute form of twisted capitalism was undertaken. The Assad family in Syria opted for more cautious socio-economic moves and to build a sphere of influence in Lebanon and parts of the Palestinian Diaspora. All of these moves ignored the elephant in the room – the rising political Islamism.

Political Islam had its own distinctive frame of reference, socio-political narrative, and legitimacy.  The ruling elites of Arab republics correctly understood that were political Islam to take centre stage in their countries’ political landscape, their regimes would be doomed. But these regimes lacked the creativity, the energy, the imagination, and legitimacy to put forward narratives that could have challenged political Islam. Instead they opted for coercion – towards political Islam as well as any potential challengers. The regimes drove their challengers underground. As decades passed by, the ruling elites isolated their power structures behind what seemed to be very powerful security apparatuses. Like tens of despots that had ruled Arab countries over the past few centuries, the Arab republics’ elites relied on fear and not much else.

Two factors led to the breaking point. The first was demographics. Over the past thirty years, the Arab world almost doubled its population – the majority of that exponential increase took place in poor Arab republics. Resources were strained; socio-economic structures cracked; and daily lives deteriorated. To counter the demographic pressure, the regimes encouraged immigration. In less than three decades, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria exported close to twenty million people, mostly to the Gulf, Western Europe, and the US. Their remittances became an integral part of the economies back home; and the space they left offered a breathing room that bought the regimes more time. But the fundamental problem remained: new generations were coming to the scene in these countries, inheriting socio-economic and political failures that they did not contribute to and yet were living their consequences on daily basis; and were expected to be biddable and docile under the same regimes that perpetuated these failures. The situation was unsustainable; many Arab countries were on the brink.

The second factor was power-transition. The power structures of almost all Arab republics were politically and financially corrupt – and intermingled – that leaving power meant losing enormous economic interests and privileges. The presidents and the elites surrounding them and who have become significant parts of the governing circles needed to propagate the system. No longer were these regimes based on ideologies, narratives, or any kind of legitimacy. They were mere interest groups centred round specific families: politico-economic oligarchies.

The problem was that the leaders, the centres of these families, and who have built (or carried on) the power structures in these countries for decades, were now aging. Their anointed heirs (mostly, though not always, their sons) lacked the long experience in power, the allegiance of the military and the security establishments, the semblance of authority that comes with decades in power, and the veneer of legitimacy that the old leaders had inherited from previous eras and desperately clutched to.

The transfer of authority to the new generations of these political-economic power structures was correctly seen as the ultimate bankruptcy of almost all modern Arab republics. The states that once represented the aspirations of the newly liberated societies (in the 1950s and 1960s) have evolved into obstacles impeding the potential of extremely young populations. For the promise of the future to materialise, the young generations needed to rid their societies of these dysfunctional power groups.

The self-immolation of a young Tunisian was symbolic: “revolution born out of grief and fire” in the words of the late Arabic poet Nizar Kabbani. The Arab spring will give rise to new Arab states. The birth of these new republics will be a long and protracted process. We will see dynamism, creativity and new narratives, as well as more blood, chaos, and most likely regional confrontations. But a new promise has transpired.