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Posted on on November 15th, 2013
by Pincas Jawetz (


Arab societies must build ‘citizen-states’

The primary danger facing the Arab world in the wake of successive revolutions is not a wave of political Islam, but rather the state of violent chaos that has resulted from the breakup of former regimes, which had imposed security through repression and violence. This danger comes as a result of the absence of alternative ruling systems to both maintain security and guarantee the participation of various segments of society.

Summary:   t The Arab state system needs to better apply to concepts of civil society.
Author Sami Nader Posted November 14, 2013

Translator(s)Tyler Huffman

What the Arab world is witnessing today is the emergence of Islamist movements that were formerly repressed. This is not a deep-rooted revolution — similar to the Iranian Revolution — that relies on a doctrine with clear features, such as that of Velayat-e Faqih. Political Islam movements in Egypt, and likewise in Tunisia, are divided among themselves. They competed for power within the framework of elections, and did not hesitate to forge alliances with civil forces and movements. Moreover, their experiences in power — and Egypt is the best example of this — have been marked by failure. This is no surprise, given that these movements did not have a program for governance that relied on political, economic and social choices that had been tested on the ground. It is ironic that the army, or some army leaders, have been the ones to save these countries, by transforming themselves into the victim.

In short, the Arab world today is facing a crisis when it comes to the project of building a state. Herein lies the danger and the opportunity at the same time. It is an opportunity for Christians and the other groups opposed to the former regimes and that fear Islamists coming to power to reclaim their role. This can be done through these groups presenting a project for governance to fill that vacuum that occurred as a result of the fall of former regimes, and the Brotherhood’s failure in Egypt and stumbling in Tunisia.

Christians in Lebanon adopted a nation-state project, and they — along with their Muslim compatriots — turned this project into a system of governance to implement the National Pact of 1943. Under this pact, Muslims rejected the idea of becoming part of Syria, while Christians also rejected the existing French protection provided by the mandate. In fact, the idea of a nation state was the prevailing idea in Europe, which maintained wide cultural influence in the Levant and Arab Maghreb. “Nation-state,” in and of itself, is a term that originated and evolved over a full century in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The term was adopted by the Age of Enlightenment, an era which adopted ideas and values that established conceptions of “modernity” and formed a cultural and political system in the face of “divine law.” This latter system resulted in various political and social institutions.

In other words, the nation-state was established to confront the “divine state” — i.e., a state that is based on divine law. The term “nation-state” was brought to the Levant during the Arab Renaissance (Al-Nahda), at the beginning of the 20th century. Levantine Christians were among the most prominent pioneers of this renaissance, and contributed in reviving Arabic language and culture, which had been obliterated by more than four centuries of Ottoman rule.

Notable figures from this period included authors and intellectuals such as Gibran Khalil Gibran, Mikhail Naima and Ilyas Abu Shabaki, among others. In fact, the Arab Renaissance was an extension of the European Age of Enlightenment, as it adopted ideas of modernity and entered them into the Arabic language. At the political level, these ideas were translated through nationalist projects that formed the basis of various political parties. The latter include the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party — founded by a Christian, Antoun Saada — and the Arab Baath Party, founded by Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a Sunni Muslim, and Michel Aflaq, a Christian. Even the right-wing Kataeb Party, which was founded by Christian leader Pierre Gemayel, was based on the idea of nationalism.

Thus, Christians adopted the project of a nation-state, and presented it as a model to be implemented in the numerous Levantine societies, which are ethnically and culturally diverse. It is worth mentioning that the idea of the nation-state came together with and blended with the theory of socialist governance and its promises of a fair distribution of wealth, as happened in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century in the wake of the First World War. No one denies that nationalist theory ignited Europe and led to two consecutive wars. Moreover, the theory of socialism — which supported nationalism — collapsed itself with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Even the theory of a sponsor state, which was inherited from socialism, is crumbling under the pressures of globalization and the European structure. It is no surprise that the Arab revolutions are confronting this system that has collapsed in developed countries, and that has fulfilled its function in a certain stage. It goes without saying that the Arab nationalist projects, and the countries that emerged from them, have failed on all levels. They have not been able to achieve widespread participation of all segments of society through moving toward democracy. Likewise, these systems have not fulfilled their promises in terms of economic development. Even at the military level, they have lost all the wars that were waged to recover usurped Arab rights.

The challenge today for Christians and non-Christians who believe in democracy and are eager for modernity, is to present a project that serves as a substitute for the nation-state. It should likewise serve as an alternate for projects that call for a return to religious origins, yet in actuality do not go beyond mere slogans and opposition. The most important thing to come from Christian literature and documents for decades, is the contents of the Synod for Lebanon Charter of 1996. This was issued during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Lebanon, and included subsequent work under the title of the Maronite Patriarchal Synod. These documents are devoted to the principle of a civil state as a model for administration in Arab societies, and presented the idea of “Lebanon the Message,” which is based on interfaith dialogue. These documents not only were met with consensus among all spectra of Lebanon, but also resonated throughout the Muslim World, particularly in the wake of the painful events of Sept. 11, 2001. These documents led to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s initiative for interfaith dialogue, which culminated in the Riyadh Declaration in 2008, aimed at founding a culture of peace. A civil state has become necessary to save Arab societies from the specter of a camouflaged return to the old regimes, or the risk of being dragged back to obsolete ideologies as a result of poverty, oppression and deprivation.

In short, it is time to present the idea of a “citizen state” as an alternative for the nation-state. The former should be based on individual freedoms, even if at the expense of nationalist fantasies. 


Sami Nader
Al Monitor Columnist

Sami Nader is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse. He is an economist, Middle Eastern affairs analyst and communications expert with extensive expertise in corporate strategy and risk management. He currently directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, focusing on economics and geopolitics of the Levant, and is a professor for USJ University in Beirut. On Twitter: @saminader


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