When massive turmoil engulfed the Arab world in 2011, some compared it to the 1989 breakup of communist Eastern Europe or even to the 1848 European Spring of Nations. Today it’s clear that developments went in another direction. Here’s a brief balance.
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* Egypt has reverted to military rule, albeit with significant popular support even from the Tahrir Square demonstrators, fearful of Islamicist totalitarianism.
* Libya is disintegrating into its geographic components with three governments, two parliaments, numerous militias and one general claiming to be the only person capable of uniting the country against the Islamic State.
* Yemen is in the throes of a religion-based civil war, with massive outside intervention by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
* Last but not least is Syria. With half a million people killed, 5 million refugees abroad and millions more internally displaced, Syria is the wrecked symbol of the dream of Arab nationalism.
No wonder we haven’t heard much from the Arab intelligentsia that was traditionally the bearer of Arab nationalism. What can you say when both the Assad regime and the Islamic State kill their Syrian brethren and the idea of Arab unity evaporates under the ruins of Aleppo, Bashar Assad’s barrel bombs and ISIS beheadings?
* Tunisia may be the exception, but it’s small with no ethnic or religious minorities, no challenge to its borders, and its Islamicist party is basically moderate. It cannot become a model for other Arab states.
This brings us to Iraq, whose very existence as a nation-state is, like that of Syria, a product of the imperialist Sykes-Picot agreements that divided the Ottoman Empire. The American invasion, while toppling Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, also opened the schisms between Iraq's Shi’ite majority and Sunni minority, which gave rise to the emergence of the Islamic State.
But the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi constitution also established the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, the KRG, in the north and liberated the Kurdish minority from Arab oppression. Yet because of the weakness of the Baghdad government and the careful policies of the Kurdish leadership, the KRG is now for all practical purposes a de-facto state.
For decades, Iraqi Kurds were cursed by the enmities between the Barzani and Talabani clan-led leaderships. This has now largely been overcome and a multiparty system has been established.
A regional parliament has been elected in which more than 10 parties are represented. The Barzani-affiliated Kurdish Democratic Party has 38 deputies, the Talabani-afffiliated Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has 18, and the opposition party Change has 24. Smaller parties, including the communists, are also represented, and the minorities (Turkomen, Assyrians and Armenians) have seats reserved for them and take part in the governing coalition.
The prime minister of the KRG is Nechirvan Barzani and his deputy is Qubad Talabani. Maybe it’s not the ideal model of Western democracy, but it’s a functioning coalition based on a wide consensus and reflecting the traditional structure of Kurdish society.
The KRG has its own army – the Peshmerga – which after a few setbacks has proved much better than the Iraqi army, which despite billions in U.S. funding has disintegrated in the face of the Islamic State. The regional government has its own budget, controls its own national resources and even exports some of its oil abroad. It does not claim to be an independent state and does not seek UN membership.
But the head of its Foreign Relations Department, Falah Mustafa Bakir, functions as foreign minister and is treated as such abroad. The KRG has 13 offices abroad, and there are more than 20 foreign missions called “consulates” in the capital Erbil that practically function as embassies.
A Kurdish-language education system has been launched, and a new generation has emerged that does not speak Arabic. Meanwhile, a number of quality universities have been established.
The KRG has also maintained a wise and pragmatic relationship with Ankara, while Turkish companies have invested in the region and the border with Turkey is the KRG’s lifeline. European airlines fly directly to the new international airport in Erbil.
With Syria’s disintegration, a similar development has emerged in the three Kurdish districts in the north of the country, called Rojava. A regional administration has been established, including representatives of the Assyrian and Turkomen minorities, and a regional defense force has been created, supported by U.S. air cover. On March 17, Rojava declared itself an autonomous region in a future confederal Syria and opened its first representative office in Moscow.
With Syria still hazy, it is unclear whether Rojava will be able to join the KRG; obviously Turkey does not view this favorably. But while democracy did not come to the Arab countries and even disintegrated some of them, it appears the historical injustice suffered by the Kurdish people may now be rectified. Perhaps not a New Middle East, but certainly a different one.