The Lebanese case offers a glimpse of the shape of the balance of powers in the Middle East in years to come.

 

The modern state, we should recall, derives its legitimacy from the right to monopolise and use the instruments of organised violence for the purpose of maintaining internal stability and civil peace on the one hand; and securing its borders, or what is conventionally referred to as national sovereignty, on the other.

Some Arab states have failed on either or both counts. Of these, the worst and most striking has been its impotence to confront external dangers, be it in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon.

 

Official failure to provide adequate defence systems and maintain homeland security has generated a vacuum, which is being gradually filled by non-governmental socio-political movements with armed wings. Lebanon and Palestine are two cases in point.

 

"Wars have proved to the whole world that Arabs have had enough of the Zionists."

Hussein, Kenya

More comments...

Increasingly, the Arab public feels that the political system is unfit to respond to the question of destiny and provide the basics for preserving sovereignty. There is a striking dichotomy at the heart of the Arab state.

 

While enormously powerful at home, it is pitifully weak in responding to foreign challenges. A number of inter-related factors have converged to produce this odd state of affairs, geopolitical and structural.

 

These are largely to do with perpetual interference in the affairs of the Middle East from the Western powers that continue to hold the reins of its fate, with the superiority of Israeli military capabilities propped up and backed by the US and its allies, as well as with the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Arab state itself.

 

Official failure to provide adequate defence systems and maintain homeland security has generated a vacuum, which is being gradually filled by non-governmental socio-political movements with armed wings.

Child of the colonial legacy, of Sykes/ Picot and the European powers' scramble for the Ottoman inheritance, the Arab state has always carried deficiency and impotence as part of its genetic make-up.

 

That the Arab region should have been divided into 22 entities is a measure of its significance for the relations of dominance that emerged towards the end of the eighteenth century with Napoleon's expedition to Egypt (1798), the first major European incursion into a central country of the Muslim world.

 

For Britain and France - just as it is for the United States today - control of the Middle East was important not only because of their interest in the region itself, but because it corroborated their position in the world.

 

Not only was the region rich in raw materials, with cotton from Egypt, oil from Iran and Iraq, minerals from the Arab Maghrib (North Africa), it was a vast field of investment, and a route to other continents.

 

For Britain, the sea route to India and the Far East ran through the Suez Canal. For France, routes by land, sea and air to French possessions in West and Central Africa passed through the Maghrib.

 

Presence in the region strengthened the two countries' position as Mediterranean powers and world powers. These vital interests were protected by a series of military bases like the port of Alexandria, military bases in Egypt and Palestine, and airfields in those countries and in Iraq and the Gulf.

 

The Arab state replaced the complex network of local elites, tribal chieftains and religious groupings through which the imperial authorities had maintained their grip over the territories they dominated.

 

Its mission was the regulation of the indigenous population's movement, a gigantic disciplinary, punitive and coercive apparatus designed for the purpose of imposing control over the local populations.

 

The Arab state replaced the complex network of local elites, tribal chieftains and religious groupings through which the imperial authorities had maintained their grip over the territories they dominated.

In an article published in the Guardian on September 2, Shimon Peres, Israel's deputy prime minister, said: "Israel should ... support the legitimisation of one single authority in the whole of Lebanon - indeed in all countries of the region ... The Lebanese government and the Palestinian Authority have lost control of their territories and armed forces ... Israel must support the governments of Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in their struggles for exclusive territorial and military control over their lands."

 

It might be reasonable to think it is illogical that a country frequently painted as a beleaguered entity in a hostile environment should be advocating a policy of strengthening its neighbours' authority over their territories. 

 

Not so, for the system of indirect control over the region, which assumed its present shape in the aftermath of World War I, specifically requires a "state" that is capable of keeping the local populations under check and maintaining "stability" at home, but too weak to disrupt foreign influence or disturb the balance of powers in the region.

 

Disillusionment with the official political order and growing cynicism about its ability to preserve a semblance of sovereignty, liberate occupied land, or safeguard national interests has brought new actors onto the stage of Arab politics.

 

These non-state players, which include Hizbollah in Lebanon and several armed groups in Palestine, are increasingly occupying the centre of the public sphere in the Middle East, profiting from the declining legitimacy of the political elite tied to the stakes of foreign dominance in the region and lacking popular support to speak of.

 

While already fulfilling many of the state's conventional functions such as the provision of social services like health and education, in countries subjected to military occupation (such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine) they are increasingly taking on the state's defence responsibilities.  

 

Child of the colonial legacy, of Sykes/ Picot and the European powers' scramble for the Ottoman inheritance, the Arab state has always carried deficiency and impotence as part of its genetic make-up.

This has earned these movements the admiration of the Arab public, which frequently contrasts their political and military performances in the face of the gigantic Israeli military machine with the redundancy of Arab armies permanently frozen in military stations and barracks.

 

In light of the turbulent situation in the region and receding allegiance to the political establishment, it is possible to predict that the coming years could see an extension of this popular model to neighbouring countries acutely sensitive to threats to their security.

 

Since the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has been evangelising about the "New Middle East". This rhetoric, which had retreated under the stench of burnt cities and piles of dead Iraqi bodies, has lately resurfaced once more.

 

Though certain to leave long-lasting marks on the region's map, the current frenzy of interventions is unlikely to engender the Middle East Washington and London desire.

 

The likelihood is that this new Middle East born in the womb of pre-emptive strikes and proxy wars will neither be American nor Israeli but will gravitate between "deconstructive chaos", and the rise of popular resistance movements.

 

The lesson we would do well to learn from Iraq's unfolding tragedy is that the Middle East is far too complex, far too unruly for the grand fantasies of conquest and subjugation.

[Soumaya Ghannoushi is a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London.]

The opinions expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.Ghannoushi is currently writing a book on Western Representations of Islam Past and Present.