The Middle East erupted in 2011 as a wave of revolutionary fervor spread from Tunisia to Egypt and then throughout the Arab World. . . . The tumultuous events took on different characteristics in different countries, were met with different responses by the various regimes in power, and will produce different long-term outcomes. Yet if one steps back and takes a macro-historical perspective, the events that began in the Arab world in 2011 (some might say they began with the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009) were simply the latest developments in a process that started with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—a process of forging states and creating national identities, often within multiethnic and multisectarian boundaries; of negotiating the role of Islam in public life; of determining the distribution of political power and economic benefits within societies; of jockeying for leadership within the Arab world; and of defining the Arabs’ role on the world stage.
The Middle East state system as we know it has existed for less than 100 years. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed following World War I, new states emerged—or rather, were created by the victorious European powers—in a region where transnational empires and caliphates had ruled for centuries. With only a few exceptions—principally Iran and Egypt—the new states of the Middle East had no history as nation states or even national entities (Israel is a unique case in that its establishment was the process of a dispersed nation—the Jewish people—seeking to create a state in their ancestral homeland). Many were merely collections of tribes and clan groups that lived in close proximity with one another. These new states' boundaries were delineated to fit the needs and strategic agreements of the European powers, not the ethnic, sectarian, or communal loyalties that characterized their societies. Much of the violence and conflict that has scarred the Middle East is reflective of this fact. Moreover, the inherent tensions and contradictions caused by the way in which the modern Middle East was born are still being played out, and the most likely future conflicts in the region—domestic as well as interstate—continue to reflect the regional state system's troubled birth.
William Mark Habeeb has worked in international affairs for over 20 years. He specializes in conflict resolution and Middle East affairs. His extensive published works include Power and Tactics in International Negotiation: How Weak Nations Bargain with Strong Nations; Polity and Society in Contemporary North Africa; and numerous book chapters and journal articles.