Borders Old and New: The Legacy of the Arab Spring

By: Taylor Land

800px-Demonstration_in_Bayda_(Libya,_2011-07-22)
Source: Wikimedia Commons / ليبي صح

The Bush Administration’s foreign policy performance, and arguably its performance as a whole, has been largely judged by one undertaking: nation-building in the Middle East. Vice President Dick Cheney, on Meet the Press in 2003, famously said, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” in reference to the invasion of Iraq. Fast-forward six years to 2009, and a new administration had just been ushered in under the slogan, “Hope and Change,” and with a promise to remove our soldiers from the failed operations in Iraq. The message was clear: democracy cannot be thrust upon a state; it emerges from within.

Thus, it is not surprising that the Arab Spring, which began in late 2010, was met with a great degree of optimism. President Obama even compared the uprisings to the actions of the Boston Tea Party and Rosa Parks. But this, too, failed to result in the desired outcome of stable democracies and, instead, resulted in a drastically more violent and destabilized Arab world. Military rule has shown resilience in Egypt and Algeria, but where the authoritarian rulers have been swept away – Iraq and Libya – the politics of identity are leading to fragmentation. Old borders are resurfacing and calling into question the legitimacy of the arbitrary borders we recognize today.

ISIS Iraq Syria
Source: flickr / Tom Woods / New York Times / Platts

The most obvious example of this unfortunate situation is Iraq, which has been in disarray since the U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government. Following the invasion, resistance stemmed from Saddam/Ba’ath Party loyalists. By 2006, however, sectarian violence between Iraqi Sunni and Shia factions became prevalent and continued to escalate to the level of a civil war. The U.S. troop “surge” is credited with the reduction of violence in 2007 and 2008, but an Iraqi insurgency again swelled in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. Sunni militant groups increased attacks targeting the country’s majority Shia population, eventually culminating in the conquest of Mosul and major swaths of northern Iraq by the Sunni rebel group ISIS. This merged the new conflict in Iraq with the Syrian Civil War, effectively erasing the border between the two states. Add Iraqi Kurdistan to the mix and Iraq is effectively three nations within one recognized state: The Republic of Iraq, The Islamic State, and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Libya Map
Source: flickr / Randy McDonald

Iraq is not unique though, as Libya experienced fragmentation during and following the Libyan Civil War. Libya has three major geographical regions with ancient significance: the fertile agricultural land of Cyrenaica in the east, the urban coastal strip of Tripolitania in the west, and the Saharan Fezzan in the south. Cyrenaica is under the control of the internationally recognized Tobruk government, while a rival Islamist government, the New General National Congress, controls the capital Tripoli and most of Tripolitania. Both are in conflict and operate mostly independent of one another.

A commonality between Iraq and Libya is that their borders were contrived by European colonial powers a century ago. Italy simultaneously established Italian Cyrenaica and Italian Tripolitania in 1912, eventually combining the two into Libya in 1934. The British established control over Iraq in 1920. In both cases, and in the larger Arab world, foreign occupation in the early 20th century led to Arab nationalism, with the main objective being to get rid of the colonialists, by the middle of the century. In the latter half of the century, many of the new authoritarian rulers in the Arab world – Hussein and Gaddafi – suppressed ethnic differences by using immense brutality. However, the underlying tensions never disappeared. When the cracks in these state governments began to show, first with the disappearance of several dictators and most recently with the Arab uprisings, the old dividing lines resurfaced. This dichotomy between old borders and new is a central challenge to stability in the Arab world.


TL 3Taylor Land is a Master’s candidate at the Patterson School studying international security and economics. His core interests are geopolitics and macroeconomics, with regional interest in Europe and the Middle East. Taylor is currently pursuing internship opportunities and can be contacted at taylor.land@uky.edu

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