From Iraq to Lebanon, from the Palestinian Authority to Yemen, Arab states are increasingly fragmenting along regional, sectarian and ethnic lines. But only one Arab state is on the verge of formally dismantling itself: Sudan.
The population of southern Sudan votes January 9 on a proposal to secede from the Arab-dominated north and become an independent state. This would be the first breakup of an Arab country in modern history, with potentially far-reaching ramifications for the Middle East.
How Arab Sudan and the rest of the Arab world react to a vote for secession could be decisive for regional stability. And regional stability is important if moderate Arab states are to counter Iran and its Islamist Arab allies and provide support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
A member of the Arab League, Sudan is Africa’s largest state in terms of land mass. The northern two-thirds of the country is Muslim and largely, though not exclusively, Arab; its southern third is non-Arab and religiously Christian and animist. A pact brokered in 2005 with the support of the Bush administration laid the groundwork for January’s referendum, in which the southerners, after decades of abuse at the hands of the Arab north, are expected to vote to secede. There are large disputed oil deposits on the north-south border, and an independent southern Sudan would potentially control some of the Nile waters that flow north and constitute Egypt’s lifeblood.
General Salva Kiir Mayardit, the preeminent southern Sudanese leader, is pushing for secession. Already he is trying to balance contradictory regional pressures, hosting a high-level Egyptian delegation in mid-October, then reportedly stating in late October that he would invite Israel to open an embassy in Juba, southern Sudan’s capital.
Like Israel, the southern Sudanese, the Iraqi Kurds, the non-Arab minorities of North Africa and the remaining Christian minorities in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere have long harbored fears of Arab or Islamist hostility and encroachment. Southern Sudan is probably the most backward, isolated, oppressed and non-Arab part of the “Arab world.” With the exception of the ambiguous case of the Iraqi Kurds (are they autonomous? semi-independent?), the southern Sudanese could be the first non-Arab Middle Eastern people to exercise self-determination since Israel gained its independence.
A “yes” vote in southern Sudan on January 9 could precipitate a new north-south war in Sudan, fought over southern independence or the oil in the border region (which votes separately on whether to join the north or the south). Hassan Turabi, Sudan’s Islamist former prime minister, stated recently that he feared Sudan being dismantled like Yugoslavia, with Muslim but predominantly non-Arab Darfur the next region to secede.
More broadly, despite the very different circumstances and ethnic components, southern independence could indeed inspire similar movements elsewhere — from Iraq to Yemen to Algeria. Saleh al-Musaffar, a Bahraini writing a few weeks ago in the radical London-based Arabic daily al-Quds al-Arabi, asked: “What would be the attitude of [Egypt] if the Nuba in southern Egypt or — God forbid — Egypt’s Copts were to demand the right of self-determination?… The referendum will set a very dangerous precedent, flinging the gates open to secessions elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds.”
In light of the Sudanese government’s appalling human rights record, southern Sudan deserves its independence. And the independence of any non-Arab Middle East ethnic minority is good news for Israel. Still, we should not be blind to the potential regional fallout. Right now the Arab Middle East — whose leaders are mostly moderate, anti-Islamist, fearful of Iran and anxious for Arab-Israeli peace — needs stability, not fragmentation.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications.