fb-pixel Skip to main content

How to build a nation

Is the Arab Spring doomed to end in tribal violence and strongman rule? Why the pessimists about Libya, Yemen, and the rest may have it wrong.

Through the past year, the streets of one Arab country after another erupted in mass protests driven by more than just the desire to tear down an old order. In Tahrir Square and the liberated cities of Hama in Syria or Ben Ghazi in Libya, the people of the Middle East — especially the young people — were risking their lives to demand something they’d never had before. It wasn’t just freedom. It was a new social contract. The people wanted to feel invested, to be represented, to transform themselves from subjects to citizens. They wanted, in short, to be part of a modern nation.

Today it’s clear that that dream will be much harder to achieve than the immediate goal of ending a dictatorship. Torn by deep ethnic, tribal, and religious divisions, these countries now face the daunting prospect of trying to shape a clear national identity out of a tangle of competing local loyalties. It’s a goal that has so far proved elusive in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the overthrow of two repressive regimes has so far only led to costly, Sisyphean nation-building projects.


Is there any reason to think that these countries can forge nations out of their disparate parts? Can they become as solid in their conception of themselves as England or France?

The question might seem unanswerable, and has been cause for a great deal of pessimism from observers of the region. But a growing body of scholarship into the process of nation-building suggests a slightly more hopeful conclusion. Political scientists and historians who study the emergence of new nations have found that if you look at the origins of the world’s stable countries, such “nation building” has been the rule rather than the exception. A nation, in the modern sense, is a surprisingly new idea — and when one is born, it is nearly always the result of a concerted effort to shift people’s sense of themselves, to bring a collection of locals together under one flag.


“Identities are chosen strategically, they evolve over time, and people make decisions about

what identities to prioritize,” said Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor at Stanford University who studies ethnic politics and democratic transition in Africa. “This suggests there is room for fluidity and change.”

The lesson of history, it appears, is that tribal division isn’t a permanent condition: It’s just the default when people don’t yet have a nation they have a good reason to identify with. As it turns out, there are examples to follow. And it does not take centuries — or even more than a generation — to build a sense of citizenship. In fact, what we know about forging national identities actually makes the situation in the Middle East seem less dire than it would first appear.

When it comes to building a sense of national identity, the countries of the Arab world face a similar underlying challenge — one also widespread in Africa and other regions shaped by colonialism. Rather than being cohesive states with longstanding national identities, they’re territories carved out by 19th-century colonial powers, in which “independence” has essentially meant one group (or tribe) taking power and assuming leadership over the rest. Governments have maintained control through intimidation rather than rule of law, by instilling fear or handing out favors, much like a mafia boss. The achievements of the recent revolutions have been to remove these bosses — but in doing so, they have also eliminated the one thing holding these countries together, and exposed the actual brittleness of Libyan or Yemeni, or even Egyptian and Tunisian, identity.


Is it worth the effort — and the possible pain involved — to try to consolidate the various factions and push towards a single national identity? Yes: Research has consistently shown that where conflict is eliminated and squabbling populations start to share a higher, overriding identity, more gets done for a greater number of people— better schools, roads, a more robust market. But the transition is not easy, and around the world many nations have struggled to cross the line.

A fascinating example of how this works — or doesn’t — has unfolded in East Africa. In the early 1960s, the neighboring countries of Kenya and Tanzania became independent states. (Tanzania was called Tanganyika until 1964, when it merged with Zanzibar.) They were similar in many respects — they shared geography, history, colonial experience, and, most critically, extreme ethnic diversity. Their populations were collections of disunited and often rivalrous tribes. Today, Tanzania stands as a nation with a strong sense of national identity and no divisive internal tensions; Kenya, by contrast, is riven with factional violence.

A Libyan National Transition Council fighter waves a council flag (top) along with the flag of the Amazigh tribe.Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

What happened? As described in a study conducted by Edward Miguel, a professor of economics at the University of California Berkeley, Tanzania embarked, 40 years ago, on “arguably the most serious nation-building program in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Julius Nyerere, a pan-Africanist and a socialist, was president from independence until 1985, and a founding principle of his political party was “to fight tribalism and any other factors which would hinder the development of unity among Africans.” He did this systematically: Tanzanians were forced to adopt one official language, Swahili, which was not the language of a dominant tribe, but an ethnically neutral lingua franca. Next came an educational curriculum that spread the language as a way of building a new national identity. Nyerere also dismantled traditional rural authorities and customary tribal law and replaced them with local village councils, and spread around state resources without special favor to any one ethnicity. His more socialist ideas, like a failed attempt at collectivized farming, did not catch on. But over a short period of time, he managed to instill a real sense of Tanzania-ness in his people. The result today is a much more stable country with higher standards of living.


In Kenya, on the other hand, the country’s first two leaders, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi, were clearly associated with their tribes, and directed disproportionate resources and power to their own groups. Kenya has no language that has become as pervasive as Swahili in Tanzania; the school curriculum does not include study of Kenya as a nation until fifth grade and until then focuses exclusively on provincial geography and history. Over the past 50 years, Kenya has swung dramatically between periods of stability and periods of violent conflict with tribes jousting for power, and it has always lagged economically behind Tanzania.

The recent history of the Middle East and North Africa has played out much more in the model of Kenya than Tanzania. Ever since independence in the first half of the 20th century, power in the Arab world has revolved either around individual families (the Mubaraks in Egypt, the Khadafys in Libya) or whole sects, like the Alawites in Syria and Hashid tribal confederacy in Yemen. And the same type of rule pertains in smaller, localized networks throughout these countries, each striving to hold on to as much autonomy as possible. For individual Libyans or Syrians, it is these allegiances that have always been primary over loyalty to a larger nation.


For pessimists, the persistence of tribal power and identity is a nearly inescapable trap for Middle Eastern nations; it can feel impossible to imagine moving beyond what seems like an ancient status quo. But a longer and wider view of history suggests that there is more possibility than one would think. In fact, there was another country that not that long ago found itself in a similar condition and managed to surmount it: France.

For social scientists, the classic work on national identity and its formation isn’t a study of Africa or Asia, but Eugen Weber’s 1976 book on Third Republic France, “Peasants into Frenchmen.” Weber, an influential British-born historian who died in 2007, presented a controversial thesis: The majority of the population living in the country called France, even as late as 1870, did not have a national consciousness. Outside of Paris, most people defined themselves by the language, culture, and outlook of their local towns and regions. Their loyalty lay with their villages in the countryside of Burgundy and Brittany and the valleys of the Pyrenees, and not with a government in Paris. And yet, he shows that by 1900 the peasants all thought of themselves as Frenchmen — speaking the same dialect of French, feeling part of a similar historical narrative, and seeing themselves as part of a much larger community than their surrounding villages.

The process that France went through in the late 19th century, as Weber describes it, sounds not so different from Tanzania’s. The government built secondary roads and train lines, offered free public education that spread a language and identity through common textbooks and a single history curriculum, and demanded universal military service. As these took effect and shaped people’s lives, the nation itself — the idea of France — became the chief allegiance of the people within its borders.

But there’s another essential element of the French story, and it’s the worry implicit in the pessimism about the Middle East. Why did these peasants want to become citizens, Frenchmen, in the first place? John Breuilly, chair of the nationalism and ethnicity department at the London School of Economics, said that it is impossible to understand the story of France — or any other nation — as simply a series of top-down reforms. It is also crucial to see why the inhabitants of those regions all decided it was in their best interests to think of themselves as “French.”

“In many ways national identity, rather than being the deliberate outcome of a project, is an unintended effect of a whole bunch of people pursuing their interests,” said Breuilly.

In other words, people living in Libya, or Yemen, or Iraq have to decide it is more profitable for them to abandon their local identities to become part of a larger whole. The lesson that scholars like Breuilly draw from the French example is that it takes a great deal for a villager to leave his dialect and local allegiance behind. The central government needs to be strong and stable enough to hold out a real prospect of improvement: The capital, or a major town, needs to offer the possibility of social mobility into a world with greater wealth and social capital. That means progress can’t be just restricted to the leader’s tribe. It also means that the government needs to offer some form of security and stability to the state as a whole, and to all its citizens.

In some respects, the experience of France — which has been repeated, with variations, in one new nation after another — presents an optimistic picture for the Middle East. Many countries in the Arab world are actually much more culturally cohesive than the fractious France of the 19th century.

“In Libya and Yemen, the cultural foundations for national consciousness are already there,” said David Laitin, professor of political science at Stanford University and the author of “Nations, States and Violence.” “They are all Arabic speakers, they are all Sunni Muslims, they know the boundaries of their political communities.”

But they also fall short in one key respect, says Laitin: Without stronger and more evenhanded central governments, the incentive isn’t really there for people to leave their tribes behind. “The people who live in the Eastern regions of Libya or the Northern regions of Yemen don’t fully believe that if they moved themselves and their families to the political center or the commercial center that they are entirely safe, that they are secure, that they will be accepted as equals,” he said. “Therefore they are always building social networks amongst their old communities, tribal communities, as insurance.”

Giving up one’s local identity and culture can be an extraordinarily painful process, and the challenge right now is that there are very few central powers in the Middle East that could provide enough stability and fair treatment to make that sacrifice worthwhile. The consensus view among the “rational choice” theorists, the scholars who see nationhood as being driven by personal incentives, is that it ultimately takes a consolidation of resources — a central government with the money and clout to make sweeping upgrades to a society. “You need a lot of resources to bolster the center,” said Michael Hechter, a leading sociologist of nationalism who teaches at Arizona State University.

In the Middle East, one source of such power is oil — if managed well, it could theoretically provide a leader with a way to build national identity. Another source is outside money and support. The best example of this is the Marshall Plan, following World War II, when millions of American dollars were spent in Europe to make sure that these countries emerging from war would be able to hold together. But it’s hard to imagine Americans or Europeans in this current economic climate stomaching such a huge outlay of money towards such a long term and uncertain experiment. And from the Arab perspective, dependence on a Western power has significant drawbacks.

Francis Fukuyama, the political scientist and public intellectual, addresses the question of how a state evolves in a new two-volume book, “The Origins of Political Order.” As he sees it, creating cohesive entities out of these divided countries will not be an easy task. Ultimately, he said, it also requires the right kind of leader — one willing to put the nation’s interests before those of his own group.

“You need some political leader who will come to power and try to define the country in terms that would be acceptable on a political basis to all of these different factions,” said Fukuyama. “And then they actually need to build that identity through symbolism, through the education system, through a program that makes people feel that they are part of this collective whole.”

For the United States and the West, there is a way to play a positive role in helping this transition, but it lies in approaching these fractured countries intelligently, supporting forces that are interested in spreading resources throughout the country, rather than those that are most narrowly allied with our short-term goals. A perfect example is the effort in Afghanistan to shift the economy away from poppy farming, a lucrative enterprise that has also kept the country divided among local warlords. The United States Agency for International Development is trying to boost legitimate agriculture; if it works, a stronger farm economy could be at least one step toward more evenly dividing the wealth and making people feel invested in an Afghan identity.

The extreme factionalism of a place like Libya or Syria, where the revolutions appear to be producing clear winners and losers among the various tribes and religious groups, would make such small steps toward unity seem almost irrelevant. The prospect of true national identity emerging in these places seems very far off. But it is not impossible. And as the example of Tanzania or even France shows, it is not a process that takes hundreds of years: It can happen in a few decades. To become a citizen of a nation is a choice that involves more sacrifice and pain than tearing down the sculpture of a dictator. But it is also a choice that millions of people are trying to make right now, choosing to see themselves and their place in the world in an entirely different way.

Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was published in September and was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post.