Federalism and the Arab Spring

Leonid Issaev and Andrey Zakharov

Leonid Issaev (Ph.D. in Political Science) is currently an associate professor at the Department of Political Science and International Affairs and the Deputy Chair of the Laboratory for Sociopolitical Destabilization Risk Monitoring at the HSE University. He is also a senior research fellow at the Center for Civilization and Regional Studies of the Institute for African Studies, which is part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He teaches courses in Islamic political philosophy and political systems and political processes in the Arab World.


Andrey Zakharov (Ph.D. in Philosophy) is currently an associate professor at the Faculty of History, Political Science, and Law at the Russian State University of Humanities. The area of his research is comparative federalism, on which he has published several books. He is an editor of “Neprikosnovenny Zapas: Debaty o Politike I Kulture” (Neprikosnovenny Zapas: Debates on Politics and Culture”) magazine, one of the leading intellectual periodicals in Russia. From 1990 to 1995, he served as a member of the Russian Parliament.


This research proposes to analyze the background and prerequisites of the federalist experiments of the Arab Spring, describe their evolution and current state, as well as assess the prospects for the future. Political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa led to an active rethinking of the former unitary model. At the same time in recent years decentralization has been a major topic of socio-political debate in Libya, Syria and Yemen. In each case, the reference case is the experience of the Iraqi federation, which is one of the youngest in the Arab world.



The destruction of established models of statehood, provoked by the Arab Spring, has once again drawn the attention of politicians and researchers to the old question: is federalism capable of restoring and stabilizing the nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region? The disintegration process, still ongoing in some of the Middle Eastern states, entails an active re-evaluation of the former unitary model, which was historically most common in the Arab world. After the liberation from an imperial imposition, first the Ottoman, and then the European one, the unitary approach was widely adopted in the young states (Mufti, 1996). By the end of the 1980s, after tireless attempts to build some kind of pan-Arab quasi-federation, designed to unite the Arab peoples politically, the Arabs got exhausted – and the unitary structure became the political standard of the Arab world. In the following decades, it had firmly merged with dictatorial and autocratic regimes, for which “the vertical separation of power” remained an indispensable tool of social control and political suppression. However, the revolutions of 2011-2012 changed everything.


Shattered Hierarchies

The existing governance mode, built on a hierarchical principle, was discredited: it became associated with the names of tyrants who had tormented their peoples for decades. Accordingly, the crisis of centralist ideology has prompted the search for an alternative, which has always been proposed by a federal or, at least, a decentralized model. In the midst of the intellectual ferment that usually accompanies any revolutionary upheaval, projects to rebuild state life on federalist principles began to be widely discussed in Libya, Yemen and Syria, the countries, most severely affected by the Arab Spring. The federalist plans discussed in each country were different, marked by local specifics. Nevertheless, in each of the three cases mentioned, two factors necessarily emerged. The first one is the institutional memory of the previous introduction to the federalist culture, albeit superficial. The second one is the most recent and therefore unique experience of the only federation established in the Arab world in the twenty first century – the experience of Iraq, extremely controversial, but accordingly interesting.



Taken together, these two factors fulfill an important function that is directly related to the current federalist undertaking shaking the MENA region. They question the idea that the Arab political culture and Islamic governance tradition contradict the principle of dispersal of power. Meanwhile, the integration initiatives that were conceived and sometimes implemented by the Middle Eastern pan-Arabists between the two World Wars and after 1945, solved exactly the same problems as they do in other parts of the world: they either helped Arab politicians to survive, rallying in front of a common threat, or allowed them to more expansively defend some kind of solidary interest (Mufti, 1996, p. 6; Riker, 1964, pp. 12-13). As elsewhere, Arab exercises in federalism, from the Fertile Crescent federation projects in the 1930s and 1940s to the integration plans of the 1970s and 1980s, allowed the weaker participants to gain strength, while the strong ones were forced to share power and influence with the rest. In other words, the game of federalism had already been mastered by the Arab political elite long before the Arab Spring.

The Iraqi precedent, which began in the mid-2000s, noticeably enriched and expanded this experience: it convincingly proved that in the Arab context, a federation can be useful as a method of harmonizing both interstate and intrastate relations (Danilovich, 2014). The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship allowed Iraq to resolve the Kurdish problem, which had destabilized the republic for a long time – the establishment of an asymmetric federation, which provided a framework for the political self-determination of local Kurds, turned out to be a good decision, ensuring the preservation of Iraq’s external borders and maintaining its internal integrity for a decade and a half (Anaid, 2017). The Iraqi model is often condemned and criticized for the inequality of rights of Iraqi citizens, which stems from the special status of the Kurdish provinces. However, it is worthy to note that the only alternative to some form of affirmative action is violence directed at minority groups. Thus, due to the federalist model, Iraq has avoided this alternative.


Federalism and Oil – Libya

Among the countries that began dabbling in federalism after the Arab Spring, Libya stands out for the fact that it had a federalist experience before. In the middle of 20th century, Libya remained a federation for more than ten years. The federative model turned out to be ineffective, yet memorable – in the days of the recent revolution and subsequent troubles, both local and foreign actors repeatedly appealed to the old federalist regime (Mundy, 2018). The current degree of social fragmentation that Libya is demonstrating is recognized by experts as unprecedented: many believe that it will never be possible to reassemble a country that has been crumbled into thousands of warring kingdoms (Lacher, 2020, pp. 1-2). This pessimism, however, does not take into account one fundamental issue: transition to a federal model and implementation of a federal principle always turns out to be a forced decision, which politicians take purely under the pressure of circumstances. Since federalism implies the sharing of power, it cannot be liked by politicians whose primary goal is to maximize power. However, in some situations they simply have no other choice, and the Libyan case is just that. The fact is that all parties to the Libyan conflict maintain their well-being through oil rent, but none of them is capable of unilaterally monopolizing the process of extracting these revenues. The civil war has scattered the technological chain of the oil industry: some got wells, others – pipes, and others – terminals. This is how the preconditions for a phenomenon that can be conventionally called “oil federalism” have developed. It is the “oil federalism” that is pushing Libya to establish a structure in which self-rule in certain areas will coexist with shared rule in other areas, which is, albeit unusual, quite manageable. Incidentally, this alignment suggests that there will never be a single winner in the Libyan civil war (Fraihat, 2016, p. 33).


Federalism and Chaos – Yemen

In contrast to Libya, which mastered the federalist toolkit after gaining independence, in Yemen the introduction of the federation was started by the British colonialists. And although the Federation of South Arabia did not last long (from 1962 to 1967), its experience was crucial in terms of the formation of institutional memory, which turned out to be in demand after the overthrow of the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. In the midst of a civil war burdened by foreign intervention, a variety of political forces are turning to federalist prescriptions; the problem, however, is that the federalization scenarios they propose pursue different goals and solve different problems. On the one hand, the ruling regime headed by Mansour Hadi, proposing to “cut” Yemen into six provinces, wants to weaken its rivals in the form of the Houthi rebels and southerners, humiliated in the 1990s by a predatory takeover by the northerners. On the other hand, the southern political groups insist on a federation with two members: the North and the South. Currently, a classic federal bargaining is unfolding in Yemen, during which political elites from different parts of the country are looking for the best way to divide power. The process is proceeding with difficulty and will take years, but the main thing here is that federalization as such does not cause rejection either in the ruling circles or in society – only certain options for transition to it are criticized. This, in turn, means that the federal idea is capable of making an important contribution to the pacification of the Yemeni state, shaken by endless wars (Salisbury, 2015).


Federalism and War – Syria

Federalist projects are also being discussed in Syria, the country most affected by the Arab Spring (Feldman, 2020, chap. 3). The most active supporters of federalism are the Syrian Kurds, who see federalization as the best way to preserve the political autonomy they received after the defeat of the Islamic State. The Kurds are a rather powerful force: accounting for only 10-12% of the Syrian population, they now control more than 20% of the territory of Syria. The peculiarity of the Syrian situation is that here, as in Iraq a decade and a half ago, the federalist idea relies heavily on an external force. Having proposed a draft constitution developed by Russian experts to the Syrian leadership, Moscow does not abandon attempts to convince President Bashar al-Assad of the advisability of federalization. Of course, this scheme has its own reasons for Russia: in particular, it would not allow Damascus to “swallow” the de facto autonomous Kurdish territories, and their presence could be used as a lever of pressure not only on Syria, but also on Turkey, which is an unreliable ally. The Syrian regime, on the other hand, perceives the “federalist game” situationally, depending on how the military-political situation is developing. Undoubtedly, after Russia’s military intervention allowed the regime of Bashar al-Assad to consolidate its position, he began to view the scenarios proposed by the Kremlin less and less favorably. The difficulty is that, along with delicate Moscow and less delicate Kurds, al-Assad’s partner in this political chess match is the irreconcilable Syrian opposition. Over years of fighting, the opposition has not decided whether federalism is needed in their vision of future Syria, but unfortunately for them, the Idlib enclave they hold can be saved from imminent collapse in only one case – by making it an autonomous entity as part of a united Syria. This consideration, in theory, should increase the attractiveness of federalism in the eyes of opponents of Damascus. None of the parties interested in federalization – neither Moscow, nor the Kurds, nor the opposition fighters of Idlib – can convince al-Assad of the benefits of the federal principle, but together they are all hypothetically capable of solving such a problem. In other words, despite all the victories won by the Syrian regime on the battlefield, the fate of the federalization of Syria is by no means a done deal.


What Comes Next?

Thus, the inevitable question arises: what will happen to all the described cases? None of the cases necessarily guarantees a federalist outcome. The positions of the forces acting under the slogan of “indivisible national unity” and upholding the principles of centralization are still strong in Libya, Yemen and Syria. If they manage to defeat their competitors and take power in the national capitals, the disintegration of the respective political spaces may go even more violently, ending with a complete dissolution of the current state entities. Federalist solutions, on the other hand, are able to provide societies exhausted by the civil war with a welcome respite, reduce their potential for conflict and create preconditions for recovery after the storms of the Arab Spring. At first, the new forms may seem unusual and some parts of the society may generally meet them with hostility (as happened, for example, in Iraq, where the constitutional encouragement of the Kurdish minority upset many of the Arab majority). Nevertheless, this is a perfectly acceptable price to pay so that the state crippled by the revolution and war does not die completely.


All the ideas above are extensively described in a book published by Springer in September 2021: Leonid Issaev, Andrey Zakharov. Federalism in the Middle East: State Reconstruction Projects and the Arab Spring. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2021.

Issaev, L and Zakharov, A. 2021. ‘Federalism and the Arab Spring’, 50 Shades of Federalism. http://50shadesoffederalism.com/case-studies/federalism-and-the-arab-spring/



Anaid, A. (2017). Learning from History: Kurdish Nationalism and State-Building Efforts. In: A. Danilovich (ed.), Iraqi Kurdistan in Middle Eastern Politics. London and New York, Routledge, pp. 11-34.

Danilovich, A. (2014). Iraqi Federalism and the Kurds: Learning to Live Together. Farnham: Ashgate.

Feldman, N. (2020). The Arab Winter: A Tragedy. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Fraihat, I. (2016). Unfinished Revolutions: Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia after Arab Spring. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Lacher, W. (2020). Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict. London: I.B. Tauris.

Mufti, M. (1996). Sovereign Creations: Pan-Arabism and Political Order in Syria and Iraq. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

Mundy, J. (2018). Libya. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Riker, W. (1964). Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company.

Salisbury, P. (2015). Federalism, Conflict and Fragmentation in Yemen. London: Saferworld.


Further Reading

Laessing, U. (2020). Libya Since Qadhafi. London: Hurst.

Lackner, H. (2017). Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism, and the Disintegration of a State. London: Saqi Books.

Mazur, K. (2021). Revolution in Syria: Identity, Networks, and Repression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shakir, F. (2017). The Iraqi Federation: Origin, Operation and Significance. Abingdon: Routledge.




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