CAIRO – Southern Sudan's nearly certain secession from the Arab-dominated north is likely to set a dangerous precedent in an Arab world looking increasingly fractured along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Southern Sudanese voted this month in a referendum on whether to break away from Africa's largest country. Final results are expected within weeks but preliminary returns show more than 98 percent supported independence. The vote is part of a 2005 peace deal that ended 22 years of civil war between the Christian and animist south and the Muslim and Arabized north.
Already, there are growing secessionist sentiments, exclusive enclaves and intensifying calls for autonomy in some Arab nations such as Iraq and Yemen. In countries like Lebanon and Egypt, the fault lines are widening between ethnic and religious groups, threatening to split loyalties.
"The lesson we must all learn is that secession, as in the case of Sudan, can be the road to safety when union becomes a heavy and unbearable burden on people," prominent columnist Salama Ahmed Salama recently wrote in Cairo's independent newspaper Al-Shorouk.
In an Arab world traditionally suspicious of what it sees as Western "plots" to fragment and weaken it, secession, federalism and autonomy are taboos often rejected out of hand regardless of their validity. Strong central governments, many contend, are the best defense against Israel, the Arabs' archenemy.
The Sudan vote has sparked soul-searching about how the predominantly Arab and Sunni Muslim nations of the region have dealt with ethnic and religious minorities since independence from colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s.
The intense discussion of the Sudanese vote, played out in the media across the region, touched on such relevant issues as the validity of international borders drawn by the area's European colonizers after World War I, the supremacy of citizenship over sectarian and religious affiliation and how big a part regional, non-Arab powers like Israel and Iran play in allegedly fueling dissent among minorities in the Middle East.
"Parts of our region will face the threat of breaking up if dealing with crises continues to be done at times through denying and ignoring them or, as is the case most of the time, blaming them on foreign conspiracies," columnist Elias Harfoush wrote last week in the respected pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat.
Next to his column, a cartoon depicted an electric saw splitting the ground in two as it moves in the direction of an arrow pointing to "the region," meaning the Arab world. In the background, two flags, each emblazoned with half of the word "Sudan" are fluttering from a mast cut in two.
Apart from the Sudanese vote, some of the fractures already existing in the Arab world have grown deeper.
In Iraq, leaders of the embattled Christian minority, citing the failure of security forces to protect them, are calling on the government to establish a new province they can claim as their own to escape attacks by Muslim militants who have killed hundreds of Christians and forced tens of thousands to flee the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Khadum al-Muqdadi, an Iraqi political analyst, warns against creating an exclusively Christian province, arguing it would only be a matter of time before some in the West demand its independence.
"I think moves to create a Christian province are packed with risks and do not benefit the Iraqi Christians who have been living in peace and under tight protections by all governments," he said.
In northern Iraq, the seven years since the U.S.-led invasion have seen the autonomous Kurdish region become all but independent from the rest of the country, with calls now growing for the right to self determination.
In Yemen, a secessionist movement is gaining strength in the south of the country, once an independent state that became part of a unified state in 1990. The south sought secession again in 1994, staging a revolt that was ruthlessly put down by the government in northern Yemen.
In Lebanon, whose survival on a delicate power-sharing formula filters down to the army and most government departments, haunting memories persist from the 1975-1990 civil war when Christians and Muslims turned against each other.
Entire swaths of southern Lebanon and Beirut are exclusively Shiite. The boundary once known as the "Green Line" that separated Lebanon's capital into a Christian east and a Muslim west still serves as a potent symbol of Lebanon's history of division.
"I think there is a common issue, which is that the modern Arab state is fraying at the edges for different reasons," said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
"The question that Sudan raises is: 'Is there a structural problem with other Arab countries? And are there other Arab countries that are possibly vulnerable to secessionist movements?'"
Hendawi is the AP chief of bureau in Cairo.