- Associated Press - Monday, January 24, 2011

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 that more than 98 percent support 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 Arab 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 such as 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. Sustaining strong central governments, many contend, is 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.

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 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.

The autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq has become all but independent from the rest of the country in the seven years since the U.S.-led invasion, with growing calls 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 the government in northern Yemen ruthlessly put down.

In Lebanon, whose survival on a delicate power-sharing formula filters down to the army and most government departments, haunting memories persist from the 1975-90 civil war when Christians and Muslims turned against each other.