Sectarianism is all too often seen as the fuel for the raging fires of the Middle East, while too little serious attention is given to the failure of governance as the root cause of these fires. The reason that sectarian movements and policies have been able to shake the foundations of countries like Lebanon and Iraq is, to a great extent, due to a lack of governing structures that can ensure that the state is the overarching provider of security.

Syria’s revolution of 2011 started as a call for reform and change within the state and, in trying to defeat those calls, accusations of sectarianism and prejudice were used to discredit either side. Most recently, Yemen’s internal struggles have been cast as a sectarian struggle when, at heart, it is one about resources and power. The list goes on.

Since the 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and led to the rule of a regime that called for “exporting the revolution”, the political dynamics of the region have been fraught with rivalries and struggles for domination. Due to the nature of the Iranian revolution, which took on an Islamist cloak, these political struggles too became wrapped up in sectarian and religious terminology, motivation and reasoning.

The endeavour here is neither to unpick the recent historical entanglement between religion and politics, nor to assign blame to which regional actor manipulated which local grievance. Rather, the point is to recognize that being caught up in the sectarian dynamic is causing a glaring blind spot – the failure of governance and state power is leading to the fragmentation of nation states at unprecedented speed and complexity.

Sectarian divisions undoubtedly exist and will continue to be manipulated as they have been for centuries, but these are part of socio-economic and ideological differences that exist in every society. These are not the driving force leading to the killing of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions over the last decade (exact figures for deaths in the Middle East and North Africa region due to political/sectarian violence are difficult to track, but in Syria alone the figure accepted by the United Nations is approximately 220,000. The IOM provides migration maps here).

When a state is unable to provide basic needs ‒ whether security, basic healthcare or primary education ‒ to its people, non-state actors will fill the vacuum. Both the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah of Lebanon provide examples that other groups in the region have started to emulate in providing social welfare where the state failed.

The Middle East and North Africa region is too rich in cultures and differences to attempt a blanket set of policies for all. However, fundamental steps at solidifying good governance would provide a necessary basic framework to stabilize the region. Firstly and without delay, a respect of laws and judiciary must be adopted. Unless citizens feel there is due process and a system to which they can turn to when their government “cheats” them out of what is rightfully theirs, they will turn to non-state actors taking on the semblance of a religious group but often with the characteristics of organized crime.

All too often, resorting to arms will be the only viable option for some as the state fails to protect them. One of the bitter ironies of the current state of lawlessness in Iraq is that the modern code of law originated in Iraq through the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian code of regulating government dating back to 1750 BC.

An agreed-upon constitution and law of the land is mandatory for a state to function, whether a codified constitution or an accepted law of precedence. Libya and Yemen are just two examples of what the failure of an agreed system of government can lead to. Iraq’s constitution, which was passed a decade ago, is deeply flawed and was passed with an agreement to work on amendments immediately.

All too often, people speak of the rule of law as a luxury or an issue that should be addressed in the future – while trying to eliminate the crises plaguing the Middle East through sheer force or short-term financial measures. However, without the rule of law and the ability to enforce the law fairly and equally, all these efforts are undermined. Cementing the laws of a land into a fair constitution and making sure it is adhered to is fundamental to tackling the phenomenon of failed or failing states in the Middle East.

From corruption to the rise of militias in the region, the rule of law is one of the most important missing elements allowing these problems to fester. Politicians in the region are not unique in abusing power. The limits on politicians around the world depend on the ability to hold them accountable by law. Moreover, a free press capable of holding power to account and shedding light on wrongdoing must be protected by the law, or it will be silenced all too soon.

Whether through the ballot box, or through competent providing of services, governments of relatively stable countries in the region have understood the importance of delivering to their people. This is not to say that those countries are not in need of reform or improvement, but they provide a benchmark for which a semblance of stability can be attained. A recent example can be given from Tunisia’s December 2014 elections, where the governing part of Ennahda and its coalition partners accepted electoral defeat and handed over power to its rivals, rather than instigate civil discord or war.

The impact of failed governance structures impacts all aspects of life in many of the trouble spots of the Middle East and North Africa – and flawed governance presents vulnerability for many of the “stable” countries of the region. One example is the issue of unemployment that is always raised but all too often not tackled seriously – when patronage and nepotism dictate how key jobs are given out, the entire employment structure suffers.

The failure of governance is not limited to state structures; rather, it is symptomatic of international bodies like the United Nations. The failure of implementing internationally accepted and legally binding United Nations Security Council resolutions, such as resolution 242, which has been awaiting implementation since 1967.

All of these issues are not new or undiscovered by those who govern. Enough conferences and speeches have been given on unemployment, rule of law and rights of citizens to drive home the point. All too often, officials will say these are “side issues” to be tackled after dealing with militants, extremism or war. And yet, while these issues remain unsolved, with glaring blind spots in the societies of the Middle East and North Africa, extremist ideology and armed groups will continue to fester and, at any chance, thrive.

Worse still, those with the decision-making power with vested interests at play are the same people who need to make those decisions that will reduce their own personal gain in the short term for the longer-term good of all. Accepting that public service is indeed a service, rather than a benefit, is key.

The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 takes place at the Dead Sea, Jordan, from 21-23 May.

Author: Mina Al-Oraibi is Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Alawsat newspaper, a Young Global Leader and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Middle East and North Africa.

Image: People arrive to cast their votes at a polling station at al-Othman mosque in Damascus June 3, 2014. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki