Contagious Crumbling? Stability, Breakdown, and the Diffusion of Arab State Failure

 By Oliver Schlumberger, University of Tübingen, Germany

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “Transnational Diffusion, Cooperation and Learning in the Middle East and North Africa,” held June 8-9, 2016.

The three major outcomes of the Arab uprisings

This memo first maintains that there are three essential outcomes of the Arab uprisings of 2011, then focuses on one of them that I claim is the least studied. While the question of the title is answered to with a clear “no,” a larger new field of research appears on the horizon to which, by way of conclusion, I briefly suggest a few lessons to be taken into account as well as some possible starting points for further research.

It is often cited that four dictators were ousted as a consequence of the Arab uprisings and that Tunisia provides a (however fragile) case of democratic transition, disproving essentialist arguments about the absence of democracy in the Middle East. This, however, is but one out of three major political outcomes of the recent protest wave. A second is the survival of at least a dozen authoritarian regimes in the MENA region, lending credibility to the broad literature on authoritarian resilience, authoritarian learning, and strategies of regime survival. A less investigated third outcome is that not only regimes, but also states as such[1] seem to have increasingly come under stress as a consequence of the mass uprisings, to the point where state fragility or, grave yet, of state collapse is imminent or manifest. This contribution focuses on the third and least studied outcome, which doubtlessly constitutes one of the “crucial current political dynamics” that Bank and Richter (2016) refer to in their conceptual note for the recent workshop.

The new relevance of statehood in the Middle East and North Africa

While a handful of state structures[2] such as Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine had, for various reasons, been infamous for the precarious state of their statehood prior to the Arab uprisings, the 2010s have brought to the fore a new dimension of state fragility in the region. Not only have the remnants of statehood in Iraq and Yemen worsened, but with Libya and Syria, two new cases have joined the “Arab league of failing states.” Yet other cases, including some with a comparatively longer history of independent statehood such as Egypt, Bahrain or even Morocco, cannot easily dismiss observers’ worries about the longer-term sustainability of their statehood.

In this politically diverse new Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia and Egypt under Sisi arguably occupy two poles on a continuum of political regimes. However, the group of states that either dramatically fail to fulfil the core functions associated with statehood[3] (usually termed state failure) or that simply seem to dissolve physically (usually labelled state collapse) has been growing since 2011.

This becomes particularly evident when looking at the three republics (apart from Egypt and Tunisia) that underwent massive political change as a direct consequence of the 2011 upheavals: Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Two saw an – at least formal – removal of the respective dictators (Yemen and Libya), whereas the third, Syria, continues to be headed by Bashar al-Assad whose regime has not been able to regain control over the entire territory ever since the conflict turned violent. Arguably, in summer 2015, it was mainly Russia’s massive air force support and ground troops that helped keeping Assad’s regime in place.

The former Yemeni president Ali Saleh, for his part, continues to be actively involved in Yemeni politics, inter alia by allegedly spin-doctoring – in an unlikely alliance with Shiite Houthi rebels – the January 2015 fall of his successor government led by Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi while eyeing to his return to the presidency. In the meantime, a UN-brokered “National Dialogue Conference” (NDC) chaired by interim president Hadi seemed promising until early 2014, when it ended after two Houthi representatives were assassinated within a few weeks only and the group withdrew from the NDC (cf. NDC 2015; Gaston 2014). While many of its eleven standing working groups had made considerable progress towards national reconciliation between most relevant social forces (except for al-Qaeda), it was the Southern issue that remained unsolved with no roadmap on how to achieve further progress. This was likely also due to the fact that while the Hirak movement was part of the NDC, other Southern groups remained excluded. Thus, while Yemen has figured high in the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index’ (FSI’s) ranking for many years, the regime collapse after the breakdown of the NDC is qualitatively different from the regime’s long-term failure to deliver essential public goods. In Yemen as well as in Syria, today the state itself is up for grabs by competing powers who all try, by violent means, to capture and re-build central state institutions.

Both in Syria and in Yemen this struggle over the state has been accompanied by the renewed rise of militant Jihadist actors who not only oppose the formerly well-established regimes, but also propose alternative visions of a state. Notably in the case of the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS or, in its Arabic acronym, da‘esh), a transnationalized understanding of statehood is debased from its notion of territoriality which almost all definitions of statehood include as a key marker. In that sense, ISIS’s vision of its Islamic State can be seen as a either a “plurinational” state, to borrow Bolivian president Evo Morales’ term, or even as a non-nation state.

Syria, Libya, and Yemen all fell into prolonged and at least regionalized (and in the Syrian case globalized) violent strife for power over the state to an extent that statehood as such is less of a given than it was before 2011. Some see good reasons to classify the Libyan case, too, into the same box of violent conflict after the breakdown of a prior authoritarian regime: It resembles both other cases insofar as non-state armed groups (ISIS as well as others) could make considerable inroads there both in terms of followers and territorial gains. It resembles the Yemeni case insofar as the country has fallen into prolonged political crisis with two opposing governments in Tobruq and Tripoli, each of which claimed to act as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. The December-2015 agreement that enabled the establishment of a “Government of National Accord” still has uncertain prospects of pacifying the country in the light of greatly factionalized militias and splits in both the Tobruq and the new unity government.

Apart from the three cases discussed here, however, we must not forget the range of other countries of the MENA that remain fragile. Lebanon has long experienced a volatile situation, which is even truer yet of Iraq. Less thought of in that context, Egypt and Iran also figure among the FSI’s 50 most fragile countries (out of 178). Taken together, the group of fragile, failed or collapsed states makes for no less than seven countries of the core of the MENA region, and Palestine is not even listed in the FSI. Furthermore, if the geographical margins of the region were to be taken into account, Arab League members such as Mauretania, Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan would have to be added. In fact, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are the only Arab states which the FSI rates as “stable” (Fund for Peace 2016).

This all means that roughly half of the Arab political entities today are either directly threatened by or have already fallen victim to state failure. While the task of studying authoritarian resilience has thus certainly not vanished for scholars, researchers as well as policy-makers will have to give much greater consideration to questions of statehood in this post uprisings region.

Is there a diffusion of state failure?

Some factors may seem to support the assumption that there is an element of contagion or diffusion in the processes sketched out above. When looking for potential causes for the observed accumulation of state decay in the MENA region, two overarching factors might be relevant: Temporality and territoriality. By temporality I mean, in this context, the proximity in time of cases of regime breakdown and subsequent state failure and/or collapse as it happened in Yemen, Libya and Syria and beyond. This proximity in time is undoubtedly given.

Territoriality, however, seems more questionable: Among the prominent three cases I have focused on above, one is in the Levant, one in North Africa, and one on the outermost edges of the Gulf peninsula. While students of “democratic diffusion” differ as to what factors they see as causal for the spatial clustering of democratization processes, they unanimously do tell us that the likelihood of diffusion processes increases with geographic proximity (cf., i.a., Starr 1991; O’Loughlin et al. 1998; Gleditsch & Ward 2006; Elkink 2011; Brinks & Coppedge 2006). If we assume that diffusion of regime traits has anything in common with the diffusion of the erosion of statehood and that it is thus permissible to adopt the theorem of geographic proximity influencing such diffusion processes, then the territorial dimension seems less given in the clustering of state failure/collapse in the MENA than the temporal one.

Therefore, it seems wise to search for factors other than purely geographical ones in order to carve out reasons for the sudden downfall not only of political regimes but also of states. Diffusion in the simplistic sense of spill-over processes that permeate world regions due to geographic proximity seems counterintuitive as the causal chain would need to be very long for such spill-overs of state failure. In that sense, then, it seems fairly safe to answer the question of whether there is a (direct or simple) diffusion of state failure/state collapse in the negative. However strong authoritarian learning or cooperation may be, it obviously failed in preventing a number of regimes from falling apart to the point that the state as such eroded and collapsed.

Three Lessons

As signals of state failure within the region are quite obviously cumulating, there must be reasons for this. Searching for explanations to the recent clustering of state failures in the MENA, the option that is probably closest at hand would be to look into the monarchy-republic divide – and quite a number of authors have recently done so (e.g., Lucas 2014; Derichs & Demmelhuber 2014; Bank, Richter & Sunik 2014; idem. 2015). Some have argued that this is related to the specific position of monarchs as residing “above” their polities and not even theoretically up for contestation (e.g., Williamson 2012; Hinnebusch 2015: 30), while others have discussed the specific sources of legitimacy available to monarchs but not to presidents (Schlumberger 2010).

Yet this new literature on monarchical survival likely contains a bias in that it overemphasizes monarchical survival in the sense that monarchies did come under pressure as a consequence of the recent mass protests, whereas it may underestimate republican survival (e.g., if cases such as Egypt are considered as breakdowns of political order as such)[4]. Remember that the first international military intervention was not the Western alliance in Libya, but rather the Saudi led GCC forces in Bahrain, whose state may not have survived without it[5]. And while Jordan, with a cosmetic reaction, remained relatively quiet, the long-term stability of Morocco is certainly not a given even though the regime managed to disperse the 20 February movement quickly by pro-actively embarking on constitutional reform, thus presenting the king as a spearheading positive change. On the other hand, republics such as Egypt count as regime breakdowns in most analyses, which remains highly doubtful in the light of the fact that at no point in time did Egypt’s military elite cede political power (which it arguably has occupied ever since 1952). Thus, there are at least several non-marginal question marks that render the monarchy-republic distinction a less airtight explanation of statehood failure in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.

Apart from the empirical question marks, however, another such question is what we actually mean when we say that four of the republics “did not survive” whereas all of the monarchies did. In Egypt, I would argue, the regime certainly did survive, but statehood increasingly came under stress. More concretely, we need to distinguish more carefully between “regime” on the one hand and “state” on the other when talking about “survival” or “stability.” Tunisia, for instance, represents a case of regime breakdown while statehood remained intact. Syria, by contrast, lends itself as an example of a regime being more resilient even than the state it ran, and thus represents, in a sense, the opposite of Tunisia (i.e. regime survival despite state failure). Before the breakdown of the National Dialogue, Yemen could also be placed in that category, but after the Hadi government stepped down, both regime and state have not only failed but de facto collapsed. Thus, there is an urgent need to better and more carefully map the phenomena we are talking about, as the Arab uprisings did not just happen “between democratization and authoritarian persistence” on the regime level, but also on the level of the state.

Three lessons follow from the above: First, and on an analytical level, we need to distinguish more carefully than before between the concepts of “state” on the one hand and “regime” on the other. A second conclusion sounds trivial but has largely been ignored by a good deal of the respective literature: we also need to distinguish more carefully between state failure (referring to the functional dimension) on the one hand and state collapse (referring to the institutional dimension) on the other. Third, as has become obvious from the above, neither diffusion in a simple sense of spillover effects due to geographic proximity nor the monarchy-republic divide seem to offer convincing explanations for the more prominent role precarious statehood as such plays in the post-2011 Middle East (and accordingly for future research).

Some Starting Points for Further Analysis

A first core factor that needs attention in a more microscopic examination of the clustering of state failure in the Middle East is its international dimension and more precisely direct military intervention. In all three cases highlighted above, foreign military forces have massively intervened in search of an outcome to conflictual situations that caters to their own interests. This story starts with the Saudi-led GCC intervention into Bahrain with the goal of saving its monarchy from the challenge posed by street protests; apparently, neighboring regimes did not trust in the success of the Bahraini monarchy’s narrative about the uprisings as being merely Iran-inspired sectarian strife. The intervention gave Bahraini security forces the necessary leeway to clamp down on protesters in Pearl Roundabout and crush the protests. However, after a sham national dialogue that faded away without tangible results, the Bahraini state is still precarious, while protesters to a large extent did not buy hastily made-up “evidence” that was supposed to “prove” the uprising was instigated by Iran and was only Shiite in nature.

Likewise, the downfall of colonel Ghaddafi’s regime came about through the establishment of a no-fly zone and military intervention by NATO and allied Arab forces. Even today, under the national unity government, external forces continue to actively support autonomous militias that operate outside (and at times against) the command of the new central government the establishment of which was brokered by the UN between the opponent competing predecessors, the GNC in Tripoli and the House of Representatives at Tobruq. One example among others is the “Libyan National Army,” a militia run by General Haftar who refuses to support the UN-backed unity government and which is being supported by Egypt and the UAE (Ezzat 2016), among others, as well as reportedly even by Western countries (Al-Jazeera 2016). And in Syria, not only Russian air-force assisted the Assad regime, but also ground troops of similar origin, while reports about special forces from the US, the UK, France and Germany operating within Syria (albeit mostly combatting ISIS), abound. In Yemen, finally, it is once more Saudi Arabia that has intervened directly militarily, allegedly committing war crimes against the Yemeni population (Mohamed & Shaif 2016). Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition that consisted of forces from nine Arab states[6] plus a range of apparently UAE-trained mercenaries of various countries of origin (Hager & Manzetti 2015). In 2015-16 alone, Moroccan, Saudi, Emirati, Australian, Bahraini, Sudanese and Colombian soldiers and officers as well as privately contracted soldiers have reportedly been killed inside Yemen (The Australian 2015; Almasmari 2015), while an attack on a coalition base in the Maarib province lead to the UAE’s largest military casualties in the history of its armed forces (Ghobari 2015).

Second, it is not only direct military intervention but, equally important in the international dimension, the indirect involvement of external actors that has sparked or reinforced processes of state failure and collapse. It must be equally stressed that arms, persons and ideas travel easily across borders in today’s Middle East. There is little doubt today among observers that financing of arms and equipment by various Gulf countries of Syrian rebel groups greatly influenced both the relative strength of individual groups and the direction of the course of events within the Syrian conflict. Likewise, the U.S. and British support to the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni conflict plays a major role in the destruction of the country. Not only have cluster bombs of American origin reportedly caused great humanitarian damage, but the arms sales in general, by the U.S. and the UK, have contributed to the coalition’s ability to execute large-scale military operations in that country. More than 2.5 million internally displaced civilians and 83 per cent of Yemen’s population depending on humanitarian assistance are just one result of this conflict (cf. Mohamed & Shaif 2016).

Thus, even though “state intervention and coercion fall outside the scope of this concept [cooperation; OS] due to the massive pressure exercised by more powerful actors” (Bank & Richter 2016: 3), the strategies and policies of external actors, in both their direct and indirect dimensions, remain a forceful explanatory element for the spatial clustering of state failure and state collapse in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. Much more systematic and in-depth research is necessary to unearth the mechanisms and consequences by which actors within and outside the region have actively contributed to the phenomenon under scrutiny here, which is beyond the scope of this memo.

Third, however, such direct and indirect international involvement does not explain everything. When cases of an erosion of statehood accumulate to the extent seen today in the Arab world, this might well be a sign of a more general underlying process that transcends the mere fact that borders are permeable and boundaries are porous. They have been porous before. The discussed accumulation of state failure and fragility in today’s Middle East comes with a quite successful project, not of state decay, but of state-building, namely the one undertaken by ISIS. Through a very simple ideology, large-enough amounts of people and resources have successfully been mobilized for their leaders to engage in a project that can arguably be described as the building of a state-like entity that, at least within the territory it controls, manages to fulfil several of the functions of traditional states (such as extraction, monopoly to the use of force, effective administration, etc.). This Janus-faced process of state erosion on the one hand and state-building on the other might well hint to a deeper underlying crisis of legitimacy of the political orders established decades ago.

Violence, as the absence of security (probably the core state function), usually does not start at the international level. At least in the cases discussed here, there has been a highly conflictual constellation of actors on the domestic scene before military intervention that usually involved equally high levels of violence exercised mostly by state agents, but which cannot fully be captured by the state’s Weberian claim to the “monopoly of violence.” Rather, it is the equally Weberian legitimacy of that claim that, in the perception of large parts of the societies concerned, has been absent before violence by non-state actors spread against ruling regimes.

Traditionally, one of the strongest generators of a sense of legitimate rule has been reference to a common national belonging shared by the ruled. Related to this, another observation could provide a potential starting point for a preliminary mapping of state failure in the Middle East: The cases of state failure and/or collapse that have occurred in the MENA arguably differ in kind. For some cases, the question of national unity (or the lack thereof), which had been highlighted by Rustow (1970) decades ago, plays an obvious role (e.g., Libya, Yemen, but potentially also for Bahrain). This point does not only refer to the variable ethnic heterogeneity, but represents a question that touches directly on the concept of the nation-state in a broader sense. [7] Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria can all be said to have a significant awareness of a common nationhood, despite marked differences in the degree of ethnic and religious heterogeneity.[8] Thus, not only a sharper differentiation between state and regime, but also a mapping along the dimensions of state vs. nation could potentially also yield insights into the observed phenomenon of an accumulation of state failure in the Middle East.

But more needs to be said on the issue of intra-societally conflictual constellations of actors. While the majority of Arab countries today are involved in various sorts of military action outside their own borders, the majority of those conflicts stem from struggles over who owns the right to rule within national borders. Thus, at the heart of most of today’s cases of state failure and collapse lie domestic disputes over political rule, and over how political rule can legitimately be exercised.

In this respect, then, the question of whether it was a president or a monarch who has been toppled, and even the question of whether such a toppling has actually occurred or not, are maybe not the ones of utmost importance. Rather, we need more fine-grained analyses about the nature and degree of conflict and consent that exist between incumbents and those they govern. States in which the relationship between rulers and ruled is highly conflictual are, in this view, more likely candidates for the outbreak of violent conflict which, in turn, may lead to state erosion and collapse. In the words of one of the most prominent liberal thinkers: “To the extent that one tries to suppress social conflicts, these gain in potential virulence, thus demand for yet more violent suppression, until finally no power on earth is able to repress the energies of conflict that have been bereft their expression” (Dahrendorf 1961: 226). In that sense, then, we are cast back to the question of the nature of political regimes when analyzing state failure. In other words, the coincidence of the Middle East having been the world’s most unfree region for decades and the fact that now, after protests erupted, a most striking cluster of state failure and collapse emerges, might not be entirely accidental. This observation may come with potentially massive implications for the policy community: Western strategies to support some of the world’s most repressive leaders for the sake of gaining “stability” have, grosso modo, not changed after the Arab uprisings. But in the light of the above, this could actually not only fail to produce political stability in one of the world’s most conflict-ridden regions, but also directly contribute to the exacerbation of intra-societal conflict.

The suggestions presented here obviously cannot, in themselves, deliver a comprehensive explanation for the phenomenon of state failure and state collapse in the Middle East. However, they can provide possible new lenses for looking at the phenomenon that might enable us to see things we might otherwise miss. That said, the range of other potentially relevant factors still remains broad. At least some of those that have not been discussed here will sound familiar. This is not least because they are likely symptomatic of the intimate link between statehood and political regimes that exists – despite the above call for a more careful differentiation between the two.

In sum, the look at the Middle Eastern political landscape presented here may serve to identify elements of a future agenda for research. While the puzzles of such an agenda will likely be too vast for any individual project to resolve, I hope that the ideas sketched out here might help in identifying possible avenues for further research.

[1] There is no room here to engage in a deeper discussion about contending definitions of the “state.” Suffice it here to say that for the present uses an understanding of the state that is informed essentially by Max Weber’s (1947 [1922]: Ch. 1, § 17) classical (and in many contemporary definitions still crucial) elements of a state as the set of public institutions which lay (successful) claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of force to rule politically over a given population within an identifiable territory. Cf. also Dubreuil (2010: 189); a good introductory overview of approaches to studying the state is by Hay, Lister & Marsh (2006).

Likewise, I use the term “state failure” here in a rather “naïve” way with little differentiation simply because there is no room to engage in larger conceptual discussions. For useful critiques of the concept, see, i.a., Call (2008); Eriksen (2010); or Boege et al. (2009).

[2] By this term, I do not mean to imply any statement about the legal status of disputed territories. Rather, this text is about the non-legal dimensions of statehood.

[3] These are security, welfare, and representation; cf., i.a., Milliken & Krause (2002). Note that contrary to most readings, “representation” is not synonymous with the specific kind of democratic representation that is achieved through free and fair elections, but what has to be represented is referred to by these authors as “the symbolic identity of state subjects” (ibid.: 757).

[4] I contend that Egypt represents a case of neither a breakdown of statehood nor of regime.

[5] Additionally, the international community all too quickly bought the Bahraini regime’s discourse about the sectarian nature of the protests and did not respond positively to local demands for change, but rather quietly endorsed Saudi Arabia’s intervention.

[6] These are: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Sudan, and Jordan.

[7] Two other dimensions are directly linked to this question of the “nation”: First, the common strategy used by authoritarian leaders to “play the identity card” (or to engage pro-actively in sectarian policies) as part of a divide-and-rule tactics for autocratic regime maintenance, and second, the increasingly common trans-nationalization of political conflicts in cases where statehood has been weakened, as happened in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and others.

[8] A striking case is the failure of the state in Palestine where the sense of nationhood is likely larger than in any other Middle Eastern state-like entity.


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