From State-Building to State-Fraying Permeability:NSAs in the Post-Popular Uprisings Arab World

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Bassel F. Salloukh, Lebanese American University [1]

The rise of armed, sectarian, local or transnational nonstate actors (NSAs) is one of the main consequences of the sectarianization[1] of geopolitical contests unleashed after the popular uprisings, and the concomitant “return of the weak Arab state.”[2] Whether in Lebanon and Yemen, where these actors long predated the popular uprisings, or in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, local and transnational nonstate actors assumed paramount domestic and proxy transnational geopolitical roles. While it may that “there is nothing new about cross-border politics in the Middle East,”[3] this explosion of local or transnational armed nonstate actors underscores a reversal of the logic of the Arab state system’s permeability of the 1950s and 1960s, when transnational ideology was deployed by regimes for state-building purposes.

Post-independence Arab states were institutionally and ideologically weak and exposed to transnational ideological currents. Throughout the geopolitical battles of “the Arab Cold War,” from 1958 to 1970,[4] regional states, but chiefly Jamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt, used the Arab state system’s ideological permeability to align with domestic actors in different countries in the quest to advance their own geopolitical interests. But as Rex Brynen demonstrated in his now classic study of the uses of the regime-induced, top-down permeability of that period, by the late 1970s, Arab states had drastically reduced their vulnerability to cross-border ideological permeability. Authoritarian regimes engaged in sustained state-building efforts, organizing state-society relations in different corporatist strategies that gave them a substantial measure of control over the political arena.[5] There were always exceptions to this trend: the perennially weak states of Lebanon and Yemen, for example, with their powerful sectarian or tribal and regional nonstate actors and sentiments. Beyond these exceptions, however, the ‘hard’ Arab state, with its fearsome coercive apparatus, militarized state-society relations, and neopatrimonial management of economic resources, had replaced the ‘soft’ one of past decades. The Arab state system had moved from one governed by the logic of raison de la nation to that of raison d’état.[6]

By the 1990s, however, a new regional permeability was produced but this time from below, propelled by new information and communication technologies and by shared political and economic grievances.[7] This new permeability goes a long way in explaining the diffusion effects propelling the 2011 popular uprisings from one Arab capital to another. For though the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were caused by deep but similar structural transformations– namely, “growing inequality and economic exclusion, deepening economic insecurity, the pervasiveness of corruption, and the capture of economic liberalization programs by crony capitalists tightly linked to regime elites”[8]– their spread across states can only be explained by the regional system’s new bottom-up transnational permeability. It is this novel type of bottom-up permeability that has proved instrumental in weakening or destroying a number of Arab states after the popular uprisings. By the time the region’s geopolitical battles were sectarianized after the popular uprisings, the top-down state-building permeability of the past was replaced by a bottom-up state-destroying permeability driven by sectarian, ethnic, or tribal identities, nonstate actors, and decades of misrule and poor governance. The ideology of Arab nationalism, which was once deployed for state-building purposes was now replaced by divisive sectarian ideological discourses and actors. In Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, local and transnational NSAs torpedoed state institutions, rendered territorial borders meaningless, and played an instrumental role in the proxy regional wars unleashed after the popular uprisings.

What are the implications of the rise of armed, sectarian, local or transnational, nonstate actors operating in the context of a new kind of transnational permeability on what have always been or recently become, as a result of the overlapping domestic and geopolitical battles unleashed by the popular uprisings, weak Arab states? Two broad patterns may be outlined despite the dizzying array of NSAs operating across the Arab world, and their different contexts.

The rise of armed NSAs as a result of the collapse of the once centralized, unitary, authoritarian Arab state among “specific groups endowed with specific understandings of their histories,” who consider themselves “heirs of state-building projects forsaken during the 20th century,”[9] is bound to intensify demands for greater decentralization and autonomy along ethnic or tribal lines. This is especially true of the Kurds in northeast and northern Syria but also in northern Iraq, the Cyrenaic separatists in eastern Libya, and the secessionist al-Hirak al-Janubi in southern Yemen. Regional autonomy may also be the only way to accommodate Houthi socioeconomic and political demands in northern Yemen once a semblance of order is restored. Yemen is in fact a case on its own where who is the state actor and who is the NSA is in perpetual flux. This is most evident in the “patchwork security” scheme that governs relations between remnants of the former regular armed forces and the country’s old and new NSAs affiliated with external patrons: On one hand, “remnants of the former regular armed forces confer legitimacy on non-state militias, turning them into regular security actors … on the other hand, segments of the former official armed forces act as auxiliary forces of the militias.”[10]

Equally important is the effect of non-regionally concentrated armed, sectarian, NSAs on the future of weak Arab states. Here we have a complicated spectrum of subtypes, from Hizbullah in Lebanon, the variety of NSAs gathered in the not so ideologically homogenous Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq, to the relation between formal military structures and informal but pro-regime militias in Syria.

In the case of Hizbullah, a local and transnational armed, sectarian NSA occupies simultaneously a paradoxical place both in society and in the state, but also in the region’s multiple security dilemmas. This has created what Aram Nerguizian labels a situation of “military dualism” between Hizbullah and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), one that may develop in the future into a contest over the country’s national security policies – as was the case during the LAF’s 2017 Fajr al-Jurud (Dawn of the Hills) military operation against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).[11] Moreover, the borders between the Hizbullah-in-society and the Hizbullah-in-the-state are increasingly becoming blurred. As Hizbullah redeploys away from the Syrian battlefield, it will increasingly look to the state, both as resources and bureaucratic positions, to maintain its political economic obligations towards its sectarian constituency. This entails denser interactions with state institutions, a prospect that, in turn, exposes Lebanon to potential sanctions from the US. But in this case the battle over political mobilization is largely settled along sectarian lines. Perhaps Lebanon is the context where these dynamics are most visible because confessional and sectarian identities were institutionalized at the founding of the state. The political economy of sectarianism has produced a concomitant ideological hegemony.[12]

This is not the case in Iraq, however. For what the recent Basra protests suggest is that the battle over sectarian or socioeconomic modes of political representation, and hence what kind of state will emerge, has not been settled yet.[13] If those championing strictly and only sectarian or ethnic modes of political mobilization – a posse that includes Iran, the US, almost all of the post-invasion sectarian Shi‘a and Sunni political elite, plus the Kurdish political parties, in opposition to the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), the labor unions, and those dispossessed in Iraq’s southern provinces but mobilized by socioeconomic rather than sectarian interests – manage to impose their ideological hegemony over Iraqi society,[14] then Iraq’s NSAs will in due course follow Hizbullah’s model, colonizing the state from below, capturing its institutions and resources, and deploying them to establish their ideological hegemony and clientelist political economic obligations. In this case Iraq’s future will look increasingly like Lebanon’s present. But if sectarian identities fail to assume a monopoly over political representation, then the state in Iraq will be contested along a mix of interest-based and identity-based dynamics. Muqtada al-Sadr is an exceptional case in this regard: mobilizing the dispossessed along both sectarian and national/socioeconomic lines for narrow political purposes.[15]

In fact, the process of capturing the state and its institutions along sectarian and ethnic modes of mobilization has progressed substantially in Iraq. Many state institutions have been captured by single sectarian militias – as in Bader Organization’s capture of the Ministry of Interior, to say nothing of the Kurdish peshmerga’s control in the north of the country. Moreover, Executive Order 91 of February 2016 rendered the institutionalization of the PMUs legal, thus incorporating them into the formal structures of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). In some places this has subordinated the PMUs to the ISF’s chain of command, but in others this has proved impossible, with disastrous implications to inter-sectarian relations.[16] Moreover, the Fateh Coalition gathering 18 of the PMUs’ 70 NSAs, led by Hadi al-Ameri’s Bader Organization and Qais al-Khazali’s ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, like Hizbullah in Lebanon, now sits both outside and inside state institutions with its deep clientelist networks and 47 parliamentary seats captured in the 2018 elections, in addition to its transnational geopolitical reach. The result is PMU capture of significant sections of the Iraqi state, the blurring of the lines between formal and informal state actors, and a much more complicated military and security pluralism than that found in Lebanon.

Transnational and local NSAs in Syria have similarly played an instrumental role in the “hollowing out” of state institutions. The overlapping domestic and geopolitical war over Syria transformed what was once a “shadow state” run by multiple security agencies into a “transactional state” that relies on transactional relations with local or proxy NSAs, but also with other actors embedded in state institutions possessing their own narrow interests, to survive and provide services to the population.[17] The organic connection between the regime’s formal force structure and the pro-regime informal sectarian militias that emerged during the war suggests that even if the former were able to absorb the latter, paramilitary commanders will not lose their wartime power.[18] This is bound to expose state institutions to postwar clientelist dynamics and predatory behavior.

What these varied interactions between the state and armed, sectarian NSAs increasingly reflect is “the fraying of the façade of the state system”[19] in the Arab world, to quote Lisa Anderson’s poignant formulation. Weak Arab states are increasingly beleaguered by NSAs operating both domestically and transnationally, challenging state authority both vertically and horizontally. They want the state’s resources and institutions, and its cover from an increasingly hostile international order – as, for example, in the form of the 2017 US Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act (HIFPAA) that targets foreign individuals and companies who voluntarily offer financial, material or technological support to Hizbullah and its subsidiaries,[20] but not its monopoly over the use of legitimate force, its institutional capabilities, or borders. This ultimately produces a state that neither can nor wants to act as a state.[21] It is rather an archipelago of clientelist interests organized around largely identity-based loyalties and dotted by NSAs operating in the context of hybridized security structures where, in a situation of state collapse and economic crisis, “incumbent political elites have been unable to block the emergence of informal security providers and other non-state armed actors, or else actively encouraged their rise in order to outsource the burden of security to them.”[22] Moreover, many same-sect NSAs, but especially Hizbullah and ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, are linked by transnational geopolitical obligations that may render the spill-over effects of any future regional conflict impossible to contain. This combination of frayed Arab states, armed NSAs operating locally and in proxy capacity, and a new form of crude sectarian ideological permeability is the ideal combustible mix for a protracted period of regional instability and socioeconomic stagnation with disastrous consequences but no end in sight.


[1] This memo is part of a larger on-going “Sectarianism, Proxies and De-Sectarianisation Project” (SEPAD), at:

[1] Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds., Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[2] Bassel F. Salloukh, “Overlapping Contests and Middle East International Relations: The Return of the Weak Arab State,” PS: Political Science and Politics 50 (2017): 660–63.

[3] Marc Lynch, “The New Arab Order: Power and Violence in Today’s Middle East,” Foreign Affairs 97, 5, (September/October 2018): 118.

[4] Malcolm H. Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 third edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

[5] Rex Brynen, “Palestine and the Arab State System: Permeability, State Consolidation and the Intifada,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 24 (1991): 595–621.

[6] Walid Khalidi, “Thinking the Unthinkable: A Sovereign Palestinian State,” Foreign Affairs 56, 4, (Jul1978): 695–714.

[7] Rex Brynen, “Permeability Revisited: Reflections on the Regional Repercussions of the al-Aqsa Intifada,” in Persistent Permeability? Regionalism, Localism, and Globalization in the Middle East, ed. Bassel F. Salloukh and Rex Brynen (London: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004), 125–48; and Bassel F. Salloukh, “The Arab World after the Popular Uprisings: A Spirit Restored?” in Transitional Justice and the Arab Spring, ed. Kirsten Fisher and Robert Stewart (London: Routledge, 2014), 17–35.

[8] Steven Heydemann, “After the Earthquake: Economic Governance and Mass Politics in the Middle East,” Critique International 61 (2013/4): 69.

[9] Ariel I. Ahram, “On the Making and Unmaking of Arab States,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 50, 2, (May 2018), 326 and 324 respectively.

[10] Eleonora Ardemagni, “Patchwork Security: The New Face of Yemen’s Hybridity,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 30 October 2018, at:

[11] Aram Nerguizian, “The Lebanese Armed Forces and Hezbollah: Military Dualism in Post-War Lebanon,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 30 October 2018, at:

[12] Bassel F. Salloukh, Rabie Barakat, Jinan S. Al-Habbal, Lara W. Khattab, and Shoghig Mikaelian, The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (London: Pluto Press, 2015).

[13] Toby Dodge, “Tracing the Rise of Sectarianism in Iraq after 2003,” LSE Blogs, 10 September 2018, at:; and Harith Hassan, “The Basra Exception,” Diwan, Carnegie Middle East Center, 19 September 2018, at:

[14] Partly based on comments made by Toby Dodge at the “Sectarianism, Proxies and De-Sectarianisation Project” workshop, The Work Foundation, London, England, 11 September 2018.

[15] Wadood Hamad, “Al-Iraq: Hukumat al-Taba‘iya wa Sultat al-Milishyat al-Musalaha,” Jadaliyya, 21 October 2018, at:

[16] Riccardo Redaelli, “The Osmotic Path: The PMU and the Iraqi State,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 30 October 2018, at:

[17] Lina Khatib and Lina Sinjab, “Syria’s Transactional State: How the Conflict Changed the Syrian State’s Exercise of Power,” Chatham House, 10 October 2018, at:

[18] Kheder Khaddour, “Syria’s Troublesome Militias,” Diwan, Carnegie Middle East Center, 5 November 2018, at:

[19] Lisa Anderson, “The State and Its Competitors,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 50, 2, (May 2018), 321.

[20] Joyce Karam, “US Senate Unanimously Passes Two Bills Sanctioning Hezbollah,” The National, 12 October 2018, at:

[21] Bassel F. Salloukh, “Taif and the Lebanese State: The Political Economy of a Very Sectarian Public Sector,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics (2019): forthcoming.

[22] Yezid Sayigh, “Hybridizing Security: Armies, Militias and Constrained Sovereignty,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 30 October 2018, at: