Introduction: Challenges to the Middle East North Africa Inclusionary State

The challenges to inclusionary states in the MENA region are daunting indeed. Fiercely authoritarian states prioritize retaining power over building a more legitimate, durable or inclusive order. The reality or threat of political violence hangs over fragmented arenas, with states themselves up for grabs and in some cases deeply interpenetrated with armed militias and transnational actors. Protest movements repeatedly attempt to force meaningful reforms on to recalcitrant political elites, to little avail. In September 2019, POMEPS and the Lebanese American University (LAU) brought together a diverse, interdisciplinary group of scholars to discuss the challenges to building more inclusive orders under these conditions. The discussions revolved around several key issues.

First, how should we revise our theoretical understanding of the state when it is so thoroughly penetrated by clientalist networks, armed groups, financial predators, or sectarian actors? Which ‘state’ are we talking about when we examine post-uprising dynamics in societies divided along sectarian, ethnic, or tribal and regional lines? How is this state imbricated in society, and when does it matter for the organization of political life? Against the Weberian ideal of the autonomous state possessing a monopoly over the use of legitimate violence, several authors drew on the sociological theories of Pierre Bourdieu to encourage thinking in terms of a contest over political fields which incorporated state and non-state actors engaged in a common political endeavor. On this view, then, the state is perceived as a field in which both national and transnational actors compete. In Iraq, for instance, Toby Dodge shows how Shi’a militias of various denominations exist both within and outside of the state. In Lebanon, Jeroen Gunning and Dima Smaira show that “militias” can at times provide greater security than the official agents of the state, throwing into question basic assumptions of the advantages of state orders. This means, they suggest, that “we need a framework that does not presuppose a Weberian state and can accommodate varying hybrid security assemblages involving state and nonstate actors, including linkages with transnational (non)state actors.”

Deploying such a field-based conception of the state allows for a coherent incorporation of non-state and transnational actors into the political-institutional field. It also underscores the agency of these actors against simplistic accounts that caricature them as mere proxies of external regional patrons. As Toby Dodge puts it in his contribution to this volume, “the outcome of this national and transnational struggle in Iraq is a political field whose boundaries have been broken and stretched well beyond the territory and population of the country itself.” Jeroen Gunning and Dima Smaira broaden this perspective to show how “state actors may have to compete or cooperate in complex hybrid assemblages with ANSAs (Armed Non-State Actors) who may be regarded as equally or more legitimate and more effective.” Or, as Stacey Philbrick Yadav puts it, “The nature and function of non-state actors was not constructed by these actors as conceptually autonomous from the state but rather as intimately tied to its past and future performance of key functions.” Thus, non-state actors which look functionally similar on the surface in fact have very different relations with the state and make very different demands through their political action. These dynamics link state and non-state actors in different but recursive ways.

This reconceptualization helps to explain the perverse consequences of many well-intentioned policy proposals. In the area of security sector reform, for instance, Dodge notes that “policy prescriptions that have been shaped by this Weberian model, in an attempt to secure security sector reform or post-conflict demobilization, disarmament and reintegration, have found their approach at odds with empirical reality and have hence failed to realise their goals.” Postwar Lebanon was an early example of dynamics now underway in Iraq. Morten Valbjorn shows in his essay how “a shared ambition of challenging sectarianism can translate into very different kinds of top-down and bottom-up strategies, some of which are burdened with their own problems or dilemmas, raising the question whether the cure is always better than the disease.” There are important practical lessons in his essay to groups in Lebanon and Iraq challenging sectarianism, and the inevitable limits of these challenges. Mariam Salehi, in her essay, shows how the pursuit of transitional justice can produce unintended negative consequences even as the goals are widely embraced. Even reconciliation, a process now assumed standard in post-transition or postwar contexts, is deployed differently in different political contexts.

The interaction of state and non-state actors can be seen well beyond the most obvious area of armed militias. As Makram Ouaiss argues, the process of armed conflict can shape the very nature of civil society and its ability to effect change. Reflecting on Lebanon’s civil war, he observes that “where the violence drives a mass exodus of moderate educated elites, who used to or could play a tempering role in a post-conflict environment, their departure leaves the landscape to the more militant or embattled as well as powerless members of society further delaying the ability of civil society to recruit active and influential members of society.” Civil society, then, cannot be considered separately from the state, when they are in fact both constituent parts of a political field not defined by the exclusive authority of state actors. Nor can these be separated from the political economy within which both are embedded. As Ala’a Shehabi demonstrates in Lebanon, the rentier and clientalist patterns of economic policy both depend upon and reinforce the sectarian status quo in ways which make purely political solutions difficult to succeed, let alone those that emerge from civil society.

These interactions across the political field crossing state and society have a particular resonance in the domain of sectarianism and attempts at de-sectarianization. Deploying the political philosophy of Giorgio Agamben, Simon Mabon conceputalizes this dynamic in terms of biopolitics, using the case of Bahrain to show how “biopolitical machinery designed to regulate life and prevent the emergence of cross-sectarian unity.. targets Shi’a groups using all aspects of sovereign power.” De-sectarianization is unlikely where the cultivation of sect-based difference is a key component of sovereign power, given that cross sectarian co-operation is typically seen as “the biggest internal threat to regime survival.” Valbjorn similarly warns that calls to reduce the salience of sectarianism must account for how that might threaten the power and interests which sectarianism reinforces, and produce destructive effects far from the intentions of its advocates.

Taken together, then, this collection of essays points towards novel ways of reconceptualizing state and non-state actors in today’s Middle East, across different fields and levels. “Thinking with Bourdieu’s toolbox,” as Dodge puts it, opens up an approach to the political field in which state militaries and non-state militias compete for similar modes of legitimation, and in which civil society, sectarian actors and the state evolve together but recursively. Such an approach might offer better prospects for overcoming the repeated failures of policy proposals for postwar state-building, security sector reform, disarmament of militias, transitional justice, reconciliation, economic reforms, and desectarianization.

Marc Lynch, POMEPS and George Washington University
Bassel Salloukh, Lebanese American University
February 2020