Instability in the MENA Region: Armed Conflicts & the Erosion of the State

Written by | Monday, November 26th, 2018

The 2011 uprisings deeply affected the political order in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The popular protests directly challenged incumbent regimes’ authority and legitimacy and in turn triggered what can be characterized as a crisis of the state itself. While in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt state institutions, as well as the very idea of the nation-state, have proven resilient in the face of the sudden disruption of power relations, this has not been the case in Syria, Libya or Yemen, where the uprisings rapidly became militarized and resulted in armed conflicts with foreign military intervention.


The crisis of the state post-2011 has to do with the nature and capacity of MENA states prior to the uprisings, but also with the way power has been exercised. Rather than representing “rational bureaucracy” that was external to society, state institutions were closely integrated with regimes as instruments of (sometimes arbitrary) control and patronage. This was the case in Syria, where the Assad family captured state institutions through strong patron-client relations, fierce repression by the security apparatus and eventually crony capitalism.


Similarly, in Yemen, security services played a major role in maintaining President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, in a system built on patronage networks to ensure the cooperation of a society in which kinship, tribal and regional identities continued to be important. In Libya, on the other hand, Muammar Gaddafi pursued a policy that destroyed rather than captured many of the institutions inherited from the previous era and replaced them with disparate structures, which served to concentrate power in his hands.


Nevertheless, the need to ensure revenues from the oil industry meant that the main economic and financial institutions, the National Oil Company (NOC) and the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), remained centralized and functioned with a higher level of administrative capacity. In these three countries, the transformation of the initially peaceful 2011 uprisings into armed conflicts pitting pro- and anti-regime forces against each other has further weakened the institutions of the state and led to extreme power fragmentation – especially in the security sphere; the collapse of formal political institutions and increased influence of armed actors over political processes; and the constitution of new power networks triggered by war economy dynamics.


Throughout the region, and in a particularly acute way in the cases under consideration here, the economy and the transformations it has undergone amid warfare (and post-2003 reconstruction efforts in the case of Iraq) have had a profound impact on power arrangements within state structures and between the states and other components of society. Corruption and the plundering of state resources, and the blurring of the line between public and private, legal and illegal activities, have seriously affected the overall performance of the economy as well as the quality of services delivered to the people.


This has further challenged the legitimacy of the states and of their representatives in public opinion. Key trends in the security spheres of the cases under consideration indicate that the main challenges to policymakers in the coming period will stem from power imbalances between political and security actors, the difficulties of promoting cohesion in contexts of significant foreign influence and discrimination towards certain groups, as well as the building of actual security capabilities. The examples of Iraq and Libya show that even where armed conflicts have stalled, it has so far been impossible to (re)constitute forces that are capable, representative, cohesive and willing to be subordinated to a civilian administration.


‚Armed Conflicts and the Erosion of the State: the Cases of Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria‘ – Working Paper by Virginie Collombier (editor), Maria-Louise Clausen, Hiba Hassan, Helle Malmvig, Jan Pêt Khorto – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.

(The Working Paper can be downloaded here)


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