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Political (In)Security in the Middle East

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This is an advance preview from Regional Security in the Middle East: Sectors, Variables and Issues, forthcoming soon.

It has been argued (Holsti 1996 & 1991) that war in the post-Cold War era has different sources and takes on significantly different characteristics than previous wars. It has also become a common belief that the majority of contemporary wars are less a problem of the relations between states than a problem within states (Melander 1999). Although military considerations remain at the core of states’ security policies, it has been recognised that threats of non-military nature coming from the internal environment of the state could have a significant impact on the security of the state. Yet, domestic strife may lead to regional and international upheaval and invite foreign political and military intervention. The recent Arab uprisings have demonstrated that one of the main sources of regional instability in the Middle East stems from regional states’ domestic environments, while the Syrian conflict clearly shows how civil wars may lead to regional and international instability and invite foreign intervention.

Civil war, nevertheless, is not chronic in all states. It has been suggested (Buzan 1991) that the socio-political cohesion of states is the primary cause of domestic insecurity and that states that are weak in terms of their socio-political cohesion are the primary locale of present and future wars. The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate Buzan’s thesis by focusing on state-society relations in the Middle East. In doing so, the chapter is divided into four sections. The first section draws on the state-society literature to provide the basis for understanding the nature of domestic insecurity facing Middle Eastern states. The second section focuses on the weak/strong state/power concept as a way to enrich our understanding of the Middle East’s domestic security problematique. Finally, the last two sections focus on the cases of Iraq and the Arab Spring to demonstrate the relevance of the concept of ‘weak’ state to Middle East security.

The State-Society Relationship

The state-society literature emphasises the domestic realm of the state. This literature distinguishes between state and society and attempts to understand how they interact (Halliday 1988; Migdal 1988). In other words, state and society are viewed as separate entities while the state is understood mainly in politico-institutional terms. In this view, the state is equated with government and hence state security coincides with the security of the regime. Such identification has important ramifications for international relations. For example, according to the state-society approach, there was a difference between the security of the territory of Iraq and its citizens (society), and that of the security of Saddam Hussein and his regime. Hence, national security differs from state/regime security.

The state-society relationship can take three forms: first, state and society are both strong; second, the state is weak but the society is strong; and third, the state is strong but the society is weak. Because strong states which also have strong societies rarely, if ever, face insecurity due to their socio-political cohesion, this paper will focus on the latter two forms of state-society relationship.

Weak States and Strong Societies

Discussing conflict and underdevelopment in the Third World, Joe Migdal (1988, 19) defines the state as:

an organisation, composed of numerous agencies led and coordinated by the state’s leadership that has the ability or authority to make and implement the binding rules for all the people as well as the parameters of rule making for other social organisations in a given territory, using force if necessary to have its way.

According to Migdal, levels of state/social control are reflected in three indicators: compliance, participation, and legitimation.

The state’s struggle for social control is characterised by conflict between state leaders (who seek to mobilise people and resources and impose a single set of rules) and other social organisations applying different rules in parts of the society. The distribution of social control in society that emerges from this conflict (between societies and states) is the main determinant of whether states become strong or weak.

Strong states are able to guide the rules of society without threatening opponents. Here, the ‘rightness of a state’s having high capabilities to extract, penetrate, regulate and appropriate’ the rules of society is unchallenged (Migdal 1988, 20). In other words, a strong state possesses the legitimate authority that provides the official rules that people within the borders must follow. Weak states, on the other hand, are unable to mobilise the population for political purposes and there is often a fragmentation of social control (Migdal 1988, 228). Thus, weak states often employ coercion and various ‘dirty tricks’ to gain control. Midgal’s point is that the stronger the state, the stronger will be its institutional penetration.

For Migdal, the main problem in the Third World is that the state is weak and the regimes are confronted by ‘the rulers’ dilemma’, namely state leaders can only achieve political mobilisation when they have proffered viable strategies of survival to the populace. This requires an elaborate set of institutions. However, by creating strong state agencies, state leaders risk creating powerful sub-organisations, which may become potential power centres they cannot control. Lack of or fragmented social control, the ‘rulers’ dilemma’, and the difficulties of political mobilisation are all conditions that, according to Migdal, weaken the state. Therefore, the political prescription is to make the state stronger.

Strong States and Weak Societies

In contrast to Migdal’s thesis, it has been argued (Muslu 2013) that the lack of democracy in the Middle East should be attributed to the existence of strong states and weak societies, rather than the other way around. In other words, it is due to the existence of a strong and centralised state and the simultaneous lack of or weak presence of an autonomous and independent civil society that is the most significant limiting factor to democracy in the Middle East (Abootalebi 1998). According to Fatih Muslu (2013, 3) state control over its citizens’ behaviours via control of jobs, benefits, and modernisation processes has made democratic, political activism difficult to occur in the Middle East. Establishing a relationship of dependency by controlling socio-economic structure and creating an economic class highly dependent on the state for employment, financing and protection is one of the key factors perpetuating state power in the Middle East (Sivan 1997). This tendency, in conjunction with the clientelistic nature of Middle Eastern political systems reinforces authoritarian values (Ciftci 2010, 1145). Hence, in the absence of autonomous counter mechanisms in place to balance their power, Middle Eastern states have been too powerful in relation to their societies. As Eva Bellin (2004) argues, the primary factor contributing to the robustness of authoritarianism in the Middle East can be determined by the strength of the state and its capacity to maintain a monopoly on the means of coercion.

According to Muslu (2013, 10), the distribution of economic capabilities is the main determinant of social and political life in the Middle East. In fact, states are in control of every domain ranging from the economic to the cultural field. Even the rich classes lack independence from the control of the central state. Against strong and centralised bureaucracies, there is no aristocracy or urbanised bourgeoisie class (Muslu 2013, 9). In Middle Eastern societies, oil revenues, the presence of strong and expanded militaries, the increasing number of state bureaucrats, weak political oppositions, and foreign military and financial support have increased state capabilities and strength over society (Abootalebi 1998, 8). The disproportionate growth in state capabilities has expanded the state’s sphere of influence.

Middle Eastern societies have most certainly witnessed transformative developments but these developments were initiated by populist regimes, which launched intensive industrialisation and modernisation processes and aimed to reinforce their control and legitimacy by instituting and expanding bureaucracy (Ayubi 1990). This massive state-led capitalism penetrated into all segments of society and most urban classes and organisations became materially tied to the state and its patronage (Muslu 2013, 11). Existing social and economic classes have been demolished via successive land reforms, with the development of a new urban class who owes their economic status and prestige to the state (Sullivan 1992, 27–28; Kamrawa and Mora 1998, 895–6). While these ongoing economic and political developments in the region have enhanced the urban classes, tribal and other traditional social organisations have lost their social and political importance (Kienle 2011, 146). In most Middle Eastern countries, civil society organisations have had to deal with the various political and economic restrictions that have diminished their profound impact.

The problem with the above analysis is that strength is understood in terms of the state’s capacity to control its society and minimise or even eliminate societal expression. This implies that if resistance breaks out, then the state has not been so strong after all. Thus, the Arab Spring demonstrated the inability of the Middle Eastern state to manage its society and its weakness in terms of its socio-political cohesion. In other words, the more oppressive the state has been, the more anger created among its populace. Therefore, it was a matter of time before this anger would come out in the form of rebellion and resistance.

Weak/Strong States Versus Weak/Strong Powers

Strength as a state neither depends on, nor correlates with power. Hence, a distinction should be drawn between ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ states, on the one hand, and ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ powers, on the other. The notion of a ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ state refers to a country’s degree of socio-political cohesion (Buzan 1991, 97), while the notion of ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ power refers to the traditional distinction among states in respect of their military and economic capabilities (Handel 1981; Morgenthau 1973; Knorr 1975). Whether a state is weak or strong in terms of its socio-political cohesion has thus little to do with whether it is as weak or strong as a power. Of course, strong states can also be strong powers, such as Israel. On the other hand, strong states can be weak powers, like Egypt, while weak states can be quite strong powers, like Turkey and Iran. As the case of the Soviet Union indicates, even major powers could have serious weaknesses as states. Thus, they are obliged to maintain extensive internal security establishments. The main difference between weak and strong states is the low/high degree of legitimacy facing their governments.

Although no single indicator adequately defines the difference between weak and strong states, there are certain conditions which are expected to be found in weak ones (Buzan 1991, p. 100). First, weak states usually experience high levels of political violence or they are confronted with an ever-existing potential for violence. Second, they are characterised by a significant degree of police control over their citizens. Third, they face major political conflict over which ideology will be used to organise the state (e.g. secularism vs. Islamism or nationalism vs. pan-Arabism). Fourth, weak states lack coherent national identity, or they experience the presence of contending national identities within their territories (e.g. the Kurdish factor in Turkey and Iraq). Fifth, weak states lack a clear and observed hierarchy of political authority. Finally, they experience a high degree of state control over the media.

Within international anarchy, security issues are conditioned not only by the structure of the international system and the interaction of units (Waltz 1979; Jarvis 1989, 281) but also by the domestic characteristics of states (Buzan 1991, 37). In this way, the international and domestic realms of the state are not only of equal importance but, most importantly, they are interrelated. Consequently, security analysis requires a comprehensive definition of the state that binds territory, government, and society together and which links the internal and systemic perspectives mentioned above. Indeed, a third body of thought has attempted to do so by placing state and system into a mutually constitutive relationship (Buzan, Little and Jones 1993). In this way, the state is understood in terms of its territorial, political, and societal nexus and its security is analysed with reference to its three basic components: its idea, its physical base, and its institutional expression (Buzan 1991, 69–96).

The Idea of the State

By employing the idea of the state, one accepts the fact that the state exists primarily on the socio-political rather than on the physical plane. If the........

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