North Africa, West Asia

The fragmentation of power in the Arab world

Maged Mandour

Many Arab countries seem to have reverted to a mode of power reminiscent of a pre-modern form of politics, where coercion is the sole source of power.

Maged Mandour
21 October 2015

Demotix/Mohamed Mostafa. All rights reserved.

Most commentators agree that the Arab revolt has failed to reach its stated goals of democratic reform and human dignity. Although some have fared better than others, autocratic regimes from Egypt to Bahrain are still going strong.

The Arab Spring has had significant and far-reaching impact on regional dynamics; from the destruction in Syria, to the rise of ISIS, the ascension of the military in Egypt, the marginalisation of the Palestinian cause, and state collapse in Libya and Yemen. However, one of the most important changes that has not been widely discussed is in the nature of power and how it is yielded in the Arab world.

In the Gramscian sense, the Arab polity has experienced a process of rapid hegemonic collapse where power, with its dual components of consent and coercion, has come to rely solely on coercion. The ruling classes, unable or in certain cases unwilling to solicit consent, have relied on undisguised force to maintain their positions.

In the words of Michael Foucault “power is tolerable only on condition that it masks a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to an ability to hide its own mechanisms”. Currently power in the Arab world has been demystified and its dynamics are all too clear. This has far reaching societal implications that should not be underestimated.

Under the current power dynamic, the political elites have come to rely heavily on violence, with the aim of maintenaining the status quo without making concessions to competing social groups, and using the state security apparatus to seek retribution from their opponents. This use of excessive violence has had the—some might say unexpected—effect of weakening the monopoly of the centre on the means of coercion, and the dispersion of elite power to the periphery. It has also led to the rise of competing elites, who have used the power vacuum left by weakening states to, in extreme cases, carve out their own parallel quasi-state structures.

The clearest example of this process is in Iraq, where the regime’s sectarian policies—prior to the rise of ISIS—severely restricted the support base of the state to mainly Shia factions in the south of the country. This was coupled with the sectarianisation of the Iraqi military, which was used as a tool for internal repression and the elimination of competing Sunni elites. This turned the Iraqi military into a corrupt and fragile fighting force that rapidly collapsed with the rise of ISIS.

This collapse meant that the Iraqi state lost its monopoly on the means of violence. It had to rely on militias led by the Badr brigades, which led to further fragmentation of power and the devolution of power from the centre to the periphery—the militias creating a parallel power structure that is competing with the state.

Thus, the refusal of the state to pacify the Sunni elites has not only led to the rise of ISIS, but also to the rise of the Shia militias as competing power centres within the Iraqi polity. This power struggle and weakness has resulted in Iran taking the opportunity to increase its influence on Iraq.

Even in countries where the changes were not that obvious, the devolution of power from the centre to the periphery is noticeable. Egypt is another good example. Under the presidency of Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the regime has proceeded to centralise power in a manner that appears to be Sultanistic. However, upon deeper examination, the push for centralisation by the military seems to have had the opposite effect and power has moved to the periphery, with competion between a number of both civilian and military elites. As argued elsewhere, this includes the struggle between the military, Mubarak era elites, and different coercive institutions within the state.         

Now the trend in the Arab World, despite the best efforts of Arab regimes, is towards the decentralisation of power and the dispersal of the means of coercion as competing groups arise, challenging the regime’s monopoly on the use of violence and state power. This is not limited to the opposition; it extends to the elites themselves. 

The power struggle between different elite groups has led to the fragmentation of the Arab ruling classes and a weakening of the figurehead of the state. Another effect, which comes hand in hand with the erosion of the power centre, is a decrease in the state’s ability to control and survey its population. This has lead to the use of crude violence, which is both excessive and ineffective—at least in the long term.

For example, the inability of the Syrian regime to control its population has led it to the use of excessive violence, which has had the following consequences: First, it has fueled rather than repressed the revolt, which in the end turned into a brutal civil war. Second, it increased the reliance of the regime on militias and outside powers, leading to greater devolution of power and essentially turning the Syrian regime into an empty shell with restricted autonomy.

Interestingly enough, the loss of power at the centre and the use of crude, undifferentiated violence has pushed opposition groups not only to radicalisation, but to the adoption of similar techniques in order to try and fill the power vacuum left by the state.

This means the Arab polity has been subjected to a cycle of violence and counter-violence, which in the end has led to greater fragmentation and disarray. The clearest example is the case of Libya, where decades of Gaddafi rule left the state hollow, nothing more than a shell. The state collapsed and a number of militias, all violently struggling for control, appeared. Similar scenarios have occurred in countries like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. 

Based on this, one could argue that the Gramiscian view of power as both physical and intellectual hegemony, developed within the context of capitalism in 20th century Italy, does not apply to the 21st century Arab world.

Nor does Foucault's conception of the microstructures of powers, where power is perceived as a penetrating force disseminating from social institutions through surveillance and control. Both theories were developed within the confines of advanced, western, capitalist polities.

Currently, the Arab world seems to have reverted to a mode of power based neither on consent nor on the control of power by the state. Instead, the nature of power in the Arab World has become fragmented, relying on physical repression and crude violence, reverting to a form of power reminiscent of a pre-modern form of politics where coercion is the sole source of power.

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