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For many centuries, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been a theatre that foreign powers have sought to control and gain influence in. In the twentieth century, with British and French attempts to destroy the Ottoman empire, the 1918 Sykes-Picot agreement saw these powers seek to divide the region into their respective spheres of influence. The region’s importance to foreign powers increased as oil became the primary energy source over coal, since the MENA region possessed some of the world’s largest oil reserves.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Cold War, in which the USA and the Soviet Union fought for ideological and global superiority and employed proxy states and forces in various parts of the world, saw these powers and their allies battle for the support of MENA states and non-state actors in attempts to extend their influence over a critical geostrategic region and to exert control over energy resources. Western powers such as the USA and Britain supported Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, while Arab republican states such as Egypt and Syria were, in the main, supported by the Soviet Union. Two powerful non-Arab states in the region, Iran and Turkey, were both in the western camp for much of the Cold War era.
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 added a new dimension to foreign intervention as a number of western powers sought to bolster and protect the new entity and ensure the easy flow of Jewish immigrants to it. Israel effectively became the bulwark of western interests in the MENA region.
Despite the end of the Cold War in 1989-1990, the region’s geostrategic significance and oil resources ensured that it would remain the target of various forms of intrigue and intervention. The discovery of large gas reserves gave even more reason to foreign powers to jostle to win influence. More recently, emerging powers, such as India and China, have also sought to access the resources in the MENA region and exert influence over state and non-state actors there. For China, the region is also critical in its belt and road initiative, which aims to tether China’s growth to an opening up of trade routes and markets with Middle East countries.
In the past decade, the involvement of a number of foreign powers in the region has been massively militarised in some countries. The shock of the MENA uprisings in 2010-2011 persuaded many foreign actors to increase their role in the region. Indeed, Syria and Libya serve as good examples of the large number of foreign actors intervening, and of the scope and scale of their interventions. The USA, Russia, a number of European states, as well as non-state military outfits from these countries have been active in military training, strategic planning and advice, on-the-ground military activity, and air attacks that have left thousands of citizens of MENA countries dead or injured. Many of these countries are also key suppliers of weapons to state and non-state actors. The rise of the Islamic State group provided a further excuse to foreign powers who wanted to maintain a presence in the region, and it became the cited reason for the increased military activity of Russia and the USA, as well as other foreign powers.
In many instances in the region, the influence and interventions of these foreign states have often led to the suppression of the popular will, facilitated the violent clampdown on dissent, and generally empowered elites against the citizenry – often with serious implications for the violations of human rights.
In the past decade, the foreign role in the MENA region has taken new and different forms, from seeking to influence youth activists through funding to largescale military intervention. These interventions have also played a role in reconfiguring political alliances and axes in the region. While current politics in the region are extremely fluid, this reconfiguration could produce developments that upset the manner in which state-to-state relations have been conducted within the region in the past half a century, and could also see radical changes in which external states exercise what influence on which state and non-state actors in the region. Will the US role continue along the same trajectory as it had been in the past? Is Russia poised to play a much larger role and develop its own set of MENA proxies and allies? How will fluctuating Turkey-USA relations affect the role of NATO in the region? Will Turkey’s and Iran’s mostly warm relations with Russia result in a new regional-foreign bloc? How will the Saudi-Israeli-American alliance play out in future and how will it affect the future of the Palestinian struggle? These and numerous other such questions are relevant in any discussion on the role of foreign actors in the MENA region.
The above themes and questions will be interrogated at a two-day conference organised by the Afro-Middle East Centre. Academics and experts from the region and globally will discuss these issues and assess the region’s future trajectory.
Conference Concept Note
Between society and state: (r)Evolution of non-state actors in the MENA region
Since the beginning of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that began in 2010, there has been a sustained focus on the role of non-state actors in the region, both armed groups as well as various civil society actors. As the uprisings unfolded, faltered, were undermined, or succeeded (in one case, at least), this focus remained constant. These developments also saw an interesting interplay between civil society and ‘political society’.
The theorisation of civil society is not uncontested. While the dominant discourse today regards civil society as a collection of voluntary organisations and NGOs (the ‘associational’ view) operating outside the state and providing a kind of protection for citizens against the state, Gramsci, for example, views civil society as part of the state or as a protective barrier for the state. But the current mainstream understanding is of civil society as mediating between the state and the individual, engendering democratic culture within the population, and, even, as a sector to which the state might abdicate its service provision responsibilities. The dominant romantic notion of what civil society organisations are also is tenuous, with some critics contending that they are often non-democratic, hierarchical structures that are sometimes vulnerable to state co-option, to use them to repress or marginalise radical ideas, and to weaken opposition to government policy. Shades of these different meanings present themselves in the MENA region.
In general, there is a hesitance to include armed non-state actors as part of civil society. This is partly due to the fact that the current dominant understanding of civil society is of societas civilis, a realm of voluntary and non-violent organisations. This notion is often used by governments to forestall efforts at transformation. In a broader sense, however, armed non-state actors might be regarded as part of civil society, depending on their objectives, methodologies, etc.
As a whole, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region hosts thousands of non-state actors, spanning various forms of civil society and including armed actors. Such groups have proliferated since the beginning of the MENA uprisings at the end of 2010, and include numerous foreign and international civil society groups, as well as foreign involvement in armed groups. In many states that are more tolerant to civil society actors, indigenous civil society actors exist alongside foreign actors and armed groups. Because of state repression, however, some states had no civil society groups to speak of before 2010. In some of these, such as Tunisia, civil society burgeoned after the uprisings. In others, such as Libya, the civil society vacuum that had existed was filled by a proliferation of armed militias.
In some states in the region, civil society groups exist alongside armed non-state actors such as Hamas and Hizbullah, in Palestine and Lebanon respectively. In many cases, such groups are led by political parties which play roles in governance.
Since the 2010-11 MENA uprisings, the focus on civil society organisations in the region has intensified, especially since many foreign powers believed that these alone inspired the uprisings and thus sought to co-opt them, and they were, simultaneously, romanticised and demonised. Most governments in the region, on the other hand, sought to suppress groups they perceived as opposing their dictatorial control. Often, organisations that sought to remain independent of foreign machinations as well as domestic cooption by authoritarian regimes, found themselves in precarious positions. In addition, the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya forced the space available for civil society action to shrink, while increasing the desperate need for their existence.
The development of civil society in the MENA region occurred in four main phases. The first was before western colonisation, with the growth of religious organisations, guilds, and service organisations over centuries. Phase two, during the colonial era, saw the establishment of institutions such as trade unions and political movements, alongside popular demands for independence. The third and post-independence phase occurred between the 1960s and 1990s, when new regimes instrumentalised civil society organisations, especially those dealing with service provision, to temper citizens’ need for political participation. The last phase, from the mid-1990s, was enhanced by technological advances, and saw groups in different MENA countries inspired by international ideas of democracy and seeking to leverage international networks to advocate for such rights.
By the late 2000s, thousands of civil society organisations existed in the region, including local chapters of international NGOs, though in a few countries organisations not affiliated to the respective regimes were proscribed.
As the uprisings unfolded in 2011, certain foreign governments sought to use civil society organisations as a means of securing their interests in the affected countries and in the MENA region. Generous funding was made available, as was training in media and other skills. At the same time, civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya resulting in these states not able adequately to provide for their citizenry, thus increasing the need for CSOs to assist.
These themes will be interrogated in 2018 international conference of the Afro-Middle East Centre, which will bring together and roleplayers from the MENA region and outside it. The roles and future of civil society groups and other non-state actors will be debated with a view to understand the trajectory of societies in the region.
Tuesday, 28 August 2018
Opening Session: 09:00- 10:00
Opening speeches: Zane Dangor
10:00 -10:30 Tea break
Session One: 10:30 – 12:00
Conceptualising civil society in the MENA region
Lunch: 12:00- 13:00
Session Two: 13:00- 14:30
The architecture: Non-state actors in political, military and social spaces
14:30 – 15:00 Tea break
Session Three: 15:00- 17:00
Manifestations of civil society in MENA
Wednesday, 29 August 2018
Session Four: 09:00-11:00
State and civil society in the MENA region
11:00 – 11:30 Tea break
Session Five: 11:30-13:30
Negative side of civil society in the MENA region
Lunch: 13:30 -14:30
Session Six: 14:30 -16:30:
Future of non-state groups in the MENA region and links beyond
Closing Session 16:30-17:00
The Afro-Middle East Centre and Al Sharq Forum will host their third annual security conference in Istanbul from 4 to 6 May 2018, to discuss the theme ‘New security arrangements for the MENA Region’. This is the third conference in this series that the two organisations will co-host in Istanbul, and will follow on the theme of last year’s event ‘Towards a New Security Architecture in the MENA Region’.
The 2017 conference, which assembled politicians, academics and policymakers from across the MENA region and beyond, established the need for new security arrangements in the Middle East and North Africa region; this year’s conference will deliberate on the objectives and details of such arrangements.
Once again, the conference will bring together experts, policymakers, and current and former state officials, as well as representatives of international agencies, to share their perspectives, provide new insights on current security issues, and suggest frameworks for new security arrangements
in the region. About ten South Africans will be among those invited to participate.
The conference will be divided into two parts. The first two days, 4 and 5 May, will feature closed roundtable discussions for selected participants operating under Chatham House rules. They are expected to delve into details about security (and insecurity) in the region, and deliberate on ways in which these might be addressed. On 6 May the conference will feature panel discussions that will be open to the public. See the programme and list of speakers for the 6 May open sessions.
The conference will take place at the Istanbul Marriott Hotel Sisli, located at Abide-i Hurriyat Cad. Sisli, Istanbul.
Date: 17 - 18 October 2017
Venue: Sheraton Hotel, Pretoria, 643 cnr Stanza Bopape
A century ago, the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, carving up parts of the Middle East between French, British and Russian spheres of influence in the event that the Ottoman Empire collapsed. That agreement led to the formation of a number of states – as preferred by the British and French, and had a profound influence in shaping what the region looks like today. The sponsors of Sykes-Picot imposed a nation state system that has not served the interests of the people of the region. Also a century ago, penned in November 1917, the Balfour Declaration promised the Zionist movement that the British supported the creation of a Jewish state on land whose residents were not consulted. A hundred years later, the state in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is in crisis, and substantial credit for that is due to these two documents.
Recently, the MENA uprisings that began in December 2010 have had a massive impact on the social contracts that previously governed state-society relations. While the gains of the uprisings (except in Tunisia) have largely been reversed, or have led to civil wars, some elites in the region sought to protect their states by quelling dissent through financial incentives; others intensified the repression that had already existed. While the region remains fragmented, most states find themselves floundering, and governance has effectively collapsed in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, there are also attempts to create new states, with varying degrees of recognition by the international community. Sections of the Kurdish population; the Palestinians; the Saharawi; and the Islamic State group have all either attempted to create states, or to get recognition to formalise states which do not exist in reality.
The concept of the state is a contested one in political theory and international relations, with various understandings of what criteria are sufficient for a state to exist, the role of recognition in the existence of states, what defines a state as a person in international law, the role of the economy (and capitalism) in defining a state, and so forth. Some of the contestation is ideological, and related to the limits on the roles and functions of a state. The role of the United Nations in defining and recognising states became crucial in the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, criteria are not always applied uniformly or universally, and, often, dominant states bend definitions and offer or withhold support on the basis of their interests rather than any theories or agreed-upon definitions.
Although still contested, perhaps two understandings of the state that have become most accepted are those of Max Weber and the 1933 Montevideo Convention. Weber argued that the state was a political organisation with a centralised government ruling over a given territory, and where that organisation holds a ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force’ in the enforcement of its order. The Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States defines a state as a space possessing a permanent population; a defined territory; and a government capable of maintaining effective control over the territory, and of conducting inter-state relations. The questions of whether and how these approaches apply to states in the Middle East before 2010 – and since – will form part of the deliberations at this conference.
Studies of state formation in the MENA region have, in the main, focused on two key elements: political economy and social factors. The former includes the provision of rents (especially through oil resources), and ‘strategic rents’ (financial and military aid by international powers), and the influence of these on state formation. Social factors refer, inter alia, to cultural aspects and the importance of tribal affiliations in inhibiting the formation of a national identity and in enabling the provision of services on a local basis. Both these elements have allowed most MENA regimes to shun accountability to their citizens; and the provision of services by the state has often been diverted toward wealth accumulation for elites.
By 2010, in many MENA states, national identity and domestic state formation was circumscribed. Rampant corruption and increased securitisation, coupled with the 2008 global economic crisis and implementation of structural adjustment programmes saw the collapse of the autocratic bargain that resulted in populations tolerating repression and lack of political freedoms in return for (real or imagined) economic growth.
The Afro-Middle East Centre’s conference on the future of the state in the MENA region will consider these debates regarding the concept and formation of a state, and academics, policymakers and activists will deliberate on the current and future position of the state in the region.
Tuesday, 17 October 2017
09:00 Opening session:
10:00 Coffee Break
10:30 Session 1: Understanding ‘the state’
The state: Concept and historical development
State and state recognition in international law
Contesting ideologies shaping (and opposing) state formation in MENA
13:30 Session 2: History and development of the MENA state
Post-Cold War foreign interventions in the MENA region
Monarchies as spoils of the Ottoman Empire
Colonialism giving way to military dictatorships
Whither statehood? 100 years of Palestinian anti-colonial resistance
15:30 Coffee Break
16:00 Session 3: Crisis of the contemporary MENA state
Capitalism and the MENA economic plight
Crisis of development and society
The MENA democracy and development challenge
Wednesday, 18 October 2017
09:00 Session 4: Impact of globalisation and foreign intervention on the MENA state
How healthy is the nation state project globally?
Displaced persons and statelessness: From and on the state
How foreign powers continue to shape the MENA state
Rise and impact of armed non-state actors
11:00 Coffee Break
11:30 Session 5: ‘Aspirational’ states in the MENA region
Kurdish nationalism and Kurdistan ‘ideal’
The question of Palestine
The case of Western Sahara
14:30 Session 6: The future of the MENA state
Nationalist appeals in the service of authoritarianism
The resort to parochialism [Return to local roots: ethnic, religious, tribal]
Developing reconfiguration of the MENA region, states and alliances
16:30 Closing session
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The collapse of regional order has made the security failures of the Sharq region ever more apparent. State failures, violent extremism, the emergence of militia groups as prevalent regional forces, chemical warfare, and the arms race are among the security problems, which call for the development of a new security architecture for the MENA region.
The phenomenon of the failed state as witnessed in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya triggered the rise of violent extremism and militia forces as new security apparatuses in the region. The legitimacy concerns surrounding non-state actors, given their prevalent terrorist actions across the region, make determining legitimate actors of the new security architecture even harder. The long-standing crises the region has been suffering seem to have created support for autocratic regimes and whether the foreign powers favored these regimes is an issue that should be discussed. In efforts to map the road ahead for establishing the new security architecture, the role of international powers is of paramount importance especially in the issue of implementing economic and political cooperation. Additionally, the regional leadership is needed in consolidating counter-terrorism efforts without resorting to proxies to end sectarian divisions in framing this new structure.
The region witnessed change in the nature of security apparatuses and the nature of conflicts. Energy resources, nuclear efforts, technological developments, and even social media became sources of conflict, let alone the emergence of new characteristics in warfare and type of militarization. In order to determine a well-functioning new security architecture, understanding the nature of conflicts is a must. Yet, amid this surge of conflict, the issue of human rights and its importance in the new security architecture should not be overlooked. Peoples of the region have deeply suffered from the use of chemical weapons, asymmetrical force and continue to be exposed to surveillance that overrides the right to privacy. To find solutions to breach of rights, the integration of human rights into this structure through international and regional conventions should be debated. The new security architecture also needs to lay grounds for law enforcement in complying with human rights and citizenship rights in the region. The role of regional and international multilateral organizations is another point of debate. The new structure need to assess the role that global institutions such as the UN, UN related bodies, NATO, OSCE and regional institutions including the Arab League, the OIC and the GCC should play in the region.
This conference organized by the Al Shaq Forum and Afro Middle East Center (AMEC) partnership will bring together experts, policymakers, and current and former officials, as well as representatives of international agencies, to share new perspectives and provide new insights on the aforementioned security issues in order to suggest frameworks for a new security architecture in the MENA region.