Background and Scope of the Project

The 2011 Arab uprisings and their subsequent aftermath have thrown into question some of our long-held assumptions about the foundational aspects of the Arab state. While the regional and international consequences of the uprisings continue to unfold with great unpredictability, their ramifications for the internal lives of the states in which they unfolded are just as dramatic and consequential. States historically viewed as models of strength and stability have been shaken to their foundations. Borders thought impenetrable have collapsed; sovereignty and territoriality have been in flux.

The Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) designed this research initiative to examine some of the central questions facing scholars of Middle Eastern politics concerning the nature of the post-2011 state in the Arab world. These questions revolve around the very conception of the state, its functions and institutions, its sources of legitimacy, and basic notions underlying it such as sovereignty and nationalism.

The uprisings were inspired by popular yearnings for justice and dignity. Six years on, have notions of and mechanisms for generating state legitimacy adapted accordingly? In what ways, if any, have the primary functions of the state changed in relation not just to other states but also in relation to domestic social actors? Is the idea of a present-day caliphate anathema to the functioning of contemporary nation-states or does it represent the re-emergence of a model of sovereignty based on other beliefs and new identities? In the post-Daesh era, at a time when sectarian identities seem to trump national loyalties, what does the future hold for the very notion of nationalism and its resonance across the region? Does Daesh represent new forms of sovereignty and nationalism, or is the group an epiphenomenon doomed to impermanence by its very ferocity?

Similarly affected have been instruments of political rule and governance in general and the coercive institutions of the state in particular. The composition of the armed forces and their role in the political process is especially relevant, given that patterns of civil-military relations constituted one of the most consequential factors in determining the uprisings’ short-term outcomes and evolving directions. What accounts for the apparent re-emergence of old patterns, as they seem to be doing in Egypt? What roles, if any, do domestic military establishments play in fractured polities in places such as Libya and Yemen and even Syria and Iraq?

States interact with and impact upon social actors. The uprisings empowered the societies in which they occurred. But apart from Tunisia, where social actors are proactively involved in the process of articulating a new polity, pre-uprising patterns of state-society interactions appear to be reasserting themselves. It is important to ask, also, whether the means and the institutions through which Arab states interact with their societies have changed after the uprisings? Besides its coercive institutions and their interactions with society, has the state’s delivery of public services and its posture toward institutional nodes of state-society nexus—schools, mosques, cultural institutions—changed, and if so why?

CIRS’s research initiative “Re-envisioning the Arab State” adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, examining a broad range of political, economic, social and geographic variables. A small number of scholars will be invited to take part in in-depth, critical analysis of the nature of the post-2011 state in the Arab world. Through identifying gaps in the current literature, the aim of the Working Group is to articulate original research questions and define critical areas of focus and analysis. Building up on this Working Group meeting, CIRS will publish a volume that addresses the issues concerned.

Article by Mehran Kamrava, Director of CIRS