2014 State of the State in the Middle East and North Africa

photo by Nichole Sobecki (EPIIC’06), Libya


Nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are facing powerful challenges and are undergoing profound changes. In recent years the Arab Upheaval has effectively dismantled some states, rendered others ungovernable, while leaving yet others under the threat of instability. These events have brought to power new rulers, enabled the reemergence on the political scene of older social and religious forces, such as tribal and religious movements, while redefining the rules of political action. Furthermore, the political turbulence is raising question marks regarding borders between states, rocking regimes and weakening central control, as well as gnawing at the shared internal visions of these states. Efforts of states in the region to stay above the fray and of others to help prevent states from unraveling or to reconstitute defunct states such as Iraq have run into internal difficulties that jeopardize these efforts.


The workshop “The State of the State in the Middle East and North Africa” was intended to be a first step in what hopefully will be an ongoing exploration and systematic dialogue regarding fundamental questions raised by these dynamics:

1. Are the events in the region merely coincidental developments or are they related, either by cause and effect or as a response to common pressures?
2. Are the states responding to some unsettling structural forces or manifesting weaknesses produced by misguided political choices of the leadership?
3. What could explain the timing of these developments?
4. What are the centrifugal and centripetal forces operating in these countries?
5. Are we witnessing a transient, reversible phenomenon or long-term devolution of the nation-state that will redefine its nature while creating new kinds of actors and players?
6. Are there some states in the region (monarchies?) that do not seem for now to conform to this pattern and if so will they hold out? And what explains their resilience?
7. If the state is in some kind of devolution and new types of entities are being formed, what are the implications for regional and world order and governance, which thus far have been heavily predicated on the state based system?
8. Global reach: Are the developments in the MENA region part of a wider global dynamic? Is the MENA experience foretelling developments in other regions? Are the fissures in the nation state, together with other global developments, such as the photo by Nichole Sobecki (EPIIC’06), Libya growing power of international corporations, the democratization of knowledge through new media and cyber, the formation of new political bodies, placing a question mark over the nation state as we know it?

The unique feature of this workshop was a conscious effort to encourage a discussion among experts from a variety of disciplines, to create a conversation between specialists who study Middle East states and societies, and scholars whose areas of expertise are cross-state or regional disciplines, such as economics, sociology, political science, demography, gender studies, media and religion. They were trusted to not only look across the cases but also to place the evidence from MENA in a global perspective. We hoped that such multi-disciplinary discussion would bring into relief new insights about the fascinating developments in MENA and their potential indications and implications for other parts of the globe. Bottom line: we hoped to improve our understanding of the state of the nation-state in the twenty-first century.

Toward these ends, the intimate workshop approached these questions from three complimentary perspectives which were addressed sequentially in separate sessions:

First panel: Focused on the states themselves through a series of case studies. Here they inquired about the specific dynamics and causes that led to the Upheaval and its effects on the various states examined. It also addressed the question why the Upheaval has not heretofore spread to certain countries in the MENA region.

Second panel: Examined the MENA region from a number of disciplinary perspectives, such as economics, gender, media and religion. This group of experts sought to identify patterns in the events and underlying forces across the region, inter alia by comparing states that underwent the Upheaval, to states that were not heavily affected.

Third panel: Placed the developments in MENA in a broader historical, global and policy perspective. The kinds of questions addressed included:

A. Is MEN A sui generis, or are the phenomena witnessed in the Arab Upheaval part of a global trend of nation-state devolution and, if the latter, is the nature of devolution similar or particular?
B. Even if part of a more global phenomenon, surely MENA is exhibiting a rather intense process, which raises the question: why MENA and why NOW?
C. Historically, there have been periods of pressure on the nation-state – empires, ideologies, multinationals, tribalism etc. Is there something outstanding and perhaps (expected to be) lasting and basic about the current trend, or should we expect it to be a transient “fashion?”
D. If the process is “real,” to what concept of “sovereignty” is the international order drifting, and
E. What are the implications for the principles of world order, international organization and foreign policy, foreign policy both toward the more robust states that are bucking the trend, at least for now, and those that are presently undergoing intense upheaval?

It was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Convened by:

Ariel (Eli) Levite is a nonresident senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. Prior to joining the Carnegie Endowment, Levite was the principal deputy director general for policy at the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission from 2002 to 2007. He also served as the deputy national security adviser for defense policy and was head of the Bureau of International Security and Arms Control in the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Nimrod Hurvitz is a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle East History at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He is the author of The Formation of Hanbalism: Piety into Power, as well as numerous articles on a range of subjects within Islam scholarship.


Junaid Ahmad is Director, Sustainable Development, for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region at the World Bank. He is responsible for the Bank’s portfolio in MENA covering infrastructure, natural resources, social development and decentralization.

Michele Angrist is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at Union College. She edited Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, co-edited Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Regimes and Resistance and authored Party Building in the Modern Middle East.

Muriel Asseburg is the head of the Middle East and Africa Department of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin (SWP). Two of her recent publications include The Challenge of Islamists for EU and US Policies: Conflict, Stability and Reform and EU Policies Towards the Palestinian Government–Neither State Building nor Democratization.

Beth Baron is Professor of History at the City College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Co-Director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at CUNY. She is the author of The Women’s Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press and the coeditor of Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender and Iran and Beyond: Essays in Middle Eastern History in Honor of Nikki R. Keddie.

Ahmed Benchemsi is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. His focus is on the democratic grassroots movement that recently burgeoned in Morocco, as in Tunisia and Egypt. Before joining Stanford, Benchemsi was the publisher and editor of Morocco’s two best-selling newsweeklies TelQuel (French) and Nishan (Arabic), which he founded in 2001 and 2006, respectively.

Shai Feldman is the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and Professor of Politics at Brandeis University. From 1997-2005, he was Head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and in 2001-2003, he served as a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters.

Amr Hamzawy is an Egyptian political scientist, human rights activist and public intellectual, whose primary research interests include the changing dynamics of political participation in the Arab world and the role of Islamist movements in Arab politics. An important figure during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Dr. Hamzawy was the spokesman of the “Board of Wise Men,” established to mediate between the Mubarak government and the protestors. After the revolution, Dr. Hamzawy founded the Freedom Egypt Party and was elected member of the Egyptian Parliament.

Bruce Jentleson is Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University, where he served from 2000-2005 as Director of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. His policy experience includes having served as a Senior Advisor to the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Director, 2009-2011.

Peter Katzenstein is the W.S. Carpenter Jr. Professor of International Studies in the Government Department at Cornell University. His research and teaching lie at the intersection of the fields of international relations and comparative politics.

Nawaf Obaid is a Visiting Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and a counselor to both Prince Mohammad bin Nawaf, Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Prince Turki Al Faisal, who served as Saudi ambassador to the United States and was the longtime director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service. From 2004 to 2007, he was Special Advisor for National Security Affairs to Prince Turki Al Faisal while Prince Turki was the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then the United States.

Jean-Louis Rommanet Perroux is an Advisor to the New Libya Foundation and a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, where he studies international relations. His core focus is the role of civil society in democratic transition.

Barry R. Posen is Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT, Director of the MIT Security Studies Program, and serves on the Executive Committee of Seminar XXI.

Jonathan (Yoni) Shimshoni is a former lecturer at Tel Aviv University and has been a visiting scholar at Princeton University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He authored Israel and Conventional Deterrence. He is a retired Battalion and Brigade Commander in the Israeli Defense Forces and has represented Israel on the United Nations Expert Committee on transparency in international arms trade, and as a member of various committees of the National Security Council.

Robert Springborg is Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. Previously, he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he was also the Director of the London Middle East Institute. From 2000 to 2002, he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt. From 1992 to 1996, he was Chief Technical Specialist for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s principal democratization program for the Middle East.