By Luigi Narbone
A common assumption among policy-makers and pundits is that stabilisation and reconstruction will come after conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa region have been settled.
Indeed, in most previous cases, conflict settlements – brought about by the decisive victory of one party or by the successful conclusion of a peace agreement – had always preceded post-war stabilisation.
Internationally-assisted reconstruction, intended as both the physical rebuilding of destroyed infrastructure and the rehabilitation of the economy and governance institutions, were considered part and parcel of stabilisation efforts.
The MENA region’s wars do not seem to fit this model. Although violence has begun to diminish, the conflicts are not over. No comprehensive settlement has been achieved to date, and the drivers and root causes of conflicts are not being addressed.
Stabilising the MENA region remains a top priority on the international agenda. However, the new concept of stabilisation is elusive and ill-defined, often hiding the diverging political objectives of the international, regional and local players involved.
There is no agreement on what the final outcome of stabilisation should be, nor on the appropriate tools to achieve it. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground is moving towards a reconstitution of political and economic systems with strong similarities to the pre-2011 situation.
Old political and economic elites are returning and reconstruction has already begun in Syria and Iraq. Because of the political economy dynamics at play, reconstruction will likely be used to re-establish patronage-clientelist mechanisms and to pay back friends and allies.
The result might well be increasing corruption, inefficiency, exclusion and inequality, and new conflicts in the medium-to-long term cannot be excluded.
To avoid major unintended consequences, international actors will need to consider local and regional political economy actors and dynamics when thinking about the future of conflicts, as well as when planning reconstruction policies and actions in the MENA region.
The Quest for Stability
The protracted wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, as well as the succession of crises in Iraq since 2003, are complex and multidimensional.
While the situation in each country is unique, the conflicts that started in 2011 (or after the 2003 US invasion in the case of Iraq) have several features in common. They have deepened social and political fragmentation along ethnic, sectarian or tribal lines, as well as resulted in economic collapse and severe humanitarian crises.
The negative effects of these conflicts have spilled over into neighbouring countries through refugee flows, the criminalisation of trans-border trade, increased trafficking and people smuggling, as well as the movement of armed groups across state borders.
Direct and indirect interventions by state, non-state and transnational actors have made the resolution of these conflicts particularly difficult.
After years of bloody conflict, violence seems to be finally diminishing. However, despite continuing international mediation efforts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, non-inclusive, lasting political settlements addressing the root causes of the uprisings seem likely to be reached in the short term.
In Syria, on the contrary, the regime’s complete military victory over its opponents is considered to be increasingly probable.
In Iraq, the post-2003 power-sharing system led to institutionalisation of sectarianism and collusion between the political elite, armed groups and business actors.
The negative consequences of this political system played an important role in the rise of the Islamic State (IS), and are still present in post-IS Iraq.
Tough questions, like those concerning the choice of political governance model, decentralisation or federalism, or more diversified and equitable economic systems – which for some time have been put forward as possible solutions to authoritarianism and instability – seem to have been put on hold.
The West-promoted search for a new, regional order in the MENA has also stalled, leaving space for continuing geopolitical confrontations and rivalry between regional powers.
In view of the immense human suffering and economic destruction caused by wars, as well as of their continuing impact on the region and beyond, international, regional and local actors are searching for means to achieve stability.
“Stabilisation” is now the guiding principle for international actors’ policies. The problem, however, is that it is not clear what stabilisation entails.
Beyond consensus on the need to move towards a durable end to the violence, international and regional players disagree explicitly or implicitly on what the final outcomes, objectives and instruments of stabilisation should be.
The post-Cold War tenets of liberal democratic peace-building included the promotion of democracy, good governance, rule of law and the strengthening of well-functioning market economies.
But this model, with its unresolved questions on the role of external and local players and insufficient levels of international engagement and long-term investment, has shown its limitations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is today openly contested by many non-Western actors involved in the MENA crises who consider the peace building model as a tool to expand western influence in the region.
One thing is clear. For many international players, including those in the West, the number one priority for stabilisation is addressing the situation of state failure and power vacuums, which have marked the regional context over the past eight years.
This situation has had many repercussions in terms of outflows of jihadists and refugees, disruptions in oil production, and regional disorder. It is also perceived as the main source of instability and threat in the region and beyond.
The restoration of authority and national sovereignties is thus seen as the solution to the problem, even if it entails a risk of allowing the return of authoritarian regimes based on exclusionary rule.
Meanwhile, in Syria, as in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Libya, the focus among international actors has already shift ed to reconstruction.
Reconstruction is not just the urgent physical rebuilding of destroyed houses and infrastructure, or the rehabilitation of an economy or institutions.
It also has re-distributional economic and political effects, creating winners and losers. Because of the reality on the ground, short-term political considerations are likely to dominate the scene.
What will this mean for the reconstruction of war-torn MENA countries or their collapsed economies and state institutions? How is reconstruction likely to impact the broader region?
Losers and Winners: The Political Economy of Reconstruction
Socio-economic issues have played a critical role as conflict drivers: neglect and marginalization of less productive, peripheral regions; significant shortcomings in social and local development; and unequal rent distribution from natural resources.
These have created deep political and socioeconomic divides in the MENA region. Neoliberal reforms and GDP growth in the 2000s, while increasing people’s expectations, have deepened long-standing structural problems.
Indeed, the 2011 uprisings were triggered by a widespread feeling of injustice among large parts of the population in the face of rising inequality, exclusion from economic benefits, lack of opportunities for young people and rampant unemployment.
The struggle for the control of resources – including state institutions, natural resources, trading routes, strategic infrastructure and foreign support – has been a crucial component of the military conflicts that have spread over the region since 2011.
The fortunes of rival political factions and armed groups have, to a large extent, depended on their ability to gain and maintain such assets. Highly lucrative profiteering and rent-seeking activities provided by the conflicts have allowed many groups and networks to grow and thrive.
These activities, though not necessarily illegal, have exploited the advantages provided by power and military force, and have oft en gone hand in hand with underground and illicit economies – including smuggling, trafficking and kidnap-for-ransom – in a complex system of economic relations linking actors and markets, locally, nationally and regionally.
High profits made through these activities are at the core of regional war economies. Over time, they have created a vast system of old and new vested interests and collusion. As such, the economies created by war are difficult to disrupt and they represent an important factor in the prolongation of the confl icts in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
At the same time war economies are producing new business elites, a composite combination of old regime crony-capitalists and newcomers looking for opportunities to invest or launder capital in highly profitable enterprises.
Against this backdrop, if priority is given to stabilisation without the preexisting political orders being fundamentally changed, the reconstitution of authority is very likely to also essentially reproduce the old patronage mechanisms of the pre-2011 regimes.
In Syria, for instance, it is probable that the interests of the Assad regime and its military allies will shape future reconstruction and rehabilitation.
Estimated in 2018 as costing $350-400 billion, reconstruction has already wet the appetite of local and international actors close to the regime. The regime will likely use it to distribute favours to clients and allies, thus consolidating its economic and political power.
The perpetuation and deepening of pre-war political and economic dynamics will result in more corruption, waste, exclusion and inequality, while reproducing the same exclusionary and authoritarian traits which led to the uprising and war.
In Libya, war economy dynamics have allowed the formation of networks comprising armed groups, criminals, corrupt businessmen and politicians.
While enriching themselves, these networks effectively use predatory practices and illicit businesses to fund the continuation of their role in violence and in the perpetuation of the conflict.
Their presence represents a major hindrance for the rehabilitation of the formal economy and Libyan institutions, often acting as spoilers of political and economic reforms.
An effective reconstitution of political authority is therefore needed to put an end to predation by many groups and to control both licit and illicit networks.
This, in turn, may well require finding the appropriate incentives to permit the reconversion of some of these actors into legitimate political and economic players.
continues in part 2
Luigi Narbone, Director of the Middle East Directions Programme.
The MIDDLE EAST DIRECTIONS Programme, created in 2016, is part of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.It has the ambition to become an international reference point for research on the Middle East and North Africa Region,studying socio-political, economic and religious trends and transformations. The programme produces academic outputs such as working papers and e-books. It also liaises with policy makers with a wide range of policy briefs, policy report and analysis.
MIDDLE EAST DIRECTIONS