Renad Mansour and Farea Al-Muslimi: The Cost of Political Settlements in the MENA Region

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This transcript is from a CSIS podcast published on December 12, 2023. Listen to the podcast here.

Jon Alterman: I'm delighted to welcome you today for a discussion about a recent Chatham House study, Rethinking Political Settlements in the Middle East and North Africa. To discuss that study, we're joined by one of its authors, Dr. Renad Mansour, senior research fellow and project director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House. We're also joined by Farea Al-Muslimi, a research fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Programme, where he focuses on Yemen and the wider Gulf region.

We're also joined by my friend and colleague, Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at CSIS for more than three years. So Renad, tell us about this study. What were you trying to do and what were the principal things that you found?

Renad Mansour: Sure. Thanks, Jon. It's a pleasure to be here and very much looking forward to this discussion. Myself and a few colleagues have been studying some countries in the Middle East and North Africa, especially Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya, and we were working in the space of stabilization and that really became an important foreign policy tool and development tool for the United States and European countries going into the Middle East and North Africa. We found that it was predicated on a sort of trade-off. That trade-off was stability, at the expense of accountability. Because there's a civil war you have militias, armed groups shooting at each other. "Let's bring all of the elites together to the table, and let's negotiate a peace."

Jon Alterman: So the guys with guns are the ones who are brought into the room?

Renad Mansour: Yes. Along with the politicians and social leaders. Previously, liberal peace building, this idea that elections could bring democracy, really wasn't working out, so we needed to take a more pragmatic approach. Let's bring all the elites together, and let's have them carve out what they can get.

It worked in stopping civil wars in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Libya, and in the countries that we were looking at. It proved sort of useful for stability, but it also entrenched tremendously corrupt systems because these elites carved out the spoils of the state. Ultimately, this created, in the medium term, destabilizing factors. We saw corruption in the medical sector in Iraq, for example. 70 to 80 percent of medicine was fake or expired because those same elites were now working together to procure contracts to take money from the state, to become wealthy themselves, and people were dying.

We start to look at violence not just as the men with guns shooting at each other, but actually in more structural terms. Hospitals that catch on fire because their health and safety regulations aren't strong. Or in the case of Libya, recently, dams that haven't had proper maintenance because there's been a lot of contracting fraud. What we saw was while these elite bargains effectively stopped casualties from civil war, they, in many cases, perpetuated more casualties in a less visible way through structural violence.

Jon Alterman: What I thought was one of the powerful things in the report was you talked about how the intra-elite bargains are about violence that's horizontal between elites, and the structural violence is the violence that's vertical, between the large parts of the population that has to live there and elites who exploit them and fail to deliver services to the population.

Renad Mansour: Exactly. We've learned that these types of political settlements that seem pragmatic a way to reduce direct horizontal violence are actually perpetuating it. You see that levels of corruption have stayed the same, and you see that human development in these countries has been poor.. Child mortality and low life expectancies are different ways in which people are dying more than they should because of corruption.

Jon Alterman: Natasha, you come out of deep experience in the Syrian conflict. How does what Renad's just laid out relate to the kinds of things you've seen, both in the Syria conflict but more broadly in your work in the Middle East and around the world?

Natasha Hall: First, I just want to commend you on the report. I think it provides a really helpful lens for viewing these problems, and Jon actually sent it to me immediately when it came out because we had been talking specifically about these issues just within the narrow context of water security where we have scholars and policymakers really laser-focused on the potential for water wars or elite bargains on water and not really looking at the structural violence that's inherent in the everyday lives of citizens.

That’s what's helpful about this report is that we, as human beings, tend to understandably be focused on outbreaks of violence or handshakes between old men. That's what the media focuses on. But I really think that the Middle East is more defined by those silences in between that you're really trying to speak to. Because in those silences, people are really trying to survive in broken systems. Elites become entrenched, they take control of basic services, and they essentially become too big to fail. That's the situation that we have, not just in conflict-affected countries in the region but I would argue, all the countries of the region where you have IMF deals. With Tunisia, for example, regardless of the human rights violations going on there, people are really afraid of migration and violent conflict or anything else that could potentially follow.

Jon Alterman: Yemen, in many cases, was an example of an effort to avoid the very small elite deals at the top. Yemen had a national dialogue process that was part of an effort to transition from Ali Abdullah Saleh, a dictator for decades, to a more popularly embraced regime. All kind of groups were brought into the national dialogue process, and yet, Yemen dissolved into civil war. Reportedly, in part, because the Houthis and some southern groups, elites, felt they hadn't been dealt in enough. So, Farea, tell me, how do we think about that balance between elites who can disrupt everything, but you don't want to merely bring in elites because then elites perpetuate the elite status?

Farea Al-Muslimi: As a researcher but also as a Yemeni, you can really trace everything back in Yemen to the same point of elite bargains. There was a new deal that happened between elites, which was called the GCC Initiative in Yemen, between Saleh and the opposition parties. In 2013, the National Dialogue Conference was probably the first time this elite bargain was put into some sort of an end. However, because it was a deal that did not include accountability, giving unconditional immunity to Saleh, we witnessed a cycle of violence after it.

The ready recipe for any problem is, "Okay, let's bring the elites into the group, let's have a deal with them." That happened in 2018 in Aden by the Saudis when they brought their factions together. It was an elite deal. That happened again and they created the Presidential Leadership Council. There is a similar process right now happening between the Houthis in Saudi Arabia, which is an elite deal in a different way.

Jon Alterman: So, let me ask Renad. You have lived through Iraq's gyrations for the last 20 years, there are people with guns who are willing to disrupt. How do you make things move forward without co-opting them?

Renad Mansour: I would focus on this idea and the issue of impunity. These elites who come together and design the systems never give up their impunity; they keep it. Another important power they have is access to arms. In Iraq, if you don't have access to arms, you don't have a strong sort of foot to stand on. You can't negotiate politically.

Jon Alterman: And that's true in Libya as well.

Natasha Hall: In the world.

Renad Mansour: It is true in many countries. It's coercive capital; it's social power. The way that these states are designed isn't the kind of neoliberal state that has a monopoly of legitimate violence. It's much more an arena where different groups rely on their arms, to negotiate politically. Violence is part of the elite bargain.

Jon Alterman: You’ve triggered me by using the word arena because that's a word that shows up a lot in Ellen Lust's book, Everyday Choices. I was talking with Ellen in this room a week ago about her book. The point of her book is that we're really used to dealing with states as rational actors and international actors love dealing with state counterparts. Except that within this state there are a word she continues to refer to as "non-state arenas of authorities”, which are “spheres of activity with clear membership goals and institutions where citizens, public service providers and even state officials are members of various communities such as religious orders, family or kinship groups, or ethnic communities which make claims on them and shape their actions."

How should we think about those operating simultaneously with rational state institutions or in place of rational state institutions? Natasha, in Jordan, you've seen all of these things come into play.

Natasha Hall: Ellen Lust's book has this example of a Jordanian woman voting for a politician she doesn't like. We would see that as an irrational choice, but what makes that rational for her? What makes it rational for a Yemeni policeman, for example, to seek the permission of a sheikh before he arrests somebody? There are these other arenas of authority that take place. That is more exacerbated during times of conflict, because people have to survive within this system. While we're busy as development agencies or governments or donors trying to strengthen institutions and often failing to do so, people are on the ground are trying to survive and making these everyday choices, as Ellen points out. The people on the ground in Iraq and Syria have to go to that local militia commander or that uncle that knows how to sort of pull strings for them.

When that becomes deeply entrenched, it is very difficult to untangle, and really ask people to trust institutions or a government that they've never been able to rely on. That's what we're seeing across the Middle East that even this fragile social contract that has existed for decades is really breaking down. That is strengthening these other arenas or authorities, in Yemen and in Iraq, really across the board. I think it's pretty notable in Lebanon, especially where the government has never really been strong since the civil war.

Jon Alterman: There's significant public support for precisely these elites because of what the elites provide that nobody else will or nobody else can.

Farea Al-Muslimi: Speaking of Lebanon, it was probably the first in the region that launched elite bargain based on sectarian identity politics, which was the Taif agreement. What happened there is not just the collapse of the state, as we see with the new violence, but speaking of the absence of accountability and how it empowered the warlords and got them to hold the Lebanese people as a hostage. To me it was like Saada, it was like Aden, it was like Abyan.

It really redefined the idea of a war inside my head. We always understood war as guns, as Renad is saying, but Lebanon, was a war of the elite; a war of bankers; a war of unaccountability.

Renad Mansour: What's interesting is we're talking about elites and going back to this, but a lot of the elite don't actually sit in the government. They don't need to.

In fact, they're more powerful outside. Governments are often staffed by prime ministers, and presidents who play the role of what would be that sort of state. But really, the power of the state is outside these institutions, you can see that clearly in many of these examples. What also becomes interesting in Lebanon or Iraq is the nature of the protest movements that begin to emerge. These protest movements are no longer against a specific leader or against a specific party, but they're against the entire system.

So in Lebanon, they say كلن يعني كلن which means, "All of them means all of them." In Iraq, it's the same, we are against Mu’asasa, the political system. This is a response to elite bargain. This is a response to these political settlements by the people who have diagnosed the problem head-on. They're the ones who have figured it out. They've said, "It's not a party or an ideology that we're against; it's not a sect or ethnicity; it's the elite.”

Jon Alterman: When you have elections in these places, and we see this in elections in Jordan, Kuwait, and Iraq, people oftentimes, not always, vote for tribal representatives or elites. Because people say, "As an individual, I'm isolated and weak. But as a member of a larger collective, somebody is looking out for me." So part of the elite bargain is a sense of protection and it's partly voters who are institutionalizing this elite bargain.

Farea Al-Muslimi: The problem, for example, in Yemen and in others is because of the economic cycle that goes to the elite bargain. People are hostage, whether that's to the Houthis in Saana, or the Hamas in Gaza, or to Al-Hashd in Iraq, or to Hezbollah in Lebanon, because the entire economic center and breadwinning is still controlled by these elite bargains.

Renad Mansour: If I can add to what Farea's saying, another dimension. Who's voting? What is voter turnout like? The social leaders, the tribal leaders, the politicians, they have a base, and they'll get them out to vote. A lot of these people don't vote in these countries because, what's the point? They've learned. They try elections one time, two times, they realize elections only reinforce the same elite bargain. Groups that have won, that were outside the elite pact, have not succeeded in many of these countries.

It's very interesting. For these leaders, even though they’re clearly not interested in democracy and accountability, the legitimizing function that an election serves is still important. This type of competitive authoritarianism that you are seeing across the region is important. They need to present themselves as democratic even though they're not interested in actual accountability.

Jon Alterman: So how, so how do you shift the system? Because you're describing an entire system which is self-perpetuating, which citizens acquiesce to. How as an outside party, as a donor state, as an international organization, as an NGO, do you dislodge that bargain?

Farea Al-Muslimi: I do want to say two things, and I think they're back to the initial points Renad was making and back to your point about how you strike the right balance. Let's say, for example in the Yemen case, if I go back to 2011 and there is a way to redo the GCC deal. What is the one element I would add into it? I would take the immunity aspect and make it conditional. So at least you can strike that moment, you become a pragmatist, you move forward, and you make it conditional. "Tomorrow you Saleh misbehave, we will sue you for 30 years and we will put you in jail." Instead of just a free pass for everyone who wanted to do that in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Lebanon.

However, I think that conditionality of trying to kind of swallow yesterday but think of tomorrow is extremely important. And the second part, which grows back into what the paper looks into stabilization and between elite bargains, is a fundamental problem today with the international interventions, whether in Yemen or Palestine, or Arab or Western policy, which is still the dominant diplomacy in the world today, is built on a feudal system of a feudal thinking, a counterpart. What does this do in your policies in the region, in my opinion, whether that's the US or the UK? You didn't end up recognizing groups like Hamas and the Houthis, for example, which is good. But you ended up normalizing with their tools, and that's even more dangerous in my opinion in the long term.

Today, you cannot deliver aid in Saana without the Houthis going through them. You are hostage to the aid, but you don't even get the privilege of having to engage with them or to recognize them. That is a fundamental rethinking that needs to happen in the international mechanism of interventions, not just in Yemen, or the region, but globally.

Renad Mansour: The only thing that I would add in terms of what can be done is not all the elites we're talking about are corrupt and not all the people in these political systems are corrupt. In fact, when you map out these networks, you might find a node, an isolated person here or there who is a reformist, who is socially connected, who is absolutely devastated and disgusted by the corruption that's causing so much harm. The one thing that all of these people tell us when we interview them is they're alone and they're isolated. Alone they can't do anything, and so they're stuck. How then can international actors and those pursuing development programs and trying to build institutions strengthen the connective tissues between these reformists who exist in these networks?

Natasha Hall: Can I challenge you a bit on that? Because I really want to interrogate that recommendation because I've heard it before. We know that political violence is just embedded in the system. We know that these reform-minded technocrats or even elites exist. But there's this political violence at play. A lot of the people that I've talked to in Iraq that are just environmental activists are either exiled, arrested, detained, or they're forced to play by the rules, which doesn't really get them very far, right? I think that the issue with these years of cyclical violence is that human life becomes pretty cheap. In the years of apartheid, I had friends in South Africa that told me that people will get killed for a cellphone. If you're challenging or threatening millions of dollars in contracts, which is what you're talking about, for these elites, I think your life is going to be pretty cheap really quickly. I say this not to sort of admire the problem but like how do you get over that hurdle?

I would add sort of a second challenge to that which is somewhat related, which is that we're entering a multipolar world where these people have protectors and benefactors within the region that provide military support.

Renad Mansour: You're completely right that the risk is definitely there. I'll give you an example. There was a teenager in Iraq, Haidar al-Zaidi, who tweeted that the former head of the Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi, otherwise known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, was not a martyr but a spy. The PMF Commission managed to file a lawsuit that put this teenager in jail for some years. However, there was a campaign launched, there were protests and social media influencers used a hashtag. Some of these reformists in government push for Haidar’s release.

This campaign, these groups coming together to campaign collectively, got him out of jail. Now, this is obviously a small example; it's very isolated. We're talking about going against impunity, so 100% this is not something that's going to happen overnight, and it's going take decades and decades. We do think that is can be constructive to not go after corruption head-on, but looking at areas where these elites are susceptible. For example, in healthcare, you can show that medicine is expired. In Libya, for example, you can highlight what is happening with dams. When you focus on corruption in very specific coherent strategic ways that affect people every day and create this everyday violence, you can at least strengthen these networks? However, 100% you're right that the dangers in this are very real.

A lot of the people who we talk to say, in Jordan for example, want to leave, but a lot of people are staying put. They're participating in everyday politics in ways that they want to. Not necessarily becoming an MP or voting but doing things that they think could help push the reform and it's about supporting them.

Jon Alterman: So let me ask you a really hard question, which is let's apply all this to Gaza, which is likely to have some sort of political reconstruction over the next several years. How should the donor world think about the elite bargain that had entrenched Hamas in power? What's the role of a whole range of international donors in trying to engender a different future for Gaza where there's genuine accountability, where we don't have the kinds of structural violence which contributed to not only the death of many Palestinian civilians in this past week, but the likely death of many Palestinian civilians in the weeks to come?

Renad Mansour: This goes back to something you said at the beginning which is what is conflict and what is post-conflict? Palestinians have been living through conflict non-stop. It's about not jumping to that post conflict and, "Let's bring reconstruction in," but continuing to consider that many people are still in conflict even when there is a ceasefire. Addressing some of these structural violence points, something like the blockade or issues of health, water, education, these things that have continued to kill a disproportionate number of Palestinians. Tackling those as well so that there can actually be something resembling peace, for all sides.

Natasha Hall: We need to admit that there's a problem to solve it. Being in DC for the past three years, I see that there is this sort of boomerang effect back to elite bargains and normalizing ties between strong men in the region. This is the easier way to deal with the region as the United States seeks to focus on other issues. This recent escalation shows that if you ignore the drivers of conflict it will continue to rear its ugly head. It's not just Gaza; it's also Syria, which, we're not even talking about it today but there is also an escalation in violence in the northwest. That shouldn't be surprising to us. I think that the U.S. administration, especially in the case of Gaza because it does have leverage within that conflict, needs to acknowledge that normalization of Arab countries with Israel does not sort of resolve the underlying structural violence that you're talking about. That will continue to rear its ugly head.

Renad Mansour: It's like a transnational elite bargain.

Jon Alterman: But who are the actors who can engage with Gazans? Beyond elites, who can lead to a different future? Who are the core people and what do you need them to do in this post-conflict environment to get Gaza to a different place?

Farea Al-Muslimi: Our director, Dr. Sanam Vakil just published a piece this last week about how regional countries should take a more leadership in that. That is probably right not just in Palestine and Gaza, but everywhere I agree with it because for one simple reason. Power, and obviously also peace, it's about perception. When you had the Abraham Accords you thought, "Okay, the perception was you have the big guys in the room, everything is solved." You had that illusion perception that these guys can also control everything.

The best possible shot we have is to create solidarities and conversations and dialogues around topics. So, for example, in Yemen, that has managed very well. A very small association called the Mothers of Abductees, which was created by a bunch of mothers who lost their sons in the Yemen war or are right now hostages or prisoners, created a national, across sects and geography, solidarity. They talked about their sons, whether they were taken by the Houthis, the STC, the Emirates, the Saudis, or anyone. Having conversations is probably a better shot that we can create solidarity around and forego the elite bargain. They try to have something for the people.

Natasha Hall: Can I just say one thing back to Gaza?

As we're looking at these normalization deals, what I had heard from many diplomats including Ambassador Jeff Feltman over the years, even before the normalization deal sort of took shape was that a lot of Gulf countries were paying lip service to the Palestinian cause, and they really wanted to normalize with Israel for their own interests. I think we can all sort of agree upon that. I think this changes the dynamics a bit and makes them have to do more than pay lip service potentially if they want to move forward.

How do you use these elite bargains in a way so that you at least extract something for the people within these bargains? I think that Gulf States and other Arab countries are realizing that their people actually still care about this issue, and that it will continue to come back. Potentially, they have the power to work with Israel on reducing the structural violence and defanging why Hamas came into power in the first place. That's complicated, especially now, but I think that the importance of that is incredibly highlighted now as well.

Jon Alterman: We're going to have to leave it there. I want to thank Renad Mansour, one of the co-authors of Rethinking Political Settlements in the Middle East and North Africa, from Chatham House, Farea Al-Muslimi, one of his colleagues at Chatham House, and my colleague, Natasha Hall an expert on Syria and many other things. Thank you very much for joining us, and we look forward to seeing you for our next program.

Farea Al-Muslimi: Thank you.