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Book Review: Non-state actors - When organisations are mightier than the state in Middle East

Iman Ragab's new book asserts that the first decade of the 21st century is the decade of non-state actors

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 11 Nov 2015
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Muhdidat Suluk Al-Fa'leen Al-'Aneefin min ghair Al-Duwal fi Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (Behaviour Determinants of Violent Non-State Actors in the Middle East) by Iman Ragab, Strategic Series - Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Cairo, 2015. pp.46

The state is not  the only actor controlling the present and the future. That is  what the Arab revolutions revealed and asserted since breaking out in December 2010.

In the cases of Libya and Syria, for instance, which ended in armed conflicts, it is obvious that the controller is not the state but rather what Iman Ragab calls "the new non-state actors" whose influence started before the Arab revolutions, such as Hamas, Hizbullah, Al-Qaeda and affiliated organisations, the Sadrist Movement in Iraq, the Islamic Courts in Somalia and the Muslim Brotherhood before they rose to power.

In her important and comprehensive short study, the researcher asserts that there is a group of political science researchers who see that the first decade of the 21st century is the decade of non-state actors. However, the researcher views this opinion as exaggerated. But this does not mean that those actors shouldn't be studied and analysed.

As for the Middle East in the post-revolutions period, the study asserts that the majority of the actors are cross-border, behaving as a collective body belonging to a religion, denomination or ideology.

The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, is an international organisation. ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) considers itself an Islamic Caliphate; the same goes for Hizbullah and the Hamas movement.

There are two influential factors in Middle East regional interactions according two specific indicators. The first is that the aforementioned actors terminated the control of central governments on the state's domain, its resources and its using violence. The Lebanese Hizbullah, for instance, owns many material and moral capabilities, thus it has a body parallel to the state. It also owns a network of independent economic resources and arms, and even conducts an independent foreign policy. The second indicator is represented in the influence of these actors on stability and security in the Middle East region. In this context, the researcher cites two examples: the July 2006 war between Hizbullah and Israel that harmed the Lebanese state although it did not plan for it; the second is the Israeli aggression on Gaza in December 2008 where the other party — ie Hamas — belonged to this group of actors.

In this framework, the study is divided into three parts. The first deals with the amount of academic interest in studying new non-state actors, which seems to be meagre in spite of those actors' great influence since the Arab revolutions. The second part tackles the ongoing debate regarding the behaviour of these actors with border-crossing identities, especially religious, and their profound influence on the region that is considered one of the world's hottest spots and the most chaotic because of religious extremism.

Perhaps the last part of the study has a special significance because of its field nature. It deals with Hizbullah and the change that happened in its standpoints lately, especially its position on the current war in Syria and admitting its actual engagement in fighting alongside the Bashar Al-Assad regime. At the same time, the study observes the increasing influence of Hizbullah in continuing to be the sole owner of weapons that are superior to that of the Lebanese army, and its concessions to Israel in return for stabilising the current situation.

For the sake of completing the field aspect of the study, the researcher travelled to Lebanon and made a series of interviews with a number of Hizbullah and Amal Movement officials. What Ragab concluded is that the strategic interest of Hizbullah, especially the necessity to continue being an actor, played a role in its policies towards Israel. The content analysis of its leader Hassan Nasrallah's speeches in the period following the 2006 war and the party's actual policy towards the struggle against Israel reveals that the nature of threat posed by Israel towards Hizbullah has changed.

Moreover, there is "a conception dominating the perceptions of the leadership that the issue that threatens the existence of the party is the conflict in Syria, not the struggle against Israel and the strategic interest of the party is to avoid entering an armed confrontation with it," writes Ragab.

In return, the party adopted the principle of coordination with the state and accepted that it is the responsible party for managing the relationship with Israel through diplomatic means. Nasrallah resorted to abandoning the "zero sum game," to quote the researcher regarding his viewpoint towards Israel, which was based previously on eliminating its existence. In its announced standpoint, the party began to accept the State of Israel's right of existence as a fait accompli.

Concluding her study, the researcher raises a number of issues that will affect these actors.

The first is precedence given to democratic incorporation of those actors internally on the grounds that this incorporation will cause a kind of moderation, making them less radical. It is a slim probability. The second is based on approach that isolates the actor and waging military strikes on its infrastructure, as Israel did in the July 2006 war. But this approach didn't weaken the party; rather, it weakened the Lebanese state. The last issue is to magnify the problem of the actor's existence, adopting policies that threaten its material and moral constituents.

Finally, these three outlooks seem incapable of facing the effect and practices of actors with border-crossing identities. This necessitates that research centres exert more effort to address this problem because affected states seem too weak to do so themselves.

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