Luca Anceschi, Gennaro Gervasio, and Andrea Teti, editors, Informal Power in the Greater Middle East: Hidden Geographies. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?
Luca Anceschi, Gennaro Gervasio, and Andrea Teti (LA/GG/AT): It seemed to us that a wide variety of informal power dynamics and their interaction with formal institutions were not being taken particularly seriously—at least, beyond general and often Orientalist claims about “culture.” This lack of attention is perhaps rooted in Political Science’s focus on formal allocation processes through institutionalized decision-making channels—Lasswell and Easton, for example, famously defined politics respectively as the study of “who gets what, when and how” and “the authoritative allocation of values.” But this parsimony comes at a cost, the polarization between approaches focusing on institutions and analyses of culture. This polarization makes it possible to think of formal loci and processes as the “normal” sites of rational deliberation, while informal politics becomes all-too-easily associated with clientelism, cronyism, and “culture” understood as irrational, abnormal, deviant—a somehow lesser forms of politics. Such simplistic dualisms are evident, for example, in neo-Orientalist studies of “authoritarian resilience” (or indeed of “terrorism”). Less attention has been devoted to “hidden geographies of power,” political dynamics developing inside, in parallel to, and/or beyond institutional fora.
This lack was particularly evident when the idea for the volume arose in 2009, well before the Arab Uprisings, and then in 2010 when we organized the first academic symposium at WOCMES 2010 in Barcelona. Even scholarly literature focusing on civil society and challenges to authoritarianism as late as 2010 mostly focused on the static—or apparently static—nature of state-civil society relations (so-called “authoritarian resilience”). Across several subfields, scholarship frequently focused either on the formal, institutional, and procedural aspects of politics, or on activism and informal social movements. This volume showcases analysis bringing both dimensions together, sketching possible approaches to and aspects of the problem.
In fact, the Uprisings presented the project with both a challenge and an opportunity: a challenge because processes we intuited and sketched had suddenly and unpredictably come center stage; and an opportunity, because it allowed us to dig much deeper into the processes we had glimpsed. What formerly appeared as relatively marginal or less apparent phenomena, with the Uprisings often became central axes of political processes.
By observing and reflecting upon less frequented spaces of power, co-option, and negotiation from several disciplinary perspectives, and particularly by focusing on the interplay between formal and informal power, we aimed to provide new insights in the study of the intersection between policy-making and practical political dynamics in the Greater Middle East.
Contributions in the book’s first section [“Redistributing Power Relations through Informal Alliances”] discuss the role informal powers have played, or might play, in configuring social, economic, and political power relations. This contribution considers both the tools used by elites to maintain their predominant position and the ideological and practical attempts to resist and subvert such attempts. In the volume’s second section [“Radicalization and Conflict”], the focus shifts to contexts in which elite control centered around incumbent regimes and their “old” asabiyyat break down. Through the lens of particular case studies, this section examines the role which disattending demands from outside incumbent regimes—elite as well as popular—has played in the radicalization of political ideologies and practices. These chapters also look at interactive patterns between formal and informal actors in alliance-making processes occurring within different tiers of governance (national and local). Finally, the book’s concluding third section [“Resistance, Co-optation, Centralization”] examines the interaction between incumbents and challengers, in their attempts to use a wide range of instruments—formal and informal—to achieve and consolidate positions of influence and power in post-uprising scenarios.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LA/GG/AT: The volume’s contributors focus on three themes: first, the manifestation of informal sources of power in specific scenarios, focusing on instances in which the exercise of power crosses conventional boundaries between formal/informal political arenas, state/civil society, etc.; second, the interaction between informal “agencies” (groups, movements, etc.) with and/or systematic opposition to incumbent regimes, with particular attention to how and whether this “mapping” changes over time, and the strategies opposition groups used to engage with and/or overcome incumbent regimes, and vice versa; and third, instances in which informal political actors use formal processes and vice versa.
The volume brings together several fields, including political science, anthropology, literature, “continental” theory, history, and area studies. Substantively, contributions consider three distinct but interconnected typologies of relations between formal, official power and informal power in the region. First, although tribal, religious, and military powers appear to have offered indispensable political support to ruling elites, the impact of these forces has been understood mostly in terms of intra-elite negotiations. The 2010/11 Uprisings show that analysis must include non-elite popular participation and focus on counter-elite groups, which until the 2011 Egyptian uprising received only sporadic attention. In this sense, the focus in previous generations of scholarly analyses on power brokers such as armed and intelligence forces or religious authorities must be supplemented by understanding how each negotiates its relations to wider audiences, not just its elite counterparts.
Second, contributors detect the emergence of new forms of informal powers, particularly in “post-populist” systems. Here, regime stability is no longer the direct outcome of military coercion and large-scale political co-optation of elite groups combined with repression of others. Rather, in these cases, the “neo-asabiyyat” supported ruling elites during protracted crises of legitimacy through extensive electoral support, which they extended in exchange for informal recognition of actual localized powers. In particular, contributions reflect on how such “elite” brokers engage in attempts to channel support and legitimacy from such wider audiences. This, however, was and is likely to remain a precarious stability, eventually undermined by a combination of increasing internal fractiousness and external contestation, particularly by non-elite, popular, and often unofficial and informal forces (from tribes to workers, from upper-class youth to the urban poor and ultras). These forces certainly contested the controlling position of a certain elite, but more generally, they challenged the social, economic, and political contract upon which the legitimacy of those elites rested, elaborating entirely different approaches, new asabiyyat. It is upon these conceptions that the legitimacy of “revolutionary movements” now rests, a new social contract that has become a crucial terrain in uprisings, both ongoing (for example in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, but also Morocco, Jordan, and Algeria) and those more immediately “successful” (Tunisia and Egypt).
Third, each chapter recognizes the emergence of a new dialectic between formal and informal powers. Crucial in this context has been an increasingly popular debate over the role of the “power of civil society” as an alternative to authoritarian governance. If, on the one hand, civil societies and formal opposition groups can be seen as challengers to established regimes, on the other, recent scholarship suggests that the presence of such groups can in fact strengthen regimes, offering them a democratic façade. This volume aims to shed light on these dynamics, particularly on the complex interplay between formal and informal spheres in the production of particular political practices, both democratic and authoritarian. In particular, where the literature on civil society and its relation to democratization remains largely confined to discussing the relative merits of state-building “supply-side” approaches to democracy versus civil society-focused “demand side” approaches, contributions in this volume recognize the challenges to this very distinction that both regimes and their opponents have brought.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
LA: I work on the politics and the International Relations of post-Soviet Central Asia, a region where the consolidation of authoritarian governance facilitated the emergence of murky political dynamics. Understanding the “informal” is critical to understanding how politics is digested in the region, even in contexts—like Turkmenistan, which is the focus of my own chapter—where the state is fused within the regime.
GG: Since my PhD dissertation on the Marxist Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, my main research interest has focused on Egypt and on subaltern, less “obvious” political actors and movements. This book project gave me the wonderful opportunity to broaden my horizons, both theoretically and empirically, through a comparative perspective.
AT: Empirically, my expertise focuses on Egypt, Euro-Mediterranean relations, and “democracy assistance”: this project was an opportunity to think in much broader terms. Analytically, taking my cue from Foucault and Gramsci, one dimension I tried to bring to the volume was the focus on the relationship between “practical” politics and the forms of knowledge produced about it.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LA/GG/AT: The book is designed to be accessible at all levels, but it is conceived in particular to address both scholars and advanced students as a research tool.
With respect to the impact we hope it might have, we hope the volume will highlight the importance of understanding the linkage between formal and informal political processes, both “hidden”—from the formal political arena, and from the “normal” gaze of scholarship—and “apparent” in the more clearly manifest and easily observable loci of the political.
Also, clearly, a volume such as this cannot hope to be exhaustive, so we hope that the sketches it provides—in terms of analytical approaches, methods, and cross-field scholarship—will be taken up by other scholars to explore and challenge our findings.
J: What other projects are you each working on now?
LA: I have just finished up an article on the politics of new media in Kazakhstan, while working on a long-term book project that analyses the foreign policy of neo-Eurasianist Kazakhstan. The book, hopefully, should be out early next year.
GG: I am currently working on a book project, Reconfigurations of Power and Resistance in the Wake of the “Egyptian Revolution” of 2011, where again the informal or “hidden” perspective is pivotal.
AT: I am working on the EU’s FP7-funded “Arab Transitions” project based at the University of Aberdeen. Most of my current research is devoted to two books. The first presents an analysis of EU democracy promotion since the “Arab Uprisings” (an article is forthcoming in Middle East Critique; earlier work appeared in Mediterranean Politics) The second is a book-length analysis of the politics of confession, debt, and democracy. This book generalizes and extends Foucault’s analysis of confession Preliminary work on Foucault and Edward Said was recently published as “Orientalism as a Form of Confession,” in Foucault Studies.
J: How might this collection`s emphasis on what you call "hidden geographies" help to affect the study of power in the Greater Middle East?
LA/GG/AT: One dimension of power that is relevant both “internally” to each regional regime and to their regional and global relations is the interplay between formal structures and informal processes. In Syria, for example, the regime’s institutional configuration remained fairly continuous in the hand-over between Hafiz al-Asad and his son Bashar, while in reality it was clear from personnel changes that the regime’s power base was changing significantly. In this case, formal dimensions of the ruling nizaam obscured significant informal changes. Similarly, in Egypt it was the recent splits within the NDP-centered elites—between “Gamalites” and the “old guard”—as well as longer-running divisions between Army and Ministry of Interior, which created significant splits that protesters exploited. On the other hand, in Tunisia, the opposition organization under Ben Ali certainly did not keep open membership lists, masking “civil society”—more appropriately: of opposition generally—from the easily graspable purview of formal politics, and making the informal dimension of opposition more important.
There are also a series of specific sub-fields that could draw on the approaches sketched in this volume. For example, the volume contributes to debates on the nature and conditions of civil society and democratization by going beyond conventional institutional indicators of (liberal) democracy and considering the broader political context from which the demands for democracy and the adaptive practices and processes through which oppositions contest regimes emerge. But subfields such as these could also be strengthened by examining the relation between the body of knowledge these subfields produce and political practices towards and within these systems. In a much-neglected essay, Yahya Sadowski (1993) had already noted the relationship between political context and scholarship about the region, especially “democratization studies,” with its recent debates on façade democracy, authoritarian resilience, and post-democratization. Politological scholarship generally could focus much more on these kinds of processes—the politics, including political economy, of knowledge production, and its links with policy design and practice.
The need for such analyses has been highlighted not least by recent dramatic developments in the Greater Middle East, which took most observers by surprise, not least because of a lack of attention to the interplay between authoritarianism and democratic resistance, between trends in formal and informal loci of domestic politics.
Excerpts from Informal Power in the Greater Middle East: Hidden Geographies
From Lorenzo Trombetta, “Beyond the Party: The Shifting Structure of Syria’s Power”
This chapter aims to illustrate the inner structure of the current Syrian regime. The objective here is twofold: first, to explain the rationale for the regime’s cohesiveness, highlighting the features of continuity and discontinuity between the reigns of Hafez al-Asad (1970–2000) and that of his second son, Bashar (2000–); and second, to illustrate the latter’s inability to maintain the power balance that allowed Hafez to rule Syria for thirty years. The chapter’s first section describes the structure of the regime as it was conceived and established by al-Asad, Sr. It is followed by an analysis of the system during the first years of Bashar’s rule (2000–2005) and the subsequent period (2005–10), with a view to illustrating the process through which al-Asad Jr. progressively strengthened his position at the head of the power pyramid.
The central theme of this chapter is therefore represented by the continuous dialectic between Syria’s tiers of power: on the one hand the alternation between formal and informal power, and on the other hand the relation between hidden power and exposed power. The expression “formal power” is used here mainly in relation to state institutions, both those that are apparent (government, parliament, judiciary, the Ba‘th party) and those that have remained hidden (security apparatus, special forces, etc.). At the exposed level we can find the components of the executive (prime minister, speaker of Parliament, governors, etc.); at the hidden level are the real decision-makers. For this reason, this chapter puts a premium on differentiating between real (hidden) and apparent (exposed) power.
The level of “informal power” is in turn represented by élite members who operate above and beyond their designated official status or outside any institutional role (e.g. top members of the secret police). Informal power also arises from loci, the existence of which is not codified by the constitution or state laws (e.g. powerful business interests connected to the secret services). In this case, as illustrated by Figure 2.1, it is possible to distinguish between an informal power that is real but hidden (an arena where real decision-makers operate) and an apparent and exposed one, in which executive power is ultimately exercised.
This chapter will identify the equilibrium amongst the various levels of power as the main factor behind Hafez al-Asad’s success in maintaining power for three decades. Conversely, Bashar al-Asad eroded his father’s gains, tipping the power system towards the informal and hidden sphere, to the detriment of the informal and exposed power structures. The second part of this chapter will contextualize significant alterations in the relation between the two levels within the events that occurred during the first twelve months of the uprising (March 2011–March 2012). Limiting our attention to this timeframe is sufficient to answer two crucial questions: has the uprising in its various forms affected the cohesiveness of the regime? How did the dialectic between formal–informal power and exposed–hidden power intervene to preserve the regime’s equilibrium?
The Structure of the Syrian Élite
In the Syria of Hafez al-Asad, apparent and real power coincided for thirty years. Other critical markers of the power structure in the al-Asad, Sr. years included the predominance of the ra’is (leader) over other decision-making centers and, most importantly, the pervasive role of control organs. Cadre management was based on the appointment of Alawis belonging to clans allied with the al-Asads to top regime positions, while the regime’s power base was widely dominated by Sunni representatives from the rural areas. In the words of Haddad (2005):
Syria’s real strongmen sit at the helms of General Security, Military Security and the Republican Guard. Changes and replacements at that level tell a more direct story about the regime’s internal power dynamics than hundreds of pages of party declarations and memoranda.
Under Hafez al-Asad, Syria’s power system was articulated in two different levels (see Figure 2.2): one “exposed” (sulta zaahira) and another “hidden” (sulta khafiyya) (Sadiq 1993: 71–77). The former consisted of the government, Parliament, Court of Justice and local administrations, and the State institutions which are formally the emanation of the people’s will, but which are in fact controlled by the president and have no real, autonomous power. The latter was represented in turn by the intelligence agencies, the special Army corps, and the top positions in the Ba‘th party: the true spheres of decision-making, instruments of control and repression dominated by the ra’is.
A break with the past: the rise of informal–hidden power Unlike Hafez, Bashar al-Asad never became the absolute authority in the Syrian political system. Instead, he should be seen as a primus inter pares within a structure dominated by the informal–hidden power tier (see Figure 2.2). Leadership change, in this sense, engendered to some extent a power shift: under Bashar, Syria’s power is no longer concentrated in the hands of the ra’is, but belongs to an oligarchy, comprising a small group of al-Asad family members, a few of their relatives and allies, a handful of officials from the control apparatus, and the odd remnant from Hafez’s regime.
Since 2004, Bashar and four other key members of the regime (Maahir al-Asad, ‘Aasif Shawkat, ‘Ali Mamluuk and Faaruuq al-Shar’a) formed the so-called “Monday Directoire,” a board which met every Monday in Damascus (Trombetta 2008: 144–45).
In another critical break with the past, Bashar, while managing sensitive matters, ceased to rely on Sunni rural élites, placing his exclusive trust in family members. In this context, Sunni establishment members suddenly became organs of formal–exposed power. They have to be seen, in this sense, as actors reciting from a script written behind the scenes, or as terminals connected to the various centers of power by means of a hidden chain of command.
It is within this context that it is possible to find a third break with the past: the security services have become family organs, with top management directed by members of the al-Asads or families of allied clans. This is to the detriment of the party, which, in another significant departure from earlier practices, is gradually losing its pivotal role within the framework of real power. The Ba‘th party is now playing a decisive role only at local level, the sole sphere where it continues to carry out important management functions by ensuring close control on the ground. Beyond that, party organs are being increasingly marginalized.
The regular armed forces can be regarded as another illustrious victim of this silent process of “oligarchization.” Excluded from modernization efforts in the early post-Cold War era, and, following the complete withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, the traditional divisions of Syria’s military now remain operational only as a tool of formal–exposed power. The SF and, above all, the RG have been strengthened in the process and confirmed as the regime’s only real military shield.
Analysis of the changes to the internal structure of the regime at its various levels suggests a progressive “familialization” of Syrian power and al-Asad Jr.’s more frequent recourse to informal and hidden power, which remains dominated by the networks of business interests constructed around the members of the family, among whom the President’s maternal cousin Rami Makhluf stands out. This dynamic took place to the detriment of informal–exposed power, in which Syria’s post-1990s business élite had traditionally operated. The regime’s power base was thus tipped out of balance, losing an important pillar of support within society. This imbalance did not go unnoticed by the top echelons of the system, who attempted to remedy by creating meeting points between exponents of the various levels of power: the “Monday Directorate” (2005) and the so-called “Crisis Cell” (2011) were tasked, at least on paper, with shifting the weight of decision-making from the informal–hidden places (the oligarchic relatives of al-Asad) to those of the formal–exposed (the Ministries) and formal–hidden (the top levels of the security organs). But it was not enough. By late 2012, the al-Asads and their few loyal generals were huddled together trying to defend themselves by relying on clan and community links, mostly within the Alawi minority. The result is an emphasis on the Asadization of power. In the long term, Asadization might mean isolation and, inevitably, weakness.
[Excerpted from Informal Power in the Greater Middle East: Hidden Geographies, p. 22-40, edited by Luca Anceschi, Gennaro Gervasio, and Andrea Teti, by permission of the editors. © 2014 Luca Anceschi, Gennaro Gervasio, and Andrea Teti. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]
 Surprisingly, this is despite several calls to focus on informality including Springborg’s (1978) study of Egyptian professional syndicates; Singerman’s (1997) demonstration of the relevance of popular participation despite authoritarian repression (including but not limited to what Asef Bayat later called “street politics”); and in the post-Cold War hey-day of “transitological” optimism, well before talk of “hybrid regimes” (Diamond 2002) and before transitology itself was questioned (e.g. O’Donnell 1996, Carothers 2002), already Middle East scholars warned cautioned against the dangers of formalism: Korany (1994) emphasised the superficiality of liberalizing reforms, while Kienle (1998) and Hinnebusch (1998) argued that such formal, façade liberalizations played a tactical role within more general strategies of rule.
 GG and AT argue elsewhere that Nazih Ayubi’s classic distinction between fierce and strong regimes ought to be retrieved: a range of regional regimes are clearly fierce but not necessarily strong, their brutal use of force belying their brittleness rather than being a token of their strength. See A. Teti & G. Gervasio, (2011) “The Unbearable Lightness of Authoritarianism: Lessons from the Arab Uprisings,” Mediterranean Politics, 16(2): 321-327.