An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2018

Civil War, Economic Governance & State Reconstruction in the Arab Middle East

Steven Heydemann
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Civil wars currently underway in Libya, Syria, and Yemen demonstrate that patterns of economic governance during violent conflict exhibit significant continuity with prewar practices, raising important questions along three lines. First, violent conflict may disrupt prewar practices less than is often assumed. Second, continuity in governance highlights the limits of state fragility frameworks for postconflict reconstruction that view violent conflict as creating space for institutional reform. Third, continuity of prewar governance practices has important implications for the relationship between sovereignty, governance, and conflict resolution. Civil wars in the Middle East have not created conditions conducive to reconceptualizing sovereignty or decoupling sovereignty and governance. Rather, parties to conflict compete to capture and monopolize the benefits that flow from international recognition. Under these conditions, civil wars in the Middle East will not yield easily to negotiated solutions. Moreover, to the extent that wartime economic orders reflect deeply institutionalized norms and practices, postconflict conditions will limit possibilities for interventions defined in terms of overcoming state fragility.

STEVEN HEYDEMANN is the Janet Wright Ketcham 1953 Professor in Middle East Studies at Smith College and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy. He is the author of Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict (1999), editor of War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (2000), and coeditor of Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran (with Reinoud Leenders, 2013).

If war is the continuation of policy by other means, then civil war can be seen as the continuation of governance, not by other means as Carl von Clausewitz remarked, but by the same means. The civil wars currently underway in Libya, Syria, and Yemen demonstrate that patterns of governance during violent conflict–the practices used by insurgent and regime forces to maintain order in their areas of control–differ less from prewar practices than might be expected. In all three of these Middle Eastern cases, the legacies of prewar governance are especially evident in how regime and insurgent forces construct wartime economic orders to advance their political agendas. For both researchers and practitioners, the persistence of prewar governance practices under conditions of violent conflict raises important questions, along three distinct but related lines.

First, it challenges understandings of civil war as marking a rupture in governance: violent conflict may disrupt prewar practices less than is often assumed. Civil wars may not, as some have argued, give rise to governance practices that differ sharply from those present during peacetime. Furthermore, evidence of continuity also calls into question the extent to which rebel or insurgent forms of governance differ from those practiced by embattled regimes. The reliance of rebels and regimes on similar modes of economic governance reduces the likelihood that insurgents will mitigate causes of violent conflict, such as corruption, predation, or exclusion, or, as some have claimed, contribute to the development of inclusive, participatory postconflict political and economic orders.1

Second, continuity between prewar and wartime practices, especially in the domain of economic governance, highlights the limits of state fragility frameworks intended to improve the performance of poorly governed states. Typically defined as the result of dysfunctional institutions that produce negative social, political, and economic outcomes, fragility is widely believed to increase the likelihood of violent conflict. Fragile states are especially vulnerable to internal strains that weak and flawed institutions cannot manage or mitigate.2  Violent conflicts not only signal the breakdown of such institutions, but create possibilities for more effective, inclusive, and accountable postconflict institutions to emerge.

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  • 1Didier Péclard and Delphine Mechoulan, “Rebel Governance and the Politics of Civil War,” Working Paper (Basel, Switzerland: Swiss Peace Foundation, 2015).
  • 2U.S. Agency for International Development, Measuring Fragility: Indicators and Methods for Rating State Performance (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Agency for International Development, 2005); and Robert I. Rotberg, ed., When States Fail: Causes and Consequences (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003).