The Legacy of the Pillared Arab State

This paper is part of ACW’s fourth book, titled The Arab World Beyond Conflict.


Among other things, politics provides a means of managing conflicts. Autocracies foster and manipulate disputes, while democracies—when they function correctly—negotiate, reduce, and if possible, resolve economic, political, and ideational tensions. Thus, democratic transitions involve a fundamental change in how conflicts are mediated. In the Arab world, efforts to move from authoritarian to democratic conflict management have largely failed. Indeed, with the partial exception of Tunisia, the 2011 Arab revolts not only intensified social and ethno-religious movements, ideologies, and conflicts, but they also opened the door to efforts by leaders of Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to recast and sharpen the instruments of both autocracy and identity-based politics.

This essay offers a framework for analyzing these corrosive dynamics by focusing on the “pillared state” and its lasting influence on the domestic and regional politics of the Middle East. This state is distinguished by the intertwining of state institutions with regimes, the economy, and the security sector. The more the survival of each of these power arenas depends on the survival of the rest, the higher the risk that ruling elites attach to any effort to peel away any one strand in the power structure. In the pillared state, the mere prospect of even a modest political or economic opening often generates a relentless drive by ruling regimes to hold on to power at all costs.

The violent reaction of several Arab leaders to the 2011 revolts illustrated this all-or-nothing logic. But what drove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Libya’s late strongman Muammar Qadhafi, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was not merely their fear that any significant loss of economic or political control might lead to their political or even physical demise. In a more basic structural sense, their reaction to events was fueled by the crucial role that the pillared state had long played in protecting specific tribal or ethno-religious groups from domination by their rivals. Thus the “new sectarianism,” while hardly ancient, was not born in 2011 or following the rebellions. On the contrary, it reflected and was shaped by a long-standing legacy of pillared states, one that was invented and reinvented over the previous 50 or so years.

Yet if the pillared state has cast a dark shadow on the trajectory of Arab political systems since 2011, it has done so under unprecedented domestic and regional conditions. Until the Arab Spring, the region’s autocrats had never faced mass revolts aimed at toppling entire power systems. To ensure that such a threat would never emerge again, many Arab leaders drastically narrowed the room for political competition and free speech. Pressed by both regional and domestic challenges, they also invoked sectarian rationales (including hyper nationalism) to legitimate their exclusionary projects. Thus, autocracy and identity conflict have once again been joined. This outcome will surely inhibit more democratic forms of conflict management in the years to come.

Why Does the Pillared, Sectarianized State Resist Democratic Transition Pacts?

The South American and southern European cases demonstrate that democratic transitions usually require the readiness and ability of one or more of the groups that constitute the ruling regime to trade away political power in return for retaining their primary source of institutional clout. Thus, some wing of the security apparatus must conclude that it can retain control over the military or police by “returning to the barracks.” Business leaders must secure assurances that they can safeguard their bank accounts and investments by separating themselves from ruling parties, while bureaucrats must be reassured that their ministries will endure and will be protected from retribution. For a transition to unfold in a reasonably peaceful manner there must be some form of negotiation that sets out the conditions by which such power groups can still prosper by extracting themselves from regimes. In political science terms, such insurance agreements are called “pacts.”1

In the Middle East, the nature and evolution of state building and state power have blocked the forging of such pacts.2 This is because state institutions, regimes, economies, security services, and dominant ruling groups or regimes were tightly woven to create one interdependent power pillar.3 Rulers came to fear that if they lost or relinquished any one strand of this structure, the entire pillar would collapse. For these leaders, there was no obvious or reliable insurance policy that could provide sufficient guarantees such that they could credibly believe that giving up even a little power was worth the risk. In the Middle East, the pillared state could never be the subject of any fundamental renegotiation because rulers assumed that the alternative to the pillared state was political or even physical annihilation.

This resistance to change was magnified by the crucial role that the pillared state played in providing protection and patronage for specific identity groups.4 The smaller and thus more vulnerable the protected group, the more determined regimes were not to give up any strand of power. It is no coincidence that in the fully developed autocracies of the Arab world (i.e., regimes that tolerated little to zero political, social, or ideological pluralism), rulers ensured that minorities—such as Alawites in Syria, Sunni-Tikritis in Iraq, Sunnis in Bahrain, or the secularized middle class in Tunisia—were protected by violently excluding their rivals from the political arena. By contrast, in “liberalized autocracies”—such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Kuwait—rulers actually included rival groups (such as secularists and Islamists in Egypt from 1976 to 2011) in the political arena, thus fostering an element of controlled competition that enhanced the regime’s room for maneuver. But to reiterate, in both full and liberalized autocracies, rulers opposed any fundamental challenge to the pillared state. Instead, their survival depended not only on robust security services but, in a wider sociological sense, on manipulating and institutionalizing identity conflicts.

Reconstituting the Pillared State: Domestic, Regional, and Global Dynamics

Following the 2011 uprisings, rulers not only tried to reinvent the pillared state, but they also sought to redefine the place of identity conflicts in the overall political system. The impetus for this process of authoritarian identity reengineering was rooted in the unprecedented domestic and regional challenges that these regimes faced. On the domestic plane, many Arab leaders confronted something new: mass rebellions that toppled or seemed to nearly topple not just rulers but entire political systems. The reaction of those autocrats who survived this upheaval was not limited to repressing their opponents. More ambitiously, they have initiated efforts to drastically narrow the arena for formal political competition and pluralism.

Egypt offers the most dramatic example of such authoritarian reengineering. Sisi has tried to dismantle the political institutions that for nearly 40 years had allowed for a measure of competition between various identity groups—including the Muslim Brothers. In effect, Egypt is undergoing a transition from liberalized to full autocracy. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has closed down the limited opportunities for the country’s Shia leaders to participate in politics, which had existed prior to the 2011 revolts. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is creating his own “monarchy of fear” (to echo Kanan Makiya’s famous term describing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) that is bereft of the mechanisms that his predecessors had used to manage elite and tribal conflicts.5 As the club of autocrats grows, cooperation between its members is expanding, creating a regional Sunni authoritarian axis led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with Bahrain and Egypt taking up the rear. Assuming that Assad prevails in Syria, he will probably follow suit with similar reengineering.

This emerging axis highlights the second factor that has shaped efforts at authoritarian reengineering, namely the emergence of new regional forces and dynamics. These included not merely efforts of Arab leaders in Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain to cooperate with regional and global friends. Of equal importance was the so-called diffusion effect generated by state collapse in Libya and the events that led up to it.6 Heeding the proverbial “road to hell is paved with good intentions,” the most important event may have been the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1973.7 Formulated in May 2011 by the United States and its European allies and endorsed by Arab states, the resolution authorized a no-fly zone to protect civilians from the massacre that Muammar Qadhafi had threatened.8 But the ensuing western-led bombing campaign gave cover to his armed opponents, who murdered him in a gruesome act that was broadcast globally.9 His October 20, 2011 murder, and the eventual geographical and tribal fragmentation of Libya, seem to have reinforced the conviction of Assad and other Arab autocrats—and their regional and global backers—that death and state collapse would result unless they decimated their opponents.

Beyond such pragmatic—if ruthless—calculations, other regional events helped to sharpen the identity fears and concerns of regimes, thus ensuring that efforts to reconfigure the pillared state acquired a “sectarian” color of one kind or another. For example, Libya’s fate fed Assad’s perception that he faced a US- and Saudi-dominated Arab League “conspiracy” to topple his regime and replace it with an Islamist government.10 The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi’s election to the presidency of Egypt, and his ensuing decision to call for a no-fly zone in Syria, further convinced Assad that regional and global powers wanted to topple his regime.11 Morsi’s June 2013 decision to break diplomatic ties with Syria seemed to confirm Assad’s worst fears.12 His turn to Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia was thus impelled by his belief that Gulf-backed Sunni jihadist ideologies and movements presented a basic threat to his regime and state. Similar fears of what the Egyptian military believed was a conspiracy of Egyptian and Islamist movements from outside their country to topple the state itself prompted Sisi’s July 3, 2013 coup and subsequent effort to move to full autocracy.13

 “Sectarianization” and the Revenge of the Pillared State

It is worth noting that the above events occurred before the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria after 2013.14 In other words, the concerns of Arab autocrats about Sunni Islamist movements predated the much-studied phenomenon of the so-called Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict. That said, there is little doubt that the intensification of sectarianization in the region has both boosted and complicated the efforts of Arab leaders to reengineer their autocracies.

Much ink has been spilled on whether these dynamics were spurred by an actual religious conflict or by the calculated efforts of state leaders—and their non-state allies—to manipulate these conflicts for geostrategic advantage. But this distinction is empirically and conceptually misleading.15 In fact, the region’s sectarianization was rooted in a conflict between two countries that structurally (and even ideologically) were mirror opposites: both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were created by state builders who aligned their political projects not only with religious leaders but also with intensely religious doctrines that were deeply antagonistic. Although forged by leaders, these doctrines were also rooted in a long-standing schism regarding the nature of religious—and thus political—legitimacy in the Muslim world.16 However much reformists in Iran or Saudi Arabia strive to move beyond this ideological fissure, they cannot do so without risking a counterattack from religious establishments that are aligned with regimes, the security sectors that protect them, and the oil-based economies whose rents remain critical to the survival of both systems. Amplified by their clashing religious doctrines, this pillaring of institutional, economic, coercive, and ideological power in Iran and Saudi Arabia has hindered any major change in their domestic and regional policies—especially during periods of domestic and regional instability. Indeed, because such dynamics magnify fears about regime survival, they also stimulate intense efforts to strengthen the multiple strands of state power.

This was certainly the case in the escalating sectarian conflict that was prompted in part by Syria’s civil war. Iran’s entrance into that conflict (along with its proxy, Hezbollah) had little to do with ideological or sectarian interests. Tehran’s overriding concern was to save its key geostrategic state ally.17 But with the rise of IS in Syria and Iraq, the number of Sunni jihadist forces coming to fight what they perceived were Shia infidels swelled, thus shifting the nature and symbolism of the battle. In response, Shia militias from as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan jumped into the fray, adding even more sectarian fuel to the fire. For Tehran, the stakes continued to grow as evidence mounted that IS forces were linking up with armed separatist groups in Iran’s Sunni majority provinces such as Baluchistan.18 If the extent of this domestic threat is hard to determine, these developments certainly raised the salience and domestic political leverage of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), two thousand of whose members died in the battle against Sunni jihadist forces—including quite a few high ranking officers from the IRGC and the military.19 Iran’s leaders justified the “martyrdom” of these forces in both security and religious terms by arguing that Iranian forces were protecting Shia shrines from destruction at the hands of Sunni fundamentalists.20 Whatever their instrumental purpose, these sectarian claims have worked their own dark magic, thus adding to a process by which the battle to defend Assad—and then destroy IS—was transformed into a new and very modern sectarian holy war.

If the logic of and motivation for war shifted over time and in ways that none of the key protagonists envisioned at the outset, the deeper causes of the above story of unexpected, if violent, sectarianization was rooted in a history of modern state building that was predicated on the institutionalization of identity conflicts. Such legacies created their own constraints and traps, thus making it more likely that when faced by challenges to their own systems, the preference of rulers would be to reinvent rather than abandon the logic and tools of the sectarianized pillared state.

On this score it is worth nothing that Iraq’s recent parliamentary elections—which featured an effort to create an electoral alliance across the Shia-Sunni divide—has invited speculation that the country’s very imperfect democracy might finally provide a means of moderating sectarian tensions.21 This does not appear to be the case, however.22 Instead, the logic of sectarian conflict continues to define the boundaries of political action. Indeed, as Shia-Sunni conflict once again heats up in Iraq, so have concerns that IS will exploit this dynamic to reassert its ideological and military influence in Syria, Iraq, and perhaps Iran’s own border provinces.

Tunisia’s Transition—the Exception That Proves the Rule

It is instructive that Tunisia is the only Arab country that has managed to make the transition from authoritarian to democratic conflict management. Whether this shift will be consolidated remains to be seen. Tunisia suffers from myriad economic, social, and political problems that threaten to undermine the relative progress it has made. Still, the country has benefited from four closely linked advantages.

First, Tunisia never had the equivalent of Egypt’s massive military or Iran’s IRGC. Tunisia’s professional military was not enmeshed in the economy or invested in any ideological enterprise; as a result, the military had no compelling interest in opposing a transition.23 Second, Tunisia’s economic and social development fostered politically significant social constituencies that favored a more secular nationalism over Islamism. This provided a democratic advantage because it ensured that in open competitive elections, Islamists would gain a plurality rather than a majority. In contrast to Egypt, Tunisia’s security leaders have far less to fear from the threat of “democratic exclusion.”

Third, while the secular-Islamist divide in Tunisia was real and deep, it was not the source of, or channel for, a sectarian or tribal conflict. In contrast to Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, Tunisia’s identity conflict pivoted around ideological and symbolic differences that were amenable to negotiation, particularly by a political and business elite whose secular-Islamist division was mitigated by a shared sense of Tunisian nationalism. Finally, Tunisia benefited from the relative strategic disinterest of key regional and global powers––namely Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf states, France, and the United States––that did not act as spoilers and encouraged intra-elite agreement.


The current regional and global context has enabled processes of authoritarian and identity reengineering that stand in steep contrast to each other in Tunisia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s January 2019 Middle East tour demonstrates that at least for now, Washington is an active ally of an emerging authoritarian coalition led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.24 The Trump Administration is trying to leverage fears of Iran to embolden this coalition. However, as noted above, what unites the leaders of this axis is their hostility to Iran (or Shia Islam, more broadly), and even more so, their long-standing hostility toward independent Sunni Islamists. Washington is backing the violent exclusion of these forces from the political arena—along with any potential non-Islamist leaders advocating for more open politics. In effect, the United States has once again played the role of a “Black Knight,” but now at a level of openness and zeal that is unparalleled in the history of US Middle East policy.25

The assumption that playing this role will enhance the security of the United States and its regional allies is questionable. Indeed, the shift to more closed autocracies may prove destabilizing for one crucial reason: it requires levels of escalating state repression that could eventually provoke opposition within the political or security apparatus, or even from key social sectors such as the secularly oriented professional intelligentsia or business communities.26 The potential for defection—or at least internal pushback—goes beyond leaders and groups who are unfriendly to Islamism. Because the clerical establishments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia were part of the pillared state, and because they remain important, if potentially troublesome, state actors today, Sisi and MBS must constantly manage this source of potential dissidence.27 Neither their embrace of a more nationalist stance nor their efforts to cozy up to the Trump Administration by espousing an anti-Iran agenda will provide obvious or easy solutions to these deeper structural contradictions.

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1 Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986).
2 Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds, “Why the Modest Harvest?” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 4 (2013): pp. 29-44.
3 Raymond Hinnebusch, “Authoritarian Persistence, Democratization Theory and the Middle East: An Overview and Critique,” Democratization 13, no. 3 (2006): pp. 373-95.
4 Daniel Brumberg, “Transforming the Arab World’s Protection Racket Politics,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 24, No. 3 (July 2013): pp. 88-103.
5 Daniel Brumberg, “Has Saudi Arabia Become a Monarchy of Fear?” Arab Center Washington DC, October 24, 2018,
6 Thomas Richter and André Bank, “Transnational Diffusion and Cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa,” Project on Middle East Political Science,
7 “Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya, authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, by Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstentions: Meetings Coverage and Press Releases,” United Nations, March 17, 2011,
8 “Global Authoritarians and the Arab Spring: New Challenges for U.S. Diplomacy,” Wilson Center, September 18, 2013,
9 “The Death of Gaddafi,” Al Jazeera, November 5, 2018, See also, Alan J. Kuperman, “Obama’s Libya Debacle,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2015,
10Alistair Lyon, “Syria Denounces Arab League for Telling Assad to Quit,” Reuters. January 23, 2012,
11 Michael Youhana, “5 Reasons Why Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi Severed Ties with Syria and Al-Assad,” Mic, June 20, 2019, accessed January 14, 2019,
12 “Morsi Cuts Egypt’s Syria Ties, Backs No-fly Zone,” VOA, June 15, 2013,
13 Daniel Brumberg, “The Resurgence of the Egyptian State,” Foreign Policy, July 8, 2013,
14 Willem Oosterveld, “The Rise and Fall of ISIS,” The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, February 20, 2017,
15 Nader Hashemi, and Danny Postel, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
16 “Saudi-Iranian Cold War: Stirring up Sectarian Hostilities,” Mediterranean Affairs, November 17, 2016,
17 Ibid.
18 Chris Zambelis, “Terror in Tehran: The Islamic State Goes to War with the Islamic Republic,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Vol. 10, no.6 (July 2017),
19 “Why Iran’s Intervention in Syria Proved so Costly,” Asharq Al-Awsat, March 14, 2018,
20 Gareth Smyth, “Iran Fears Isis Militants Are Part of Wider Sunni Backlash,” The Guardian, November 18, 2014,
21 Dalila-Johari Paul and Hamdi Alkhshali, “Populist Cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Coalition Wins Iraq’s Election,” CNN, May 19, 2018,
22 Tamer El-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim, “As Iraq’s Shiite Militias Expand Their Reach, Concerns about an ISIS Revival Grow,” The Washington Post, January 9, 2019,
23 Lauren Baker, “Tunisia’s Volatile Transition to Democracy,” Project on Middle East Political Science, November 6, 2015,
24 Michael R. Pompeo, “A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East,” U.S. Department of State, January 10, 2019,
25 Thomas Ambrosio, “Democratic States and Authoritarian Firewalls: America as a Black Knight in the Uprising in Bahrain,” Contemporary Politics 20, no. 3 (2014): pp. 331-46. See Hisham Melhem, “Pompeo in Cairo; Clueless and Dangerous,” Deep State Radio Network, January 12, 2019,
26 Daniel Brumberg, “Five Years after Sisi’s Coup: Soul Searching, Resistance, and Division,” Arab Center Washington DC, September 12, 2018,
27 Noha El Tawil, “A cleric must have a comprehensive approach: President Sisi,” Egypt Today, November 19, 2018,