News > Research Workshop "Emerging Actors and Changing Societies in the Southern Mediterranean Area"
Research Workshop "Emerging Actors and Changing Societies in the Southern Mediterranean Area"
The EuroMeSCo Secretariat and the Istituto Affari Internazionali, in collaboration with the Istituto Paralelli, held a research workshop on "Emerging Actors and Changing Societies in the Southern Mediterranean Area" on 21-22 September 2007 at the Incontra Center in Turin.


The seminar was introduced by Roberto Lattes (Istituto Paralleli, Turin), Dr. Roberto Aliboni (IAI, Rome) and Dr. Schumacher (EuroMeSCo secretariat, Lisbon), the latter of which pointed out that the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East are still characterised by the absence of sustainable and wide-ranging political reforms. While only two years ago many observers spoke of an Arab spring, in view of the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, the introduction of universal suffrage in Kuwait and the cautious opening of the political arena in Egypt that took place before the parliamentary elections, Schumacher argued that these assessments were proved premature. According to him, reforms either failed to spill over to other sectors and countries, or remained temporary and were eventually rolled back. It could be observed throughout the last years that the neo-patrimonial and authoritarian regimes in the region are, in principle, willing to embark upon reforms, but have used authoritarianism to consolidate and preserve their power by channelling pressures for political reform into specific areas.

Furthermore, he argued that in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Arab ruling elites have managed to shut down all real secular opposition through recourse to a number of different strategies, Islamist anti-government movements have become increasingly powerful. In his view, this can be explained in part by the impotence of political and economic subsystems to ensure what David Easton has called the socially binding allocation of values and goods, but also by the fact that Islamism seems to serve as a mobilizing and unifying ideology for the growing masses of those losing out in the context of modernization. Yet, according to Schumacher, it was important to note that the vast majority of Arab regimes has pursued, or at least focused upon, ambitious market economy-oriented reforms. Nonetheless, practices of state intervention have barely changed at all and some governments continue rent-seeking behaviour, despite impressive rates of growth. With this in view, he made a plea to attach particular importance to the role of actors in the southern Mediterranean, as it became somewhat obvious that political paths of development in societies with a history of weak or nonexistent civil societies are inevitably bound to the fate of their political elites.


Against this background, Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri (CSS, Amman) kicked off the first session on “Understanding the New Wave of Political Islam”, and tried to explain the phenomenon of radicalization in the Arab world. He argued that while tendencies to bring Islam back to Arab societies is not related to politics, but rather to values and beliefs, political Islam is a relatively new phenomenon, as only the Palestine issue motivated the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements in the middle of the twentieth century to turn towards politics. In this light, he distinguished three waves of political Islam, i.e. a first wave that saw the formation of ideology, as well as an increasing mobilisation of potential supporters; a second wave marked by the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to radicalise; a third wave characterised by political Islamist movements to challenge the ruling elites in the wake of the military coup in Algeria in early 1992. Moreover, he pointed out that while in recent years political Islamist movements had increasingly accepted the state and decided to change it from within, though not necessarily with the objective to impose the sharia’h, Arab governments also changed their strategy and opted for the co-optation of Islamists instead of pursuing an approach that was, in the view of Zweiri, previously marked by securitization.

This presentation led to an intense debate over the origins and nature of Islamist movements in general during which it was remarked that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not necessarily be the legitimising issue for all Islamist movements and, secondly, that it was questionable whether a distinction between radical and moderate movements was, in fact, analytically feasible, due to the evolving character of the phenomenon. While some participants remarked that it might be misleading and politically problematic to label Islamist movements anti-systemic as too often the political systems themselves were not put in question, others questioned the movement’s social and economic basis and pointed out that many do not have an elaborated socio-economic agenda. Participants agreed as regards the issue of credibility and thus the fact that in the foreseeable future, there will still be some actors that are likely to discredit even those movements that are abiding by the (democratic) rules and accuse them of having a hidden agenda.


The second session was introduced by Khalil Gebara (LCPS, Beirut) who presented the first findings of an ongoing EuroMeSCo research project on “The Renewal of the Arab Elite: The Cases of Algeria and Lebanon”. In his presentation, Gebara analysed the composition of the Lebanese elite and argued that its composition is increasingly subject to change in view of the large number of businessmen that have entered, or are about to enter, the political scene. This, in turn, he argued, has potential repercussions on the way politics is being conducted, as well as on the substance of policies. Yet, it was pointed out that the “new” elite was hitherto unable to win the broad support of society and thus of the different religious communities, as it has, at least so far, not shown any will to abandon rent-seeking behaviours neither towards the state, nor towards its clientele. However, as clientele gestures decreased in size and scope, due to increasingly limited resources as a consequence of the July war, especially the Sunni “new” elite lost control over parts of its followers.

In the subsequent debate, participants established a link with the findings of the previous session and expressed their scepticism with respect to the prospects of the alleged new economic elite, given the latter’s patrimonial tendencies. In this view, it was mentioned that neither the US, nor the EU supported the creation of a truly new elite that does not have its roots neither in the business sector, nor in the world of politics.


In the third session Dr. Daniela Pioppi (IAI, Rome) and Dr. Nathalie Tocci (IAI, Rome) presented the results of a EuroMeSCo research project on “Domestic Change and Conflict in the Mediterranean: The Cases of Hamas and Hezbollah”. They evaluated the roles of the two movements in their respective national arenas, and in the conflict with Israel, and analysed the impact of the two Islamist movements on regional politics, and, finally, the impact of Western and mainly EU policies on them. The two speakers argued that both Hamas and Hezbollah represent highly relevant mass actors with a great degree of credibility among large parts of their societies and are, in fact, willing to make internal compromises. This takes place in a climate of growing polarization to which the international community, the two movements themselves, as well as other domestic forces have contributed. As regards Hezbollah, it was argued by Pioppi that it has firmly accepted the rules of the game, i.e. the Lebanese constitution and the Lebanese state, and chosen political participation as the best strategy to solve the country’s problems and ensure the movement’s physical survival. Yet, she remarked that this strategy could be subject to reversal, and Hezbollah might find itself more inclined to revert back to the outsider position it held before the Taif agreement. In the view of Pioppi, this may be the case especially if Hezbollah will find itself increasingly isolated internationally and rejected domestically. Against this background, Hezbollah’s relationship with Syria was considered to be strategic rather than ideological, in contrast to the relationship it has with Iran. While Syria has been protecting the movement, ensuring it could retain its arms against Israel, it also ensured the party would not become too powerful. Currently, according to Pioppi, Syria still supports Hezbollah logistically by allowing military and financial assistance to be smuggled into the Lebanese territory. She concluded that the links with Iran and Syria have not impeded Hezbollah to act as a true Lebanese organisation with respect to strategy and its political programme, as well as regards its rank and file.

With respect to Hamas, Tocci argued that the movement had recently changed its religious agenda and thus policies in spite of - rather than “because of” – international pressure. It was pointed out that independent of the latest political developments on the ground, ‘Hamas-in-power’ has structurally changed the rules of the game in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and become an integral part of the Palestinian leadership without which any lasting peace agreement between the two sides is nowadays inconceivable. Tocci reminded the participants that there are members within the movement who have been questioning the alleged more moderate line adopted by the movement. However, as the Hamas leadership was desperate to achieve concrete results from its ‘political process’, according to Tocci, it “sold” the political route to this increasing number of dissatisfied members. Against this backdrop, external players, such as Israel, the EU and the US and numerous Arab governments, did not help consolidate the gradual turn within Hamas. On the contrary, a major part of the effort was directed towards bringing down the Hamas government as quickly as possible, and eventually these efforts bore fruit in the West Bank, and thus contributed to an aggravation of the political (and socioeconomic) division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, it was argued that the short-sighted policies of these external actors in imposing embargos, initially directed towards the Hamas-controlled government, then to the short-live unity government, may have eliminated forever the possibility of consolidating a more politicised and pragmatic organisation. As regards the role of the EU, and the US for that matter, it was concluded that by failing to recognise both parties as mass nationalist movements and integral elements of their respective societies, they have contributed to a set of negative factors, which have concomitantly hampered the quest for peace, democracy and good governance, as well as inter- and intra-state reconciliation in the region.


The last session was opened by Dr. Eva Wegner (SWP, Berlin) who gave an overview of “Political Islam in Morocco in View of the Parliamentary Elections 2007”. In her presentation, she argued that the elections must be considered a step back in the political development of Morocco. She explained that the Justice & Development Party (PJD), which was widely tipped to win the elections, only ended up in third place mainly due to the way the electoral system was designed. According to Wegner, an additional factor explaining the PJD’s relativily weak performance was its inability to mobilize its (potential) voters, it’s refusal to buy votes and thus the fact that it increasingly suffered from its own agenda. There was widespread agreement that the elections dealt a heavy blow to the PJD’s ambitions, but also to those that considered the elections to be the next step on Morocco’s path towards more developed parliamentarism and thus the consolidation of party politics. As the parliament became even more fragmented, the current, as well as potential future governments, will have to be comprised of several parties – a fact that prevents one single party from becoming too dominant a political player and that reinforces the power of the King.

Finally, in view of these presentations and debates, participants agreed that it was premature to discuss policy recommendations for the EU unless the latter would embark on a serious discussion of its policy objectives in the southern Mediterranean.


To see the programme, please click here

To read the conclusions of the workshop in Arabic, please click here