On Sunday, 21 March 2021, the eighth ACRPS Social Sciences and Humanities Conference began with a public lecture by ACRPS Director General and Chairman of the DI Board of Trustees, Azmi Bishara, addressing the topic “State, Nation, and Governance: Interconnection and Differentiation”.

Bishara prefaced his remarks with mention of the emergence and development of the modern state as a process of differentiation in the functions and institutions of central authority within a political entity encompassing persons both governing and governed. Differentiating the exclusive and sui generis political realm and the rise of politicians as a class, he then distinguished sovereignty from the person of the sovereign and the rule of law from their command, citizenship from the parish “flock,” and nationalism from the nation – all giving rise to a conception of the state as an entity independent of ruler and governance system.

Commencing his lecture with ideas and theories of the state, Bishara emphasized that the requirements of understanding the emergence, structure and functions of specific states impose the renouncing of dissonant or mutually exclusive theories. These include: class-based approaches to the state focused on the preservation of private property, with the modern state arising specifically with the capitalist system as a tool for managing the interests of the capital-owning class and suppression of other classes; “liberal approaches” limiting a state’s “social peace” interventions since society organizes itself without a state, violations of freedom and private property are rare, and self-organizing mechanisms of economy and society should enjoy precedence over expansion of state functions and agencies; “Weberian institutional approaches” to the state as modern, stand-alone entity concerned more with state structure and functions and the independence and rationality of the bureaucracy than with the state’s emergence; and “nationalist approaches” to states as expressions of nations aspiring to govern themselves in nation-states. Bishara then observed that in terms of theories of the state as such, “democratic state” simply indicates that a democratic system prevails therein.

Proceeding to draw a central distinction between state and governance system (or regime) he underlined how bureaucracies vary, between poor and rich countries and liberal and socialist regimes, in structure, size and efficiency. There is no state without a state apparatus i.e., without bureaucracy. Notwithstanding changing political systems, the latter forms the material basis for our perceptions of a state’s sustainability – but not the only basis since continuity of citizenship is a basic element of the state, beyond any changes in systems of governance. Citizenship is a compound of rights and duties following from an individual’s direct “membership” in the state, externally also designating nationality. The rights and duties of citizenship are the highest embodiment of sovereignty over a region and its inhabitants. Conceptually differentiating state and governance system, Bishara observed that through history the process of differentiation generates ever more complex entities – the meaning of development. In the case of liberal democracy, for example, it is difficult to distinguish system of governance from the state, not for any lack of differentiation but rather because difference is internally articulated in structure, while distinctions arise between authorities and institutions of government, and between the latter and governing personages (rulers).

Democratic systems do not differentiate themselves from state institutions, given that the institutions of democratic systems – parliament, government and the judiciary – are also state institutions. These institutions become structurally democratic, just as the army’s code becomes protection of the democratic system and submission to the decisions of the elected civilian institutions. Consequently, the democratic system paves the way for society to influence state institutions in an unprecedented way and incorporates many legal and extra-legal mechanisms to separate governing persons from institutions of state: rulers change while state institutions remain constant, as does the system itself. Bishara concluded by observing that the distinction between state and regime / system of governance arose with modernity; the symmetry that democracy creates between them is complex symmetry and reflected in the unity of the state and its distribution of powers. In authoritarian states in which the distinction between the state and regime is clearly drawn, institutions of state are enfeebled in favor of forces of the ruling regime. If state unity should be imposed by force from above, the possibility of cracks and fissures may emerge when regimes change.

Bishara defined the modern state as one whose components, regardless of the ruling regime, consist of a monopoly on violence and legislation, the existence of a bureaucratic state apparatus, sovereignty over a particular territory and a specified population, and citizenship: a compound of rights and duties resulting from membership in the state. He concluded that a realist approach to the state in Arab countries requires distinguishing between nationalism, the nation, and the state – without however diminishing the importance of any one of those.

The eighth annual ACRPS Social Sciences and Humanities Conference on “The Contemporary Arab State: Perception, Emergence, and Crisis” concluded 25 March 2021.

The fourth day discussed five research papers, commencing with Director of the ACRPS Political Studies Unit Marwan Kabalan’s paper on the collapse of the Baathist state in Syria, ushering in the most perilous phase since the 8 March 1920 “Syrian Kingdom” declaration of independence. The Syrian crisis beginning in March 2011 saw the state and its opponents calling in the assistance of allies – engendering a regional and international proxy war and existentially threatening state, social fabric and national identity. External interventions contributed to the suppression of the peaceful state opposition movement, transforming it into armed revolution and civil war.

Munqeth Othman Agha, a researcher in Turkey’s COAR Center for Studies and Research and the Syrian Memory Foundation, then discussed the interaction between state and non-state actors in Syria during the regime's regaining of control of southern Syria in 2018, assessing the nature, dynamics and outcomes of state interaction with 10 selected Syrian non-state groups and external actors.

The next conference session, devoted to rentier states, saw lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Sétif 2 Hami Hassan presenting an analytical historical reading of “the social state” in Algeria and transformations brought on by constraints of the critical economic situation, chronicling the emergence of rentier state capitalism’s six decades of stalled development. The Algerian development project was beset – especially in the 1980s and 90s – by the vicissitudes of low oil prices, political turmoil and insecurity, all testing the ability of the social state to fulfil societal needs.

Moroccan economist at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech, Ibrahim Al-Morshid went on to discuss Moroccan state decentralization and “advanced regionalization,” considering agency theory and power sharing. Examining the contractual relationship between the kingdom’s royal establishment’s delegation of executive tasks to the prime ministerial institution as agent of executive authority bearing risks related to the exercise and sharing of that authority as per constitutional requirements, the researcher’s mathematical model demonstrates that notwithstanding the success or failure of prime ministerial management of public affairs, the royal establishment always emerges victorious and strengthened from executive power-sharing.

Researcher at the Regional Center for Education and Training in Tangiers Mohamed Ahmed Bennis then discussed the Moroccan state’s “advanced regionalism” and its role in strengthening state central power and reproducing the predicament of reform suspended between aspirations of limited modernization of operating mechanisms and preservation of central structure – a dilemma that parallels the failure of democratic transition and stalled forging of a new social contract – with continued restrictions on the public employment of state resources to hands of central authorities.

Professor of higher education at the Regional Center for Education and Training Professions in Tangiers M'hamed Jabroun opened the fifth conference day (25 March 2021) with a paper on state and religion in Morocco, analyzing the trajectory from secularization to Islam in the aftermath of colonialism. The Moroccan monarchy saw dangers in modernity’s secularist tide which it sought to stem by revamping its relationship with Islam as the pillar of traditional legitimacy. It increased the quantity and quality of religious materials in public education programs as King Mohammed VI cast all state actions in a religious light, thereby framing the public political sphere in religious fatwas. Jabroun concluded that the path of the Moroccan monarchy, shifting from secularism to Islamism, remains subject to future transformations, given that the shape of the state-religion relationship still suffers from many shortcomings in practice.

Historian Saeed Al-Hajji of the University of Sidi Mohamed Ibn Abd Allah in Fez, then presented a paper discussing the post-colonial Moroccan state’s “pimping apparatus”: one of the most prominent aspects of traditionalism in the ancient makhzen structure of the state, rooted in traditional heritage dating from the sixteenth century sultan’s makhzen. After French colonialism’s exit, the newly independent Moroccan state employed pimps and local elites to direct the community towards a culture of compliance with makhzen authority. A modern institutional interface now gives citizens a choice of elected representatives, but within the traditional system that bars the participation of non-makhzen elites, thus effectively consolidating makhzen hegemony.

Ahmed Andari, professor of public law at the University of Islamic Sciences in Mauritania and head of its public law department, presented a paper on the contemporary state in the Arab world, referencing the post-colonial state in Mauritania. The building of the post-colonial state in Mauritania, as in the rest of the Arab world, has been subject to two different types of influences: one of a perception of the state as emanating originally from the West, and a second, the old perception of a state rooted in the sultanistic heritage that the Arab and Islamic world knew for centuries preceding the colonial period. The contradictions between the two are reflected in the construction of the post-colonial Mauritanian state: modern in form, but traditional in substance.

Also on the contemporary state in Mauritania, Mohamed Mokhtar Ould Bellati El Hajj Ahmed, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Legal and Economic Sciences at the Modern University of Nouakchott related how Mauritania despite difficult surrounding circumstances has managed to build democratic constitutional institutions in keeping with a 2006 constitutional amendment that enshrined the principle of peaceful transfer of power and prevented the president of the republic from assuming more than two terms of the presidency. The Mauritanian state’s diversified economy combining exploitation of raw materials (iron, copper, and gold) with development of sectors of food production (fisheries, livestock and agriculture) has contributed to shaping the nucleus of the state and institution-building. But development remains a challenge, due to continuing rampant corruption and absent good governance, with a small elite controlling political decision-making and economic resources.

In the final session of the conference, Ruwaida Mohamed Abdel-Wahab Farah, Lecturer and Graduate Studies Coordinator at the Department of Political Sciences at the Faculty of Economic and Social Studies at the University of Khartoum, presented a paper on indicators of failed states, with 2005-2020 Sudan as a case study. She assessed critically the standard Fragile and Failed State Index measurements and indicators of American research centers as not being reflective of the realities of Sudanese experience since December 2018 and subsequently changing perceptions in global institutions measuring state fragility. The researcher concluded that the nature of Sudan’s external relations determines the country’s fragility ranking, rather than objective assessment of its realities.

Majd Abu Amer, an assistant researcher at the Arab Center, presented a paper at demonstrating how the state in the Arab world has given rise, since its inception, to continuing debate as to whether it is truly a nation-state, authentically "Arab," or functionally modern. His discussion suggested that the Arab state is not a failed state in the sense of 1993 Somalia, but something between state and failed state.

At the conclusion of the conference ACRPS Arab Prize for the Social Sciences and the Humanities committee chairman Dr. Fahmi Jadaan reviewed the committee’s justifications for suspending the eighth-round prize. Director General of the Arab Center Dr. Azmi Bishara closed the conference affirming the center's mission to encourage research in the social sciences and humanities. He invited scholars to come forward to the center with their research projects and presented the topic of “Political Culture” that has been selected for the upcoming ninth round of the Social Sciences and the Humanities Conference and Arab Prize. The topic’s background paper will soon be posted on the Arab Center’s website and social media platforms.