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The Tribalist Trap

The Middle East is a complicated place. But the worst way to understand it is through the lens of “tribalism.”

Hafez al-Assad and his wife, Mrs Anisa Makhlouf, with, in the back row from left to right: Maher, Bashar, Basil, Majid, and Bushra al-Assad. Wikimedia

Back in 2016, in an article evaluating Barack Obama’s legacy, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg explained Obama’s view of the contemporary Middle East.

One of the most destructive forces in the Middle East, Obama believes, is tribalism — a force no president can neutralize. Tribalism, made manifest in the reversion to sect, creed, clan, and village by the desperate citizens of failing states, is the source of much of the Muslim Middle East’s problems, and it is another source of his fatalism.

Obama was expressing a common view — the analytical lens of tribalism is widespread among both mainstream academics and the world’s most powerful decision-makers. To them, Middle Eastern society is unstable and anarchic, a Hobbesian world of unrelenting conflict. Things change, but tribalism persists.

The assumption of unremitting tribalism shapes their prescriptions as well. Rather than advocating for economic and social change, and taking seriously the words of recent protest movements — “bread, freedom, and social justice” — most experts have argued that the region must be redrawn to create smaller, more ethnically and religiously homogenous nation states. The hope is that this would allow elites to more easily manage and contain social conflict.

It is certainly true that many social conflicts in the Middle East are organized around ethnic and religious divisions. But observers like Obama make a key error in assuming that these identities enter the analysis as preexisting “social facts,” as empirical variables that do not themselves need to be explained.

Ethnic and sectarian identities are categories of practice — they represent potential mobilizing tools for elites and intellectuals in their quest for power and resources. In other words, “tribal” conflicts should not be understood through their own language, as the consequence of deeply rooted sentiments inherent to human nature, but as one possible expression of political and material conflicts.

The case of Syria, the Middle Eastern country most plagued by violence at the moment, bears this out.

The Case of Syria

All through the Ottoman Empire, Syria was defined by its divide between urban and rural life. An alliance of propertied urban interests — including officeholders, merchants, and absentee landowners — imposed its rule upon peasant communities, who made up most of the population. The purportedly democratic system that rose out of the French colonial mandate after World War I was but a symbol of the oligarchic rule of urban patricians, and the state was treated as the private property of the ruling class.

Within this context, both local and imperial ruling classes pursued a divide-and-rule strategy that sought to sharpen forms of identity, organized around ethnicity, language, religion, tribe, or locality. Nevertheless, with the development of private property and the increasing economic opportunities provided by a growing capitalist world market, new economic dynamics began to erode existing forms of solidarities. As village chiefs and tribal leaders were replaced by — or themselves became — landowners, existing relationships, based on some form of reciprocity and “kin-like” relations, were gradually transformed into the abstract and impersonal relations of private property. People no longer faced each other as members of the same tribe or village, but as landlords and tenants. Collective identities gave way to increasingly commercialized social relations.

The postindependence period, starting in 1946, saw the rise and intensification of class struggle. The specific nature of exploitative relations in Syria, organized around urban-based networks of patronage and privileges, meant that opposition to oligarchic rule was especially pronounced among people of rural and/or minority backgrounds: Druze, Ismaili, Alawi, and Christian Orthodox. The material divides partly overlapped with regional and religious ones.

The main basis of recruitment for nationalist parties lay outside of the urban networks. Since the army provided a rare path of social and material advancement for individuals excluded from traditional networks of privilege, the officer corps and military academies were disproportionately staffed by the sons of the provincial petty-bourgeoisie (family farmers and small merchants). The army became a hotbed of nationalist ideology and a petri dish for political radicalization.

Along with schoolteachers and petty officials, military officers developed a national-populist and anticolonial ideology that sought to mobilize the rural population against urban propertied interests. The radicalized intelligentsia coalesced around the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party (better known as the Ba‘ath Party), and once it reached power — first through Union with Nasserite Egypt and, following dissolution, via a military coup d’état — it used the state apparatus to nationalize key industrial, financial, and commercial enterprises; limit the accumulation of property via land reform; and provide a path of social advancement for the formerly disenfranchised.

State employment soared, from 33,979 in 1960 to 198,079 in 1971. And dominant identities, thrown into question by the development of postindependence politics, were contested and reshaped.

The Resurgence of Primordial Identities

Class struggle between the rural and urban interests went a long way toward integrating the lower classes into the emergent national political scene — and toward replacing older forms of solidarities with those of both class and national identity. Individuals from rural and minority backgrounds increasingly staffed the state bureaucracy, and redirected resources away from urban activities. State power penetrated into the countryside, ushering in land reform and networks of agricultural cooperatives, and helping bridge the cultural and economic gap between city and countryside.

This process of class and nation formation was cut short by the regional counterrevolution that followed the defeat of the nationalist republics in the War of 1967. The regional balance of power shifted in favor of a conservative alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Internally, the radical wing of the Ba‘ath lost legitimacy and opened the door for a rightward swing that brought Hafez Al-Assad to power.

The elder Assad inherited an enormous state apparatus. But he put it to rather different ends, transforming it from a vehicle of class struggle into one of repression. Any form of independent political expression — civil organizations, trade unions, professional associations — was either prohibited or incorporated into the state. At the same time, the state itself kept expanding exponentially (from 198,079 employees in 1971, to 367,649 in 1980, to 717,387 in 1992). Both the state bureaucracy and the party were integrated into gigantic networks of patronage that, in turn, incorporated a major proportion of the population (up to a quarter, according to certain estimates).

Assad pushed an aggressive nationalist ideology — which bolstered the militarization and securitization of society — but political and economic power were increasingly recruited along personalized lines, disproportionally (although not exclusively) favoring the members of his Alawi sect. As the availability of external resources dwindled, starting in the 1980s, these interpersonal networks, cemented by the sense of belonging to the same region, clan, or sect, became ever more important in maintaining existing privileges. Figures like Rami Makhlouf, Bashar Al-Assad’s maternal cousin and one of Syria’s wealthiest men, became symbols of the regime’s corruption and of the perks associated with certain ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Although the regime never officially promoted sectarian divisions and continued to hold on to (an increasingly vacuous) Arab nationalism, the reorganization of the ruling elite increasingly took shape along personal, regional, and sectarian lines. This reconfiguration of political and economic power — which allowed regime cronies to further line their pockets —accelerated during Bashar’s reign and fueled the 2011 uprising.

Forward to the Present

The central point is this: identities are fluid, constantly defined and redefined through economic and political struggles. The predominance of ethnic and sectarian conflict is a phenomenon that itself needs to be explained — not assumed to be an unavoidable driver of discord.

The recent resurgence of “tribal” conflict in Syria, for instance, has its roots in Hafez al-Assad’s reign. The enormous power of the state apparatus — partly the legacy of a decade of class struggle in the 1960s — imposed its unchecked power over society. Without any counterbalancing force, the path was clear for patrimonialism, nepotism, and clientalism to creep back in and exploit renewed networks of patronage based on locality, ethnicity, and sectarianism.

Still, it wasn’t inevitable that primordial identities would take center stage in the attempts to overthrow his son, Bashar al-Assad. The popular revolt that erupted in 2011 emerged in opposition to a corrupt regime that funneled national resources to a small ruling elite. Even religious opposition had a material basis. It was sprung from the ranks of a petty-bourgeoisie that had been cut off from state-centered networks of privileges and recruited lower-class support through the organization of charitable activities.

Opposition to the regime was, initially, relatively multiethnic and multireligious. It was only later, and largely as a result of the sectarian propaganda of the regime — presenting itself as the protector of minorities against Sunni “terrorism” — that the opposition broke along primordial lines. These identity-based fault lines were then exploited by external powers as the conflict became internationalized, leading to the resurgence of “tribalism.”

The sectarian conflicts that we see unfolding in the Middle East are therefore not immutable elements of the region, as the language of tribalism would have us believe. However popular, this portrayal has fostered a facile, depoliticized understanding of the region’s conflicts — and given grist to proponents of military solutions. The future lies not in further fragmentation, but in the reemergence of collective imaginations and popular movements that can contest the corrupt, Western-backed regimes who have long dominated the region.