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Changing Domestic Orders in the Middle East and North Africa

As the Middle East and North Africa Regional Architecture (MENARA) project comes to an end by the 31st of March, the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT) – in cooperation with Corvinus University of Budapest (CUB) – organised a concluding conference with the title “Changing Domestic Orders in the Middle East and North Africa”. The event took place on the 21st of March, 2019, at Corvinus University of Budapest. 

The conference started with the welcoming remarks of Márton Ugrósdy, Director of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade, who expressed his gratitude towards the participants of this EU-wide research project. It is not common that a Hungarian research institute can contribute to a project of such magnitude, which aimed at providing analysis and predictions to the European Commission about the present and the future of the MENA region. Next, Dr. László Csicsmann, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and International Relations of Corvinus University of Budapest (who participated the research project himself) also highlighted the importance of cooperation between the Institute and the University. Lastly, Prof. Erzsébet N. Rózsa, the project coordinator of Work Package 6 of the MENARA project presented the main framework and the findings of the research.

After the introductory speeches, the first panel focused on the regional and global environment of the Middle Eastern and North African domestic political systems. Erzsébet N. Rózsa discussed the role of the European Union and that of the United States in shaping international relations in the region, highlighting that the EU does not need a new framework to deal with the region, since the Barcelona process (which started in 1995) provided a sufficient basis for inter-regional cooperation. László Csicsmann presented the main dynamics of the regional balance of power in an offensive realist interpretative framework. He identified the attitude of the regional middle powers towards the status quo, especially that of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. He nuanced the usual picture  drawn by Western scholars about Iran being completely anti-status quo and Saudi Arabia defending it, though he highlighted that Turkey usually aims at maintaining borders and balances of power (especially vis-á-vis the Kurdish movements).

The second panel dealt with specific case studies about the transformation taking place in the domestic political systems in Middle Eastern and North African countries. Ameni Mehrez, PhD candidate of the Central European University presented the changes of Tunisia after 2011. According to her, the country (the birth place of the ‘Arab Spring’) is considered a success story in terms of the political dynamics that took place in the country compared to its neighbours. One of the main political achievements is the draft of a new constitution, but the new Islamist-Secular compromise is also worth analysing as it allowed to build a road map for the country and lead the first democratic parliamentary elections in the history of the country. Several scholars and analysts consider these changes major steps in the democratization and liberalization of the country. However, despite all the political successes that Tunisia has been experiencing, the goals of the revolution are considered unachieved yet. The optimistic picture of change and development soon started to decline among Tunisians especially among the youth. Unemployment and poverty rates remained high in post-revolution Tunisia.

Elias Dahrouge, PhD candidate of Corvinus University of Budapest, described the case of Lebanon. He started with presenting the main particularities of the Lebanese political system in the framework of the consociational democracy structure, then turned to the main changes taking place in the country since 2011: that are mostly related to the impact of the neighbouring Syrian conflict: the high proportion of refugees, the security risk related to the potential spill-over effects, economic stagnation, the failure of self-distancing strategy, and the participation of Lebanese political forces in Syria. This resulted in a paralysis in the political system on the one hand, but on the strengthening on the civil sphere on the other.

As the last speaker, Máté Szalai, a senior research fellow at IFAT and an assistant lecturer at CUB, spoke about the case of Oman. He argued that the main question regarding the Sultanate is whether the rentier logic (which provided stability for decades in the Arabian monarchies) can be sustained without the necessary fiscal resources. While Muscat was able to tackle the challenges of the “Arab Spring” using traditional rentier tools, insufficient revenues led to an exposure to foreign debt markets in a matter of a few years. Such economic vulnerability can be dangerous for a state which aims at keeping foreign influence minimal, and can be quite critical during the succession process which will probably take place in the course of the next few years.