MESA Banner
Alternative Sovereignties

Panel III-7, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel seeks to explore alternative sovereignties in the Middle East and North Africa not captured by the nation-states of the region. Alternative sovereignties encompass the efforts by minority and stateless communities in the region to pursue forms of self-determination within and across national borders in the absence of the ordinary levers of state power. It also encompasses governance arrangements that enable expressions of self-determining sovereignty at the sub-national level, through municipal, provincial, regional and other modes of institutionalized political authority that offer interstitial spaces for building practices of self-rule, even in authoritarian unitary states. The panel builds on recent work exploring the potential of federalism and decentralisation to break the impasse in identity-based conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, but also goes beyond the examinations of such territorially plural arrangements to consider additional forms of political experimentation. There are many reasons to consider, if not embrace, alternative sovereignties for the communities in the region excluded from national self-determination through exclusive territorial control over a state. These include the obstacles to pursuing more traditional forms of territorial self-determination or secession, the inadequacy of regional territorial autonomy to overcome these obstacles and doubts about the capacity of traditional statist forms of institutionalized authority to address threats to human security emanating from the politics of austerity and climate crisis that plague the region. The alternative sovereignties in question include strategies of internal democratization through confederal structures; exploration of municipal governance as a site for pursuing sustainable development goals, building transnational networked arrangements between stateless communities and their diasporas, and alternative forms of citizenship and enfranchisement that may encompass exilic communities in ways that preserve their claims to return while providing a provisional model of political belonging. The cases considered by panelists span the experiences of Palestinian, Kurdish and Sahrawi communities across Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Israel/Palestine, Morocco and Turkey.
Political Science
International Relations/Affairs
  • The Crémieux Decree of 1870 did more than endow Algerian Jews with French citizenship; it stripped them of their indignity, first under the law of colonial power and ultimately in the view of Algerian Muslim society, which remained indigène. Israel’s grant to citizenship to the Samaritan community in Nablus over a century later had much the same effect on the community’s place in Palestinian society. While the mass conferral of Russian citizenship in eastern Ukraine and the breakaway regions of other post-Soviet states has refamiliarized us with the concept of passportization, nowhere is the power of citizenship – or the various trappings of citizenship – to shape identities and power dynamics in contested spaces felt more acutely than in the modern Middle East and North Africa. This paper explores, from a legal and sociological perspective, the performative-constitutive uses of citizenship by national communities in the region pursuing self-determination in its various forms, as well as the role of citizenship in thwarting those national ambitions by dividing and disfiguring the ‘nation’. International law is famously thin on questions of nationality. This is a double-edged sword. States in Russia’s orbit are vexed by the problem that passportization – as distinguished from the compulsory acquisition of an occupying power’s citizenship – does not obviously violate any accepted principle of international law. But for semi-recognised ‘virtual states’ such as Palestine and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic which claim diasporic populations as their citizenry, this legal lacuna is an opportunity: passportization may help legitimise the ‘virtual state’ as a home state or kin state endowing its putative citizens with rights and obligations, thereby restoring ties frayed by fragmentation and the passage of time, restoring a sense of political belonging, and reinforcing the collective’s claim for return. In other words, passportization may facilitate the internal dimensions of statehood even as the external dimension remain frustrated. This paper builds on the concepts of liminality in contested state citizenship (Krasniqi, 2019) and citizenship constellations of contested states, recognised states, kin states, and patron states vying for the polity’s legal and emotional allegiance (Bauböck, 2010). In addition to the performative-constitutive potential of citizenship for Palestinians and Sahrawis, the paper examines situations in which the community exercising control over a contested space has refused, offered, or imposed its citizenship as a way of excluding, fragmenting, or assimilating dispossessed, native and minority communities.
  • The historiography of the Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Iraq largely revolves around the two families currently ruling the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the Barzanis of the KDP and the Talabanis of the PUK. This paper nuances that historiography by casting light on the important role played in the 1970s, 80s and 90s by the Kurdish diaspora and by human rights activists, who publicized the struggle to gain autonomy within the state of Iraq to an international audience. Organizations run by Kurdish immigrants from Iraq in the U.S. and Western Europe, particularly the U.K., engaged in extensive lobbying efforts to win the attention of politicians and publics. This was done in coordination with the burgeoning number of human rights organizations that emerged in the so-called Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s. During this time, the population of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq suffered immense repression and brutality and subsequently came under international protection, gaining the official autonomy it continues to enjoy today. This paper observes and elaborates two identifiable shifts among members of the diaspora during this pivotal period. First, there was an increasing identification among members of the diaspora with state/autonomy-seeking Kurdish nationalism (a shift from “diaspora-in-itself” to “diaspora-for-itself”). Second, the emphasis they placed in lobbying efforts on human rights and minority rights within Iraqi borders overshadowed the push for an independent, unified Kurdistan, although that remained (and remains today) the language used by many of these organizations. This paper builds on existing literature on the Human Rights Revolution and the “boomerang effect” described first by Keck and Sikkink (1998). It is part of a larger project analyzing how the Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Iraq (including the diaspora organizations) balanced a push for collective rights and self-determination with a prioritization of the “individual” or “minority” rights of Kurds, which should be protected against Iraqi state abuse by the international community. The paper is based on oral history interviews with members of the Kurdish Iraqi diaspora in the U.S. and U.K. who were politically active during this time period; published material by various Kurdish lobby organizations; U.S. congressional archives, and archival research at the Zheen Archive Centre in Suleimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Ba’ath Archives at the Hoover Institution.
  • Kian Tajbakhsh
    A venerable localist tradition in democratic theory – associated with thinkers such as Tocqueville, JS Mill, M.K. Gandhi – contends that people’s voluntary participation in local elections and local associations are intrinsically valuable means of enhancing the virtues and dispositions necessary for (liberal) democratic citizenship (what political scientists refer to as the individual’s sense of “political efficacy”) because it involves individuals in the running of affairs in matters of immediate concern between the four years of electing representatives to national offices. Voting in local elections and voluntary engagement in civic associations are two key dimensions of such localism that are hypothesized as conducive to building practices of self-rule. Each of these forms of action depends on institutional preconditions: free, fair and contested (local) elections; and legal provisions for free association and the establishment of voluntary civic associations independent of state control, respectively. This paper empirically assesses these assumptions in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), an electoral authoritarian Islamist regime, with a focus on three dimensions of potential self-rule at the subnational level. First, the Islamic Republic of Iran introduced elected local government in 1999 thus establishing the institutional framework for a measure of decentralized or local self-rule. Second, the Iranian regime has tentatively debated but failed to adopt an NGO law that would guarantee the independence of civic associations, some of which seek to partner with local electoral institutions around issues of with local matters. Third, a few proposals for a limited territorial federalism – whereby provincial government offices would be elected rather than appointed by central government – have failed to gain any traction principally due to the fear of boosting demands of regional ethnic movements that might threaten centralized unitary state control. Under conditions of authoritarianism, a free political society, and a free civil society, and even moving towards federalism (ethnic or territorial), might be seen as representing alternative sovereignties to the dominant Islamist regime that that ruled Iran since 1979. This paper examines the ways in which these three institutional and legal dimensions for strengthening self-rule at subnational levels have been pursued and how they have been contested and achieved or blocked under the Islamic Republic. It draws on and builds on over twenty years of empirical and field research on political programs, legal rulings and administrative frameworks that impact the potential for strengthening self-rule at the subnational levels under authoritarian conditions.
  • In this paper, we examine concepts and approaches explored in confederal proposals developed in the Kurdish and Palestinian contexts. Ideas about confederalism have been germinating in the Kurdish national movement for the last two decades and have resulted in a surprising experiment in the Syrian context, which permits for the first time an empirical investigation of these ideas. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, our evaluatio is limited to policy proposals for binational confederalism that have not yet resulted in concrete experiments. Despite these differences, however, we believe that comparing ideas about confederalism — as a vehicle for expressing national self-determination without the formal attributes of statehood — in these two disparate cases yields important insights. Both sets of proposals leave open important questions about how to connect potential (or actual) confederal projects to existing state structures or how, in practice, to transform state institutions in ways that make them more conducive to realizing confederal futures. On the other hand, there are also critical insights about the status of borders, citizenship, residency rights and democratic representation in both sets of proposals that reconfigure the relationship between political authority and territory in ways that are generative, precisely because they sidestep the methodological and conceptual binds of the nation-state. The paper makes a contribution to the literatures in comparative politics and comparative law that address decentralization, questions of constitutional design in divided societies, internal and external self-determination, and non-sovereign nations of the MENA region.