From Leviathan to Behemoth: The State in the Arab World of the 2010s

Behemoth and Leviathan, watercolour by William Blake

Any scholar trained in political sociology will be able to quote the famous definition of Max Weber according to whom a state is the successful monopolisation of the instruments of coercion. However, as Charles Tilly (1985) would do decades later, Weber also explained, at length, that at the basis of the state one finds the monopolisation of a given community’s fiscal resources and resources of violence, in a given territory, by a brutal group of men (Weber 1992, 335). A state becomes a state, or in other words takes shape and (almost) monopolises the resources of coercion, only thanks to its institutionalisation, that is its internal differentiation and its reproduction in time, which both require the establishment of some kind of procedures and norms.

We can compare this Weberian reading of the state to the understanding that pre-Westphalian authors had of violence, on the one hand, and to Freud’s interpretation of civilisation, on the other. With the major exception of Jean Bodin, pre-Westphalian authors, such as Ibn Khaldûn and Thomas Hobbes, do not oppose external war to civil war, or the state and coercion to violence. In the eyes of Ibn Khaldûn, violence that mobilises an asabiyya and a dawa can be successful only if the existing state is already about to die (out) and a new cycle of power construction through group solidarity and rustic ideology is necessitated by the condition of this interregnum period (Ibn Khaldûn 1967). For Hobbes (1889), the state of nature certainly does not constitute a long-gone stage of humankind, but coexists synchronically with civilised society; in fact, the tyranny of the Leviathan is required not least because society has to be protected from the devastating mythical monster called Behemoth. In contrast to the domination imposed by Leviathan, which preserves the society and insures its internal harmony, the domination of Behemoth leads to a total devastation. For Freud, beyond any distinction that one might establish between an international war and any other phenomenon of violence, the modern state is based on a fragile equilibrium between Eros and Thanatos. While officially in charge of the protection of the state’s borders, Thanatos has the potential of unchaining himself and destroying Eros who is the God not only of “erotism”, but also of being, acting, and behaving in a civilised community.

What Ibn Khaldûn, Hobbes, and Freud make clear, but what Weber and Tilly hide from us, is that the stage of stateness, in other words of having a complex and yet efficient set of organs unified with each other with their efforts toward monopolising the instruments of violence, is in no way irreversible. In certain given conditions, a society can return back to a state of violence, that is, a stasis. A state can lose its capacity to coordinate national time and space, which is the condition of any projection in the future as well as of any unconstrained mobility. It is, among other things, thanks to the trust that a society can have in time and space that a state can imagine itself as a state and be accepted as such. A state may, however, also revert back to a former condition, become once again a predatory militia force sharing its Westphalian territory of sovereignty with other militia forces. It can, of course, once again recuperate what it thinks of as its territory and its control over the instruments of coercion, time, and space, but without building trust, and therefore maintaining itself as a Behemoth and not as a Leviathan.


It is obvious that in the pre-2011 Arab world, one could not observe a Weberian, rational, and legal form of state, not only because the states in the region constituted in reality “fragmented tyrannies” (Tilly 2003, 42) and as such were not able to impose their monopoly over the instruments of coercion, but also because they lacked an ad minima institutional rationality. A series of rituals, of allegiance, obedience, or unwritten rules of co-optations substituted for institutions as the main basis of the reproduction of the state in time. Politics, on the other hand, was defined as an art of “dancing on the heads of the snakes”.1 In spite of the internal differences between states, however, what one could vaguely qualify as the “Arab state” was based on a cartel structure, which warranted its durability. At the heart of the “cartel”, one could find the ruling man, rais or malik, and his family, but the viability of the cartel depended on its capacity to coordinate, honour, insure, and survey a broad coalition of armed forces, different security apparatuses, a comprador bourgeoisie that had no class consciousness but had immensely benefited from new economic opportunities such as new communication technologies, and local notabilities co-opted through periodic elections, either local or national.

There is no doubt that, since 2011, the “cartel state” has been preserved or even reinforced in some Arab countries, such as Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria, and that it has been reconfigured in Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi’s Egypt. In four other countries—Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—however, the state itself ceased to exist as a central body, losing its capacity to control its external frontiers or its territory, the latter of which had become fragmented along new borders controlled by rebel or militia forces, and becoming a predatory militia force coexisting with other militia forces. In 2012, for instance, some 300 militias were active in Libya.2 The state, or what remained of it, threatened to dismantle the militia forces, which were either tribal or formed in the wake of the militarised socialisation of the youth. However, in the end the militias succeeded to dissolve the state and the “national” territory had to be divided into two parts, neither of them being entirely sovereign. In Syria, some 1,200 militias were active before the formation of the Islamic State in 2014, which not only rejected the Westphalian borders, but also controlled wide portions of the territory and had its own capital, Raqqa (as well as Mosul, in the neighboring Iraq), ministries, economic rules, money, and schooling system.3 This was also the case in Iraq, where the Sunni militia force with its own state was defeated partly by another militia force, Al-Hashd al-Sha’bi (“Unities of Popular Mobilization”), which imposed itself as a military and political force, largely surpassing in efficiency the country’s corrupted “national army”. In Yemen, after the civil war which opposed a series of actors, including President Saleh’s highly militarised but fragmented tribe’s internal factions, another militia force, the sectarian Houthis, occupied the north of the country, marginalising President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, who officially is still considered Saleh’s legitimate successor.

In the analysis of these cases, one should not neglect the sharp contrasts they present with Tunisia and Egypt, which are historically centralised countries where the capital city plays an overwhelming role in national politics, or with Jordan and Morocco, where tribal structures are largely submitted to a makhzen, “territory of obedience”, which historically insures the state’s durability. Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen were all formed in the twentieth century, either as a consequence of the division of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War (Iraq and Syria), or as a result of decolonisation after the Second World War (Libya), or after two civil wars (Yemen). This explains the weakness of the capital city, seen in these countries, as a booty by any actors willing to conquer the “national power”, but also the strength of infra-state and trans-border identities. Iraq, Syria, and Yemen became, after the 1970s, theatres of brutal sectarian policies, which weakened not only the political forces of the 1960s, but also any form of horizontal dynamic. In all four countries, but particularly in Libya and Yemen, the massively urbanised tribal forces play a decisive political role, with the former Gadhafi and Saleh powers representing in fact the transformation of tribal coalitions into power blocs.


The militia rule that has prevailed in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen for more than a decade can best be understood as a specific form of Gewalt. This untranslatable German concept defines at once different forms of domination, state coercion, anti-state violence, and the condition of stasis. A militia is either a forbearer or a by-product of a stasis, and represents simultaneously a coercive power and a violent response to the state as the unifying force of a given territory. It mobilises the internal solidarity of its members and might well legitimise itself through a universal ideology or “call” (Ibn Khaldun, 1967). But a militia cannot be perennial for the basic reason that at some point it has to either transform itself into a cartel organisation, as one can observe in the case of the drug-cartels in Latin America, or become a mercenary force or a “stable” as has happened in some African countries (Basenguissa-Ganga 2021). As Ibn Khaldûn remarkably observes, the last option for a militia is to gradually replace the state power as not only a coercive but also an organising power (Bozarslan 2014).

Becoming a state, however, is not an easy task not least because it requires a political culture, that is, maximising and mastering one’s own asabiyya, i.e. the internal solidarity that propels a group to the front of the historical stage, and de-radicalising one’s dawa, i.e. ideology or religious fervour, fructifying economic resources, building a social basis, and seeking internal and external recognition. Thus, becoming a state requires rationalisation, legality, and the adoption of the manners, appearances, and habitus of a Westphalian state. In Libya and in Syria, the militia forces were able to control important portions of “national territory”, but were not able to insure their sustainability over time. The Islamic State, which had an impressive territorial asset (some 300,000 square kilometres), intensified its policy of cruelty both against Syrians and Iraqis and against foreigners, organised extremely violent acts in Europe, and thus created the conditions for the formation of an international alliance against it. Only in Yemen has a group, the Houthis, supported and armed by Iran, successfully transformed itself into a durable state power.

The end of the militia order can naturally create the conditions of a state-building process, but this process is often preceded by the rule of a Behemoth, which might or might not transform itself into a Leviathan. In Syria, for instance, large sectors of the country are controlled by the Kurdish forces and Turkey occupies the Afrin region and a 120-kilometre-long band in the north, from where the Kurdish population has been largely expelled. Ankara is also the main protector of the Jihadistan created by the local branch of Al-Qaida in the Idlib province, with its—currently—three million inhabitants. More importantly, the post-2011 stasis has led to the departure of some 7 million out of 22-23 million Syrians, who have primarily gone to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Europe, as well as the internal displacement of an additional 5 or 6 million. Bashar Al-Asad rules through terror, but over a field of ruins. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab community, estimated to 5 million people, has vanished, seeking refuge either in Kurdistan or in Baghdad. The Shia-controlled southern regions have also been brutalised by Shia militias: in 2012-2013, for instance, while the Shia Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was supposed to rebuild the country and its armed forces, his son, Ahmad, was brutalising Basra by using his anti-state militia forces. Some forty Hashd-i Sha’bi militias formed in response to the Islamic State, have become predatory forces imposing nation-wide internal customs. In Libya and Yemen, hundreds of thousands have fled their homes or have been killed amid increasing instability where state activity, education, health, and management of time and place no longer occurs.


There is no doubt that these countries have experienced massive violence and state brutality during the past decades. One should in fact not forget that the crises and wars of the 1980s had already fragilized states in the region, allowed the intensification of military transhumance across the borders, and blurred the distinctions between state and non-state actors. One cannot understand the evolution of a region-wide and partly militarised Shia protest, transnational jihadism, or metamorphoses of the Kurdish question without taking into account the legacy of this decade. One should also bear in mind that during this decade, after a brutal jihadist uprising led by a dissident branch of the Muslim Brothers, the Syrian city of Hama was partly destroyed in 1982 and 8,000 members of the Barzani tribes and hundreds of Shias were executed or killed in Iraq, where the regime also organised a massive campaign of chemical attacks against the Kurds in 1988. The Leviathan thus already showed by this time its potentiality to transform itself into a Behemoth. Still, the societies continued to exist, in some cases elaborated their internal networks of solidarity and different strategies of survival. Similarly, the states which “defeated” their societies were able to re-configure and immunize themselves against internal dissidence and external threats.The pure rule of Behemoth, with the collapse of the state and destruction of the societies, took place only in the 2010s.


Basenguissa-Ganga, Rémy, Ibea Atondi, Etanislas Ngodi, and Patrice Yengo. 2012. “Les ‘écuries’. Les forces d’engagements urbains dans la guerre électorale du Congo-Brazzaville”. In S ociétés en guerre. Ethnographie des mobilisations violentes, edited by Rémy-Basenguissa-Ganga and Sami Makki, 57-92. Paris: Editions de la MSH.

Bozarslan, Hamit. 2014. Le luxe et la violence. Domination et contestation chez Ibn Khaldûn . Paris: CNRS.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1889. Behemoth or the Long Parliament. London: Simpki, Marshall and Co. .

Ibn Khaldûn, 1967. The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History: The Classic Islamic History of the World. Princeton: Princeton Classics.

Tilly, Charles. 2003. The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press.

Tilly, Charles. 1985. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”. In Bringing the State Back In, edited by Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, 169-191. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, Max. 1992. Essais sur la théorie de la science. Paris: Press Pocket.

Hamit Bozarslan obtained a PhD in history (1992) at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris and in political science (1994) at Sciences Po, Paris. A Professor at the EHESS, his publications include: L’anti-démocratie au XXIe siècle – Iran, Russie , Turquie (CNRS Editions 2021), Crise, violence et dé-civilisation. Essai sur les angles morts de la cité (CNRS Editions, 2019), Révolution et état de violence . Moyen-Orient 2011-2015 (CNRS Editions, 2015).

Illustration: Behemoth and Leviathan, watercolour by William Blake from his Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826). Public Domain,

  • 1. Ali Abdallah Salah, president of the Republic of Yemen, who offered this definition was killed by his Houthi allies in 2017.
  • 2. « La Libye ordonne la dissolution des milices illégales », Le Monde, 23 September 2012.
  • 3. Charles Lister, “All the President’s Militias: Assad’s Militiafication of Syria”, in MEI, December 14, 2017, (consulted in November 2021).
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