PhD students offer insights on the war in Gaza

  • Fall 2023 ∕  Winter 2024
PhD students offer insights on the war in Gaza

Nasir Almasri and Elizabeth Parker-Magyar, both PhD candidates at MIT, discuss their dissertation research on the Middle East.

FALL 2023/WINTER 2024 :: précis Student Feature :: Nasir Almasri and Elizabeth Parker-Magyar
Nasir Almasri and Elizabeth Parker-Magyar
February 1, 2024

Nasir Almasri is a PhD candidate at MIT in comparative politics and international relations/security studies with a focus on social movements. His work examines the influence of state repression, regional power politics, and ideological tensions on opposition groups in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Elizabeth Parker-Magyar is a PhD candidate in comparative politics and political methodology. Her research interests include political economy, bureaucracy, and protest, especially in the Middle East. 

The ongoing war in Gaza has led to renewed awareness of the role social scientists play in identifying the causes, consequences, and political dynamics of militarized conflict. In addition to its efforts to promote respectful and nuanced academic discourse on this difficult topic, CIS recognizes the contributions of its PhD students to the growing body of relevant research. The dissertations of Nasir Almasri and Elizabeth Parker-Magyar offer helpful perspectives on contributing factors and regional outcomes of the war.

Nasir Almasri's dissertation, "Moderation and radicalization in the Middle East," explores the impact of political inclusion or exclusion on the radicalization or moderation of opposition groups. In this context, “radical” groups are defined simply as groups that aim to transform power structures in their countries.  The dissertation addresses a paradox within the literature on this topic, challenging the dominant “inclusion-moderation thesis” which suggests political inclusion leads opposition groups to adopt moderate stances. 

“The main puzzle,” Almasri says, “is that it seems like political inclusion and exclusion can lead to either outcome – moderation or radicalization.” In particular, the oft-cited Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, along with a number of other radical movements in the Middle East, seem to have shifted toward moderation before their political inclusion rather than after, as the inclusion-moderation thesis would suggest.

Almasri posits that the inclusion-moderation thesis, which has been primarily based on opposition groups in European democratic states like the Christian Democrats and Marxists, has not adequately accounted for the impact of political regime types on the development of opposition groups. This oversight becomes evident when contrasting these European groups, which benefited from access to parliamentary processes and policy influence, with movements in the Middle East. In the latter region, most opposition groups originated and operated under non-democratic regimes. Furthermore, they were often excluded from formal political processes during colonial times as a control strategy by colonial powers. In contrast, European opposition groups typically had access to parliamentary processes and opportunities to influence policy and governance.  Even when Islamist groups are nominally included in the policymaking process, Almasri notes, “they can’t actually do much to affect meaningful change in their countries.” 

Many Palestinians believe that if Hamas and other armed groups disappear, so does Gaza, says Almasri, adding that whether or not one agrees with this belief, awareness of this perspective is vital to understanding what is happening.

Almasri proposes a "pendulum effect" theory for opposition groups under repressive conditions. This effect is visible in the many Middle Eastern opposition groups that faced intense repression from the time of their inception.  By the mid- to late-20th century, these groups, having suffered prolonged exclusion and repression, began to see the necessity for a shift in approach. This shift often occurred after the elimination or exile of many radical members, paving the way for more moderate factions to promote different strategies.  Contrary to the inclusion-moderation thesis, he notes, these groups often moderated before gaining any political inclusion. However, over time, the underlying issues that fueled radicalism remained unaddressed. Most regimes, Almasri says, “just got really good at repression,” leading to the failure of moderate strategies in effecting significant regime changes. This, in turn, caused a resurgence of radicalism among disenchanted opposition supporters. The pendulum effect theory does not purport that all, or even a majority, of opposition members tend to radicalize as a result of these conditions. However, it has historically only taken a small number of radicals to significantly challenge the status quo government. 

Almasri has been testing and refining his theory by comparing ​​the Egyptian Islamist, Iraqi Communist, and Palestinian Nationalist movements under the PLO - three very different groups. This has involved conducting 80 interviews with activists and extensive participant-observation. “Across the three case studies,” Almasri says, “despite their differences, despite their different contexts and different ideologies, I’m finding similar patterns.” The key trend he has observed is that political exclusion seems to favor moderates, who survive by avoiding confrontation but inevitably fail to effectively challenge regimes. Their failure shifts support to radicals, who begin confronting regimes once again. 

In the case of Palestine, he notes that in the 1980s and ’90s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a broad umbrella organization, was dominated by the moderate Fatah faction. The PLO agreed to the Oslo Accords, which, in the eyes of many, moved Palestine further away from the goal of establishing an independent state. “A lot of people feel that the PLO and this inclusionary period of negotiating with the Israelis and Americans failed them,” says Almasri, noting that “after [the Oslo Accords], you see sort of the move back towards radicalization, especially among the youth.”

Much of the commentary about Palestinian support for Hamas centers around individual grievances, but Almasri argues for a more nuanced explanation. “A lot of Gaza was already refugee camps before the war,” he notes “so there’s a large chunk of people who think ‘my life is like this because of Israel. Why wouldn’t I join a militant group given these circumstances?’” However, he adds that “it’s not always as simple as ‘my family was attacked, so now I'm going pick up arms.’” Beyond this simple revenge narrative, there is an understandable deterrence motive: while the political unit of Hamas has long been unpopular, its armed wing is viewed by many Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank as a crucial defender against Israeli attacks. “Many Palestinians believe that if Hamas and other armed groups disappear, so does Gaza,” says Almasri, adding that whether or not one agrees with this belief, awareness of this perspective is vital to understanding what is happening.

Elizabeth Parker-Magyar’s dissertation, "Striking from the schoolyard: Workplace networks and state worker activism in contemporary Jordan,” explores how civil society organizations or representative interest groups emerge in non-democratic settings. Her study, utilizing a mix of interviews and various survey techniques, compares two distinct types of Jordanian organizations, one focused on teachers and the other on healthcare workers.  Parker-Magyar, who previously worked as a public school teacher in Jordan, has dedicated about a year to fieldwork in the country since the pandemic. Of her methods, she says, “I think that qualitative research is necessary for what I study, because data accessibility can be challenging, particularly about public sector employees.” Parker-Magyar says that her key finding “is that although the Jordanian monarchy is very good at keeping a lid on protests and independent forms of organization, it’s had a puzzlingly difficult time controlling its public school teachers.” This stems, in large part, from relationship dynamics within state-run workplaces. 

Parker-Magyar’s work also sheds light on the response of Jordan and other Middle Eastern governments to the Gaza conflict and corresponding domestic and regional unrest. The Jordanian government is caught in a delicate balance between preserving its relations with the US, catering to domestic concerns, and limiting the potential for regional conflict. “Because the Jordanian monarchy has historically been such a large recipient of US foreign aid,” she says, “it cares quite a bit about its international reputation [and] has a negotiated foreign policy that typically is in line with US interests.” Additionally, the Jordanian monarchy’s policy options are limited due to the peace treaty signed with Israel in 1994. This balancing act is particularly challenging now, she adds, as “it’s difficult to imagine a time when US foreign policy has been less popular in the region.” This is especially the case in Jordan, where Palestinians constitute a majority and where many have family and personal ties to Gaza. The government of Egypt, another major US aid recipient, albeit with a smaller Palestinian population, faces a similar dilemma.

In Jordan, solidarity for Gaza unites social movements that rarely coordinate with one another, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, East Bank, and other groups. As the war in Gaza has intensified, disparate groups have reinvigorated long running campaigns against normalization with Israel, explains Parker-Magyar

In Jordan, solidarity for Gaza unites social movements that rarely coordinate with one another, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, East Bank, and other groups. As the war in Gaza has intensified, disparate groups have reinvigorated long running campaigns against normalization with Israel. Parker-Magyar says that while it can be difficult to observe how these protests shape fast-moving outcomes, we do see protesters and activists “choosing very tangible policies that they think the Jordanian government should not be pursuing and [then] launching very targeted critiques.” This bottom-up pressure played a role in Jordan’s withdrawal from a long-negotiated deal in which Jordan would supply solar energy to Israel in exchange for desalinated water, which had been set to be signed at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates this past December.

The united opposition to Israel’s campaign in Gaza, Parker-Magyar says, challenges the government’s typical “divide and rule” approach to low-profile repression, and creates a tense moment for the Jordanian government. Given the strength and unity of public outrage over Gaza, she notes, the monarchy recognizes that it needs to provide an outlet for activism, though it has been able to limit the scope and intensity of protests so far. For instance, although the regime has allowed significant protests in front of the Israeli Embassy, it has not allowed individuals to stay in front of the embassy overnight or to march to the border. 

Parker-Magyar acknowledges that, “compared to the extreme rupture in Israeli politics and Palestinian politics within Israel-Palestine since October 7th and Israel’s invasion of Gaza, these transformations appear relatively small” and receive less media attention, but argues that the significance of these developments should not be overlooked. “In the big picture,” she says, “the extent of mobilization on behalf of communities in Gaza will almost certainly reshape Jordanian domestic politics [and] the ecology of opposition in Jordan.”