Arab Spring And Authoritarianism In The Arab World

On December 17th 2010, Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire (Worth, 2011). By dousing himself in paint-thinner, he ignited a figurative fire throughout Tunisia and throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – the “Arab Spring”. Authoritarian scholars, academics and activists were left puzzled, astonished and exhilarated, their theories seemed ill equipped for the task – “after all, this was a region studied for its sturdy resistance to the pressures of democratisation” (Bellin, 2012). Until this upheaval, the ‘Arab’ world had boasted a plethora of authoritarian leaders; Muammar al-Qaddafi had lead Libya since 1969, the Asad family had ruled Syria since 1970, Ali Abdullah Saleh was named president of Northern Yemen (later united with South Yemen) in 1978, Hosni Mubarak took charge of Egypt in 1981 and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ascended to Tunisia’s presidency in 1987. Many theories attempted to explain this lack of political change; Middle-Eastern culture/Islam, the failed political liberalization of the 1990s, extensive military repression and the weaknesses of MENA’s civil societies. The sub-components of theories that focus on the persistent nature of MENA-authoritarianism have since been grouped under the ‘umbrella term’ – the ‘authoritarian resilience theory’.

The authoritarian resilience theory was and is widely accepted, portraying MENA governments as “impossible to topple”. Yet…to date, rulers have been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt (twice), Libya, Yemen, and the Maldives (post Arab Spring). Large-scale uprisings also occurred in Bahrain, Syria, Algeria, Djibouti, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uganda and Western Sahara. Scholars who predominantly lorded over the ‘unusual’ stability of Middle-Eastern authoritarianism, suddenly found themselves needing to explain the opposite – “the unexpected authoritarian vulnerability in the face of popular-resistance” (Warkotsch, 2014). The breadth of such social mobilisation (previously thought impossible) raised a pressing question – do we need to rethink the theoretical-logic of authoritarianism in the ‘Arab world’?

Alongside the Arab Spring – and the aforementioned question – was the emergence of democratic-transition literature. Social-movement literature with the perception that any MENA ‘revolution’ was merely a stepping-stone towards a region-wide demand for democracy. However, no such alternative has crystalized; today only Jordan and Kuwait, two out of twenty-one ‘Arab’ countries, qualify as “partly-free” electoral democracies – authoritarianism still rules. In short, the repercussions of the Arab Spring left the authoritarian resilience theory with serious setbacks, struggling to reconcile its acceptance and claims of ‘regime robustness’ and left the social movement studies forgoing the region almost entirely. The suggestion that neither foresaw ‘correctly’ proposes a relevant research question and a central argument. The central argument indicates that there must be long-held truisms regarding the dynamics of authoritarian durability (that they have stood the test of time). This argument intends to add to the authoritarian resilience theory debate, in particular its inception and eventually (via a thesis) how it dealt with the Arab Spring. The relevance of this topic originates from the lack of literature surrounding the historical development of the authoritarian resilience theory, to my knowledge, no such ‘chronological’ timeline exists.

The target of this literature review is to better understand the following research question: ‘how has the debate concerning authoritarian resilience in MENA changed over the years?’. The explanation to this question will follow two sub-questions: ‘how has the persistence of authoritarian rule been explained by the major theories of the past?’ and ‘how has the persistence of authoritarian rule been explained by the authoritarian resilience theory?’. The influence of the Arab Spring will be more central to the thesis following this literature review. It will begin by defining the parameters of ‘authoritarianism’, then exploring the historical development of authoritarian-literature and the most prominent explanations arising after the 1950s: Islam, the Rentier State theory and a weak civil society. It will then demonstrate how all these theories came together to form the authoritarian resilience theory.

Much ink has been spilled trying to explain the parameters of authoritarianism in MENA. Until Linz’s conceptualisation. Linz distinguishes authoritarianism from both democracy and totalitarianism: “political systems with limited guiding ideology or political mobilisation, and in which a leader or small group exercises power with ill-defined limits” (Linz, 2000). Importantly, most explanations leading toward the authoritarian resilience theory occurred after the 1950s or after “democracy didn’t follow modernisation”. Academics such as Lerner (1958), Hudson (1977) and Lipset (1959) theorised that modernisation created volatile political opinions that opposed the traditional authoritarian structures; coup d’états/assassinations throughout the 1950s-70s (arguably) prove this assumption as correct. However, despite 36 attempted coup d’états between 1936 and 1966, and the 2011 Arab Spring, authoritarianism regimes still reigns as ‘legitimate’.

When democracy did not arise, scholars coupled its failures with Islam and Islamic culture (Islamicate). Islam is prevalent in the everyday lives of MENA citizens. Lewis (1976) claims that “a Lebanese Muslim will feel closer to an Iraqi Muslim than to a Lebanese Christian” – it is not nationality that forms the core of Muslim allegiance, but rather the religio-political alliance or umma. This region-wide centrality is for some academics the ‘key cog’ for such authoritarian mainstay. Herb (2005) claims that “the more Muslims there are in a population, the more likely the government will be authoritarian”. Donald Smith (1970) agrees, arguing that the sharia law teaches individuals to forgo individuality and critical-thinking, embracing blind obedience and unquestioning faith. Scholars propose that it is this unerring acceptance of faith that predisposes Islamic societies towards a strong authoritarian government. Besides Smith (1970); Lewis (1976), Savory (1970) and Pipes (1983) also regard the sacrosanct sharia law as opposing democratisation. The sharia was not written to adhere to political participants, it did not expect individuals to partake in political participation or influence legislation, it is god given and unalterable. European legislation on the flip-side is man-made and open to human influence. The legitimacy of an Islamic government does not depend on popular participation. Lewis (1988) relates this concept to the Ottoman Empire, whereby the “Ottoman caliph” had no citizens with political or civil rights, they were simply taken to be passive subjects.

Savory (1970) continues the discussion with the constitution of Pakistan (not MENA, but relevant). In 1951, Pakistan wished to become an Islamic state, thirty-three religious scholars declared two ‘principles’ to adhere to: (1) ultimate sovereignty over all law shall be affirmed in Allah; (2) the law of the land shall be based on the Quran and the Sunnah (customs of a Muslim-community), no law shall be passed in contravention of the Quran or the Sunnah. The sovereignty of the people, central to democracy, is replaced by the sovereignty of God. Savory (1970) argues that a true participatory society is out of Islam’s reach, its people are limited by the extent to which they may influence their own legislation.

Pipes (1983) has a differing approach. Where Smith (1970), Lewis (1976) and Savory (1970) imply that “by sharia law” Muslims should not be interested in politics, Pipes argues that a Muslim should pursue politics that is in accordance with the sharia – “every Muslim should be interested in politics”. This has often been too cumbersome and wholly difficult to implement…politically abiding by the sharia law may have remained central to Muslim populations, but in reality, rulers and their regimes did “whatever they wanted” (Pipes, 1983). Populations responded in two ways; either (1) individuals did not adhere to the authoritarian ‘legalistic’ choices, choosing to rebel against their leaders and regimes; or (2) the majority were unwilling to face the consequences of rebellion, withdrawing from political life altogether and accepting status-quo. Pipes (1983) does not believe that the sharia is at odds with a participatory society or modernisation. He argues, with support from Lewis (1976), that the problem lies in a clash of Western and MENA cultures. By distinguishing modernisation (technological progress and innovation that fuel economic growth) from Westernisation (associated culture, ideologies and practices: democracy and gender equality), Pipes (1983) finds certain Western ideals; democracy, liberalism and capitalism, to be compatible with the sharia. Whereas he finds gender-equality and the equality of non-believers to clash with Islamic culture.

According to Pipes (1983), prevalent Islamic culture (the Islamicate), is separate from Islam (the religion and its doctrine). The Islamicate is MENA family-life: the separation between men and women, cousin marriages, the focus on male honour and female chastity. It is shared forms of art (Arabic script), literature and education. These shared norms are not prescribed by the laws of Islam, just inspired by them. The Islamicate norms were developed during a period of great successes. These successes concluded to its followers that ‘Allah’ had blessed all Muslims. It also familiarised Muslims with a perceived sense of superiority. Muslims looked down on the Europeans, having a reputation for being barbaric backwards people. As Europe’s and the Western world’s military prowess, scientific knowledge and wealth eventually surpassed that of the Muslim world (19th century). The resistance to Western ideals remained high, as the protection of previously successful Islamicate norms took priority. Nationalism clashed with the regional Muslim identity. Democracy wasn’t compatible with a majority withdrawing from political life. Equality clashed with the Islamicate practices of MENA family life. Pipes (1983) believes that this cultural clash prevented MENA from modernising fully, limiting the demand for political alternatives.

The opinions of experts differ greatly. Nevertheless, it does seem that Islam poses as an obstacle to democracy. However, despite portraying Islam as an extensive obstacle to political alternatives, the theories fail to explain the demand for democratisation in MENA. Nor do they explain how an authoritarian regime withstands these demands. Consequently, the Islamic explanation for ‘authoritarian robustness’ is widely considered as unsatisfying. The region suffering from democratic incompatibility is notably different from acquiescing with authoritarian regimes. This lack of democratisation and persistence of authoritarianism is more convincingly explained by the rentier state theory.

Mahdavy (1970) argues that the rentier state theory is one of the most prominent theories explaining the ‘sustenance’ of authoritarianism. Rather than a cultural argument, the rentier state theory explains authoritarianism from an economic/political stance. Arguing that MENA states have remained authoritarian thanks to ‘rents’ – “money from foreign-individuals, concerns or governments to individuals, concerns or governments in a given country” (Mahdavy, 1970). These subsidies enabled governments to prevent citizens from demanding change, by buying their loyalty. MENA regimes all gained rents from the 1950s onwards. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Kuwait and Qatar received rents from oil sales. Others, such as Egypt, received financial aid from the United States and/or the Soviet Union, as the Cold War heightened so did the need for trusted allies. Some countries, however, did not have access to these forms of rent; Jordan, Syria and Morocco were therefore less financially stable. This instability left, said countries, at risk of succumbing to the pressures of democratic revolution. This was to be a financial blessing in disguise, surrounding ‘oil-rich’ nations provided financial support to prevent the region wide unrest of a democratic revolution. They forced financial stability. Ross’ (2001) rentier state theory proposes two mechanisms that underpin authoritarian mainstay; the rentier mechanism and the repression mechanism. The rentier mechanism consists of three effects: (1) taxation effect; (2) spending effect; (3) group formation effect.

The rentier-mechanism starts with the accumulation of oil, aid and other rents that flow directly to the regime. In this instance, the government does not rely on taxation for financial gain. In Europe, the ‘production state’, is one where the taxation of citizens forms the majority of their income, in exchange citizens demand political accountability/influence (Bates, 1991). Essentially, European taxation demands democratisation.

Rentier states have the capability to distribute money and gain loyalty instead. Ross (2001) labels this co-option of ‘bought’ loyalty as the ‘spending effect’. This distribution equates to an ultimatum of dependency on the state. Dependency that also rests on the fluctuation of oil prices; rents adjust accordingly to the peaks and troughs of the oil market. The unreliability of the oil market and therefore the unreliability in guaranteeing state benefits, created social stratification. Katouzian (1981) believes that rents are distributed via patronage networks. Governments chose to reward “key officials” – the military, businesses, bureaucracy, organized religion – more so than the uneducated-classes. Every citizen therefore depends on the financial wellbeing of the class above, all loyalty ultimately lies with the zenith of the hierarchical pyramid of patrimonial structure. This coordinates a constant installation of ‘material’ regime legitimacy. One that is complimented by a lack of opposition or opposing elections. Any individuals that do not coincide with the zenith risk losing the states support. The ‘spending effect’ therefore captures an unwritten authoritarian bargain between the government and the public – the government delivers welfare and the people refrain from demanding political change.

The spending effect is closely tied to the ‘group formation’ effect. Co-opting loyalty by distributing rents was also applied to the small social-groups that could form a civil society. Civil society is essential to the success of democracy, yet is limited in MENA rentier states (Lipset, 1959). Ross (2001), Bellin (2004) and Crystal (1996) theorised that rents allowed two mechanisms in which authoritarian governments weakened these social-groups and the threat of democracy: (1) MENA governments organised programs on social issues; healthcare and housing, fulfilling needs that would be otherwise filled by independent social groups. Deterring the need for any independent opinions. (2) The state extended its patronage network to social-groups, spending ‘lavishly’ to gain loyalties and fragment the unity of its members.

The repression-mechanism advocates controlling a population by force. Parallel to spending to keep citizens ‘quiet’, regimes ‘repressed’ those who refused to be quiet. Alienating individual financial support and brutal violence was often used to silence calls for political change. Police forces and the military, detained, fought and stopped protestors from demanding change. Rents allowed regimes to divert significant subsidies to police forces and the military – The Shah of Iran spent 30% of his annual budget (1973-1978), on the military. Creating the notorious security agency, the SAVAK, that pursued, tortured and killed those in opposition to the regime (Looney, 1987).

Although the rentier state theory explains rents as distributing political immobility and acquiescence of citizens/social-groups, it only explains authoritarian sustenance when rents flowed ‘smoothly’. Rents troughed after the 1980s, yet authoritarianism continued (Ibrahim, 1995). An explanation to this exits via Norton’s (1993; 1996) ‘civil society’ theory. The immobility and acquiescence proved temporary, the 1980s saw the downturn of the world economy; oil prices, foreign aid and remittances dropped significantly, especially for those that did not have access to significant amounts of oil – Egypt/Jordan. States withdrew from society; economic security, jobs, healthcare and educated began to falter. The needs for citizen housing, food, culture and education were left unmet. Many cultural, social, professional and religious associations rose to fill the gap; human rights movements, women’s movements and businessman’s movements.

These associations formed the basis of a core civil society. Individuals grouped together to share their political, economic, social and religious interests (Lipset, 1959). Citizens began to create institutions capable of resisting authoritarian power; learning how to stand up for their interests, tolerating different political standpoints and becomimg familiar with the norms of democracy. The tolerance that civil society ‘teaches’ is essential to the existence of democracy. This created a buffer between the authoritarian state and its population . Importantly, newly formed associations should have some form of autonomy from the state; otherwise the associations don’t represent the true interests of their members.

Scholars predicted “imminent democratic arrival” (Norton, 1996). The diminished state capabilities led to demands for more political participation. Most MENA governments (except Saudi Arabia) began to liberalize (to an extent). The introduction of taxes enforced an economic change and the introduction of opposing political-parties allowed for political flexibility. However, scholars’ expectations were again proven wrong. Regimes did not “yield” to civil society, they merely accommodated it, manipulated it and controlled it. They rejected democracy. The avenue for civil society arose via the poor economic conditions that undermined rentier-authoritarianism (its ‘material’ legitimacy and its political stability). Wiktorowicz (2000) theorized that MENA states “allowed liberalisation to regain stability”. It was a decision from the political hierarchy, rather than the citizens or their uprisings.

Wiktorowicz (2000) uses the example of Jordan, where all newly-formed associations were required to register themselves with the government; handing over personal data, regulations and the overall structure of the association. Members had to be pre-approved, goals and activities had to be clearly delineated and fields of interest were consequently limited (a cultural association was only allowed to participate in cultural activities, a charity only in charitable activities etc). A yearly report was mandatory, further information on finance, membership details and meeting dates was expected to reach the government. Attempting to evade government regulation was in violation of law, repressive measures or closure would follow. Civil society’s ability to mobilize citizens was limited by its government’s measures. Wiktorowicz (2000) suggests that this method was not unique, it was regional – “most other Arab states had similar laws”. Arab regimes monitored/checked the growth of its modernising civil society, preventing democracy wherever possible. By ‘seemingly’ allowing the influence of society to prosper politically, democracy was still regulated and authoritarian regimes were still considered as ‘structurally legitimate’.

Unfortunately, the structural legitimacy gained was too limited to avoid popular dissent. Berman (2003) highlights the rise of Islamic-states. This coupled with the failings of Arab states – lost wars, did not bring glory, failed to provide economic security – disappointed citizens. Nationalist states began to be seen as a mirage, a failed dream, as Islamic associations pointed towards the familiar return of Islam (Berman, 2003). MENA regimes used several other strategies to divert this dissent and retain power, it is these strategies that led Albrecht & Schlumberger (2004) to coin the term the ‘authoritarian resilience’ theory. The theory is based on the ideals that a regimes sustenance is based on its legitimacy and ability to repress its population. Authoritarian resilience is an umbrella term, containing key components of the theories previously presented. Albrecht and Schlumberger (2004) do, however, explicitly reject any role for Islam or the Islamicate (yet this is key to the first sub-research question). The resilience theory focuses on the strategies of states that ensure legitimacy and the ability to repress.

Originally there was some discussion on the centrality of repression. Albrecht and Schlumberger (2004) regard repression as hardly relevant, whereas other ‘resilience’ theorists – Bellin (2004) and Brownlee (2005) – find that repression is the key to such regime robustness (hence my definition includes legitimacy and repression). Brownlee (2005) advocates that the limitless-nature of state violence (in MENA) is the only blockade to revolutionaries. MENA armies, rather than being an independent-institution bound to the rule of law, tend to be beacons of the patronage-network. Personnel are appointed by the regime and depend on their employer for financial wellbeing. As aforementioned in the rentier state theory, dependency creates loyalty. A loyal army is essential for regime survival amongst legitimacy challenges, coup d’états and revolutions (Albrecht & Schlumberger, 2004).

Brumberg (2002) on the other hand, sided with Albrecht and Schlumberger (2004), arguing that the main focus should encompass the collective strategies that gained ‘extra-legitimacy’. He suggests that these strategies form a repeatative-cycle, one where countries adapt to challenges by either liberalising or de-liberalising (dependent on the circumstances) – “MENA states must keep a precarious balance between legitimacy…giving in to political participation or curbing the demands of the opposition when necessary”. Brumberg (2002) uses the example of Egypt, its regime liberalised in response to the poor economic situation of the 1980s, but de-liberalised in the 1990s due to three reasons. First, a conflict between the state and armed Islamic troops. Second, the lack of economic prosperity achieved by economic reforms. Third, the necessity for further economic reforms needed a party to be dominant in parliament.

Albrecht and Schlumberger (2004) find that the exclusive focus of theorists upon culture, repression or liberalisation has blinded predominant theorists. They find that four changes have occurred collectively (rather than solely) in order to regain/maintain legitimacy: (1) elite change; (2) external influences; (3) ‘imitative’ institution building; (4) co-optation strategies.

Elites are those who influence the decision making of a government. From the 1960s to the 1990s these elites were (in the majority) loyal bureaucratic and military leaders. In response to the changing economic and political environment, the MENA elites and cadre changed. The old guard replaced by western-educated technocrats. The old guard, although diminished in importance, was still a core-cog to the regime. The support base of the regime had increased, adding influential members (of formerly underrepresented classes) to their elite group. In doing so, regimes co-opted social forces in a way that did not threaten their power. Brownlee (2007) agrees on the importance of elites, finding elite-allegiance of utmost importance to regime stability – “the ruling party is able to create a coalition between elites and social bases/interests”. Rustow (1970) even goes as far as arguing that the fracturing of elite cohesion and the resultant scramble for new elites and social bases may lead to democratisation.

External influences refer to the pressures installed by Western countries to generate change, i.e. become more democratic, pay heed to human rights, be at peace with Israel, liberalise economically, achieve political stability and maintain oil supplies. MENA regimes have, via the authoritarian resilience theory, used these various interests to sustain themselves. Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel, they received financial donations from the West, easing the economic pressures of the 1980s and 1990s.

Imitative institution building refers directly to the political institutions debate, have they furthered authoritarianism or sparked democratic change? In MENA, some political institutionalisation had taken place, Egypt and Libya created parliaments in an attempt to create structural legitimacy. Yet, unlike in the West, these formal institutions lacked traditional political power. Despite the parliament, the political power in Libya remained in the hands of Qaddafi and his sons. Many organizations and institutions were created, NGO’s, professional associations and political parties installed a ‘sense’ of liberalised legitimacy – “the introduction of a civil society was a reform that eased Western pressures, but limited structural legitimacy only to the politics of MENA regimes”. In reality, the liberalisation trend of the 1990s did nothing to change the balance of political power. Power still rested with the non-institutional actors.

Co-optation was the strategy used throughout the 1980s to ‘buy-off’ public loyalty, thereby gaining material legitimacy. During and after the economic pressures, regimes diminished their ‘buying’ power (Langohr, 2005). The liberalised autocracies changed their co-optation strategy from allocative to ‘inclusionary’. Social forces and their opinions had to be formed rather than bought-off. Economic forces were co-opted, businessmen entered the niche elite. Political forces were met with political institutions; NGOs, professional associations and opposing political parties (Albrecht and Schlumberger, 2004). As aforementioned, these changes were heavily restricted in their legal, financial and political dealings; elections continued to be ‘empty-shells’ as Eygpt’s ruling party romped to an 81% majority in 2010 (Warkotsch, 2014).

In conclusion, the ‘robustness’ of authoritarianism has theoretically evolved; throughout its tenure it has undoubtedly relied upon on repression, religious/cultural legitimacy, material legitimacy and structural legitimacy. This doubtless certainty led to the scholarly-wide acceptance of the authoritarian resilience theory; any chinks in the authoritarian armour seemed preposterous. Yet, for a period, Arab Spring demanded MENA democratisation. Regimes failed to provide economic growth, financial wellbeing and in turn, failed to keep up their end of the authoritarian bargain. The disappointed MENA populations also began to refuse their end, co-opted loyalties diminished and the desire for political influence rose. The Arab Spring came as a complete surprise to resilience theorists, by focusing on the controlled institutionalised space they had overlooked the lack of governmental control in the non-institutionalised space.

Importantly, as most MENA states did not encounter much political change from the Arab Spring, future research should delve further into the structure of the authoritarian resilience theory (despite its perceived success). This is an opportunity to further consolidate its acceptance or rethink its collective logic. Was the Arab Spring just another challenge overcome? Or have key components of previous theories been overlooked? – the essential role of the army in repressing protests, the role of rallying social media. Will these weaknesses be exploited again? 

09 March 2021
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