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Arab autocrats are not going back to the future

- December 4, 2014

Protesters display a large Jordanian flag as they demonstrate to demand political reforms, in Amman, Oct. 5, 2012.  (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)
During the Arab uprisings of late 2010 and 2011, it seemed that the strategies Arab leaders had adopted to keep themselves in power had left them vulnerable to an uncontrollable surge of mass mobilization. Yet by late 2014, even as Arab regimes struggled to manage the aftershocks of mass protests and, in some cases, respond to sustained popular mobilization that has continued, it is clear that authoritarian regimes in the Arab world not only survived the uprisings but adapted their tactics and practices to address the specific challenges associated with the resurgence of mass politics and sustain their hold on power.
The events of the past four years are not merely a back to the future moment in authoritarian governance in the Arab world. This reassertion of authoritarianism since 2012 did not come about simply because authoritarian elites in the Middle East held fast to established political routines. In responding to the resurgence of mass politics – processes of mobilization that were in large part caused by popular discontent with failures of authoritarian governance – authoritarian elites have been compelled to adapt. In some cases, regime adaptations drew on but modified established practices. In others, adaptations seem to signal more fundamental changes in elite perceptions about the nature of the threats they face and the changes that would be required to ensure regime survival. In these cases, regime elites seem to have made important, and in some cases potentially transformative, changes in their policies and tactics to control and contain newly mobilized societies.
Regime survival should not be taken to minimize the magnitude of the threat that the Arab uprisings posed. Those mass protests confronted regimes with the most significant challenge they had ever faced. The threat of politics from below was all the more potent because it emerged in systems of rule that were explicitly designed to prevent oppositional forms of collective action and spontaneous political mobilization.
That the regimes did nonetheless almost universally survive should underscore two important features of arguments about resilient authoritarianism that are often overlooked. First, theories about resilient authoritarianism, and the adaptive capacity of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, have never taken the position that current systems of rule are permanent or invulnerable. The appropriate metaphor is of earthquake resistant, not earthquake proof, regimes. Second, these theories do not assume that adaptive processes are always limited and constrained by past practices: Path dependence matters, but at moments of crisis in particular, regime adaptations can and do move governance beyond the boundaries of current practices. I view the post-uprising period of the Arab Thermidor as representing one such period.
What seem to be emerging as these adaptations take hold are two distinctive modes of authoritarian governance, both of which have troubling implications for the political future of the Middle East. In one set of cases, including Jordan and Morocco, Algeria, and much of the Arab Gulf, shifts in governance are best defined as the extension and deepening of strategies of authoritarian upgrading, reframed in response to the specific challenges posed by the resurgence of mass politics.
In a second set of cases, however, including Syria and Egypt, changes in authoritarian governance appear to be more profound. The regimes that are emerging from the most threatening encounters with mass politics are making a sharp, perhaps decisive break with the populist, inclusionary strategies of contained mobilization through which they governed for many decades. What is emerging instead are narrowly-nationalist and exclusionary-repressive modes of authoritarian governance.
In both modes, reconfigured authoritarian practices are consistent with the inability of Arab regimes either to sustain redistribution and guarantees of economic security as the basis of state-society relations and conceptions of citizenship, or to establish viable, market-oriented political economies capable of addressing massive, systemic employment crises and ameliorating chronic conditions of economic insecurity that are especially acute among youth.
To understand why this most recent cycle of adaptations by authoritarian incumbents marks a decisive shift in governance, and to appreciate its potentially transformative effects, it is useful to assess the broader context in which regime elites are acting today and how it compares to the environment that shaped the systems of rule over which they presided until 2011.
In the era in which most post-colonial Arab states were established, newly empowered elites who inherited weak and sharply contested political and economic institutions drew heavily on contemporary understandings about how best to organize a state, manage a national economy, and structure relations between states and societies. At the time, Arab leaders were encouraged by then nascent international financial institutions, such as the newly-established International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to build large, powerful public sectors as a way to compensate for the weakness of private sectors. They embraced import substitution industrialization, the dominant development strategy for developing economies in the post-WWII era, to promote industrialization and the commercialization of agriculture. To exploit but simultaneously manage and channel the high levels of mass mobilization that had emerged in the course of anti-colonial struggles, the first generation of populist-authoritarian leaders – Gamal Abdel Nasser, Adib Shishakli, Habib Bourguiba, Ahmed Ben Bella, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr – embraced pan-Arabism, formed mass-based ruling parties, and promoted state-corporatist frameworks of interest representation. They adopted redistributive social policies, consolidating patterns of state-society relations anchored in “authoritarian bargains” that guaranteed economic security in exchange for political quiescence. For almost 30 years, this formula produced extraordinary improvements in social conditions across the Arab world.
By the mid-1980s, these populist-redistributive systems of rule had become increasingly difficult for regime elites to sustain. Economic crises and the fiscal burden of welfare, subsidy programs, and service provision forced authoritarian incumbents to adapt. Beginning in the 1980s, but with growing momentum in the 1990s, incumbents responded – as they had in the 1950s and 1960s – by appropriating, adapting and applying elements drawn from a global repertoire of models of governance and social policy. Mimicking versions of 1980s-era neo-liberal developmental strategies, in form if rarely in content, they introduced selective strategies of economic and political liberalization that gradually moved Middle East and North Africa political economies toward what the Syrian regime later labeled social market development frameworks.
Precursors of the upgrading strategies of the late-1990s and 2000s, these frameworks combined liberalization of select economic sectors, typically determined on the basis of political, regime maintenance criteria, with weakened systems of redistribution. They were designed to generate the resources required to maintain patronage networks, provide opportunities for predatory rent seeking by increasingly narrow circles of regime insiders, and mitigate the broad social effects of reductions in public expenditure. During these years, the organizational “containers” that had earlier served to manage and channel mass politics decayed. Ruling parties and corporatized associational sectors retained some importance as pathways for patronage, positions and a declining share of economic privilege, but could no longer provide any meaningful sense of political or economic inclusion. In their place, regimes relied more heavily on the institutions of the mukhabarat, intelligence or secret police, to maintain internal security and repress autonomous forms of political mobilization and oppositional collective action. In effect, the authoritarian bargain of the post-independence era had become an authoritarian compromise, the costs of which were borne by the urban middle class, rural clientalist networks, public sector workers and residents of peripheral cities, the social groups that provided the backbone of the Arab uprisings.
This potted macro-sociological history of Arab regime formation and reform underscores the importance of the contemporary regional and global context, and its effects on the strategic choices of incumbents, in assessing the dynamics of authoritarian reassertion during the so-called Arab Thermidor. Upgrading strategies that served as an effective response to the challenges regimes confronted in the 1990s and 2000s carried social costs that they could not contain indefinitely. Having confronted these costs during the peak of the Arab uprisings, the principal challenge faced by authoritarian incumbents today is how to manage the enduring, systemic threat of mass politics under conditions of poor capitalism. With ineffectual economic institutions and deep, systemic employment gaps that regimes are unable to close, how can they prevent persistent high levels of anti-regime mass political mobilization?
To contend with mobilized publics and to preserve the selective benefits associated with social market strategies of economic governance, regime elites today have a very different set of models on which to draw. The statist, inclusionary and redistributive models of controlled mass mobilization that prevailed in the post-independence era – with all they implied about republicanism, egalitarian conceptions of citizenship, and a moral economy relationship between states and citizens – are simply no longer available as viable options for regime elites. Similarly, with implications that have yet to be fully explored for MENA political economies, the condition that economist Dani Rodrik has recently characterized as premature deindustrialization further constrains the developmental options available to authoritarian incumbents in the Arab world, and further reduces the strategies they can use to close the massive employment gaps they confront, generate highly-skilled industrial employment, and enjoy the large spill-over benefits for other sectors that accompany industrialization. To the extent that MENA political economies are defined by premature deindustrialization, the pathways out of poor capitalism will be very hard to find. The likely outcome is a massive semi-permanent class of underemployed and unemployed whom the state will view as a persistent threat to stability, necessitating repressive-exclusionary modes of governance.
Even if MENA countries can escape the trap of premature deindustrialization the alternatives to authoritarianism face strong headwinds. Democratization has been discredited by its association with the presidency of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, as well as the Libyan and Yemeni experiences. It has been further undermined by public disillusionment with Western liberalism, and by the declining leverage of Western democracies over regional actors who no longer depend on the West for foreign investment and foreign assistance. Nor can the transnational ideologies that legitimated (and tested) Arab regimes, including various versions of politicized Islam, serve that purpose any longer.
In contrast, market-oriented models of authoritarian governance are seen as viable alternatives. Reflecting regional trends toward sectarian polarization, regime elites in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya have sought to reframe mechanisms for containing and channeling mass politics – much of which continues to revolve around demands for economic inclusion, voice, and distributive justice – around combinations of exclusionary, xenophobic, ethno-sectarian, and tribal conceptions of state-society relations and citizenship, policed by newly reinvigorated post-uprising internal security agencies.
Thus, even while emergent models of authoritarian governance in the Arab world exhibit a wide range of continuities, they are moving beyond the authoritarian bargains and the authoritarian compromises of earlier eras, toward repressive-exclusionary systems of rule organized in response to the threat of mass politics under conditions of poor capitalism. These emergent models will generate stresses that will test their capacity and their resilience. In their current incarnation, however, the trajectories of authoritarian governance in the Arab world seem to offer little basis for optimism among those who have long hoped that prosperity and democracy would find a firm foothold in the Middle East.
Steven Heydemann is the vice president of Applied Research on Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the U.S. Institute of Peace. This essay is part of a Project on Middle East Studies and London School of Economics and Political Science collection on “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State.”