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Why the Modest Harvest of the Arab Spring?

- October 21, 2013

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from political scientists Jason Brownlee (University of Texas) Tarek Masoud (Harvard University), and Andrew Reynolds (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) on their recent Journal of Democracy article “Why the Modest Harvest?”  It is available for download for a limited time ungated here, as part of our continuing collaboration with political science journals.

For all of its surprises, perhaps nothing about the Arab Spring has been as surprising as its remarkably modest harvest. The drama, excitement, and sense of possibility created by Bin Ali’s night escape to Saudi Arabia or Mubarak’s resignation have given way to a mournful reality. Of the 21 member states of the Arab League, only six have experienced concerted challenges to their regimes, and in only four were dictators overthrown. The Arab Spring’s disappointing record — far less inspiring than the East European revolutions of 1989 (to which they were often compared) or sub-Saharan Africa’s political transitions in the early 1990s — cries out for explanation. Why did only Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya manage to overthrow their dictators, while elsewhere, uprisings subsided, were beaten into submission, or failed to materialize in the first place?

Our essay in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy offers, what we believe to be, the first regional explanation of regime outcomes from the Arab uprisings of 2010 to 2012. We seek to account for the full range of variance: from the resilience of authoritarianism in places such as Algeria and Saudi Arabia at one end, to Tunisia’s rocky but still hopeful transition at the other. Previous accounts have focused on factors that were closely tied to events, such as the diffusion of social-networking tools and the posture of the army. We broaden the time frame, to examine the historical and structural factors that determined the balance of power between incumbents and oppositions.

Surveying the region as a whole, we find that there were no structural preconditions for the emergence of uprisings: The fundamentally random manner in which protests spread meant that a wide variety of regimes faced popular challenges. We do find, however, that the success of a domestic campaign to oust the ruler was structurally preconditioned by two variables: oil wealth (which endows the ruler with enough material resources to forestall or contain challenges) and the precedent of hereditary succession (which indicates the heightened loyalty of coercive agents to the executive). Regimes that lacked major oil revenue and had not established hereditary succession succumbed relatively quickly and nonviolently to domestic uprisings. In contrast, where dictators had inherited rule (whether through traditional monarchism or corrupted republicanism) or commanded vast oil rents, their repressive forces remained sufficiently loyal and cohesive to conduct brutal crackdowns.

Figure: Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds/The Journal of Democracy)

Figure: Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds/The Journal of Democracy)

Previous studies have rightly focused on oil as a bulwark against regime change. Nevertheless, if oil exports scotched uprisings, why has the Syrian regime lasted so long against its domestic opponents? Other scholars have pointed to the exceptional durability of Arab monarchs. But if Arab republics were more vulnerable, why has Syria avoided regime change? The answer, we find, lies at the intersection of these variables (see table). We argue that dynasticism (whether in its monarchic or its “republican” permutations) and oil rents operate as complementary variables. Either characteristic is enough to ensure that the regime will retain power, while a regime with neither trait will fall quickly once popular pressure and military defections begin to mount.

By showing how inherited economic and political structures shaped the potential of uprisings we balance a natural emphasis on the courage and pluck of protesters with a sober consideration of the obstacles they faced and continue to face.  Patterns of change and repression did not spring de novo after Mohammed Bouazizi self-immolated on Dec. 17, 2010. Regimes survived or fell based on existing reservoirs of rents and repressive capacity. Many scholars had cited these factors to explain the prevalence of authoritarianism in the region before the uprisings began, and the Arab Spring, far from disproving such scholarship, appears to have produced reams of new data to support it.
Our theory suggests the need for two major revisions to existing scholarship of the Arab Spring and democratization more generally. First, foreign interventions are the deus ex machina of opposition forces in the Middle East. According to our structural approach, Libya 2011 did not fall in the regime change cell. Oil rents provided Moammar Gaddafi a demonstrated surfeit of repressive power capable of quashing any domestic uprising. But he did not face just a domestic rebellion, but an international military coalition, spearheaded by NATO. Under those conditions, the Libyan regime fell despite its oil wealth. Foreign intervention razed the local pillars of durable authoritarianism. To the extent that similar foreign interventions are off the table for the other Arab autocracies — which enjoy oil wealth, hereditary regimes or both — regime continuity becomes all the more likely.

Second, and more importantly, our study suggests that certain forms of corruption may help regimes stay in power and, conversely, the fragility of the most personalistic of dictatorships may have been overestimated. Specifically, in Syria and Bahrain, dynasticism has been indicative not of weak, poorly-institutionalized states, but of the total bonding of autocrats and agents of repression.
This casts doubt on the idea that it is only a matter of time before the doleful dynastic stability of Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia gives way to popular demands for dignity and freedom. Our theory predicts that, if such demands emerge, these regimes will not respond to such challenges by turning in on themselves, packing the autocrat off to exile, and negotiating the dismantling of the old order. Monarchies (and republican dynasties) that have gathered into their hands all the threads of power and privilege may eventually fall, but they will only go down violently.

These sobering predictions are a useful corrective to the sunny optimism that the Arab Spring initially inspired. The breathtaking spectacle of peaceful young crowds triumphing over long-entrenched dictators suggested—misleadingly—that an inexorable march toward democracy had begun. The Arab Spring’s meager yield, a bitter litany of failed uprisings, halting or reversed “transitions,” and autocratic continuity, suggests that a less teleological process is at work, and that inherited political structures remain critically important. The Arab Spring’s low-hanging fruit have been picked. Further regime change will rest on deeper, structural changes that can be expected to take far longer than 18 days.

Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.