Has the door closed on Arab democracy?

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Trends in Freedom House Scores in 16 Arab Countries , 2010–13
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….Harvard University’s Tarek Masoud asks in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy.

One thing that the Arab Spring and its aftermath have made clear is that we should not expect democracy to come as a result of an intifada that sweeps dictators from power and enables the masses to erect liberal institutions. As the last three years have demonstrated all too well, in no Arab country are autocrats or their militaries so weak as to be rendered ciphers amid fleeting moments of revolutionary enthusiasm. They crack down (as in Syria or Bahrain) or bide their time (as in Egypt), but they never disappear. If democracy is to alight in that part of the world, it will likely be through a process that is more evolutionary than revolutionary, one in which authoritarian elites dictate the pace of reform. As Terry Lynn Karl found in her study of democratization in Latin America, revolutions either produce counterrevolutions or inaugurate one-party states every bit as objectionable as the ones that they replace. Democracy is usually imposed from above.17 

One implication of this argument is that the Arab world’s most promising prospects for reform are likely to be those regimes that were strong enough to weather the Arab Spring, but not so strong that they saw no reason to change in response to it. Places such as Morocco, Jordan, and Algeria are usually coded as instances of stasis when it comes to the effects of the Arab Spring on their regimes, but this assessment neglects subtler changes in regime policy that may prefigure gradual openings. In all three countries, constitutional reforms have been enacted or put on the table that would dial back the supremacy of kings or presidents, protect citizens from the arbitrary exercise of police power, and give more voice to oppositions.18 Morocco has arguably gone furthest in this regard. Although it is far from a constitutional monarchy—the king remains commander-in-chief of the armed forces, for example, and human-rights violations continue—it is the only Arab country (aside from Tunisia and, before the coup, Egypt) in which an Islamist political party (the Party of Justice and Development) has been allowed to take control of the government after a free and fair election (in 2011).19

The smart money in the Middle East always bets against seemingly democratic reforms panning out. In the past, the pseudodemocratic institutions that adorned Arab polities were seen as implements of what Diamond called “authoritarian statecraft,” used in combination with periodic repression in order to keep opposition forces busy but at bay.20 And that may indeed be what the reforms in Morocco and its counterparts turn out to be. But it is worth noting that so far the Moroccan government is the only one elected after the Arab Spring that was not compelled to relinquish office at bayonet point or amid mass protests.21 Compared to the rubble of the Arab Spring, Morocco increasingly looks like a democratic success (albeit a modest one at best).

Continuing with the theme of unlikely bright spots, it may also turn out that the Arab Spring’s “empty quarter”—the monarchies of the Persian Gulf—will surprise us with their capacity for reform. At present, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have been notable mainly for the ways in which they have deployed their oil wealth not just to squelch opposition at home, but also to bolster autocrats and thwart self-styled democrats in places such as Egypt and Libya. As Bernard Lewis once pointed out in these pages, however, monarchy as a regime type may be uniquely favorable to democratic development. According to Lewis, it is mainly in Europe’s former monarchies that “democracy has developed steadily and without interruption over a long period, and where there is every prospect that it will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.”22


Arab autocrats not going back to the future

Arab-Uprisings-Explained1-198x300It is clear that authoritarian regimes in the Arab world not only survived the region’s popular 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 USIP’s Steven Heydemann writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog:  

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, Heydemann suggests:

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

islamists nytWhat 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, he adds:

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.

Democratization has been discredited [and] 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,” notes Heydemann, USIP’s vice president of Applied Research on Conflict. 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.



Why Arab Spring idealist died for ISIS

egypt darawyWhy did Ahmed al-Darawy, a one-time police officer turned revolutionary, a 38-year-old father of three and a mainstay of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square, join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and die in battle, asks the FT’s Borzou Daragahi:

Darawy’s path from non-violent democracy activist to fighter for a group so extreme it has been disowned by al-Qaeda reflects the unsettling course of the Arab revolts of 2011. A heady season of hope and optimism that stirred longings for democracy and citizenship rights also unleashed demons many observers did not expect: political repression, internecine and sectarian fighting, and chaos in what had been authoritarian societies.

With the possible exception of Tunisia, all the nations that have risen up are now mired in intensified repression or armed conflict. A moment of hope that the Arab world was emerging from authoritarianism has been eclipsed by Isis and its efforts to draw men and women like Darawy into its orbit.

“The Darawy matter actually horrifies me,” says Yasser al-Hawary, 36, a liberal Egyptian activist. “He adopted the same demands and ideas as all of us and he was just like anybody else. This means other people, that don’t show violence , could join Isis as well.”

‘Rebels without a pause’

The loosely organised, spontaneous uprisings that felled longtime dictatorships ill-prepared their partisans for the long, fierce battles needed to bring about fundamental social change, Daragahi adds.

“This story is very important,” says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics and the author of a book on jihadis. “Not only does it tell us about Egypt’s past, present and future, but also it tells us how the great aspirations and hopes of the so-called Arab spring have turned into despair, and how some of these men have turned to jihadism.”

“Historically, what’s happening is very normal; the upheavals, the tensions and the counter-revolution,” says Mr Gerges. “What’s happening in Egypt and the Arab world is not unique. It is the aftershock of the social earthquake. It could take many years for things to calm down and subside.”

“The unity of the masses, the unity of the poor, the middle class, the professionals and the human rights activists was one of the main features of the revolutions,” he adds. “But beyond the unity against dictators there was no unity of purpose, no vision and no blueprint of the future. The idea was that the revolution was going to take care of itself, which is a very silly thing.”


“People are joining Isis simply because there is no other game in town and until very recently it has been very successful,” says James Dorsey, a writer and researcher who has written about Nidhal Selmi, a Tunisian footballer who died as an Isis fighter. “You have people who join who don’t share in great detail its ideology but see very little alternative to effecting change and therefore see it as a vehicle.”

Reflections on Arab uprisings

Arab-Uprisings-Explained1-198x300Marc Lynch’s thoughtful and candid set of reflections on how political scientists who specialize in the Middle East performed as analysts and forecasters during the Arab uprisings draws on a set of memos on the origins of the uprisings, Jay Ulfelder writes for the DartThrowingChimp blog:

We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

Social scientists and other professional analysts of world affairs should learn from their mistakes, he adds, highlighting three key points:

The first is the power of motivated reasoning—”the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs.” When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood. ….

Second, our tendency to underestimate the prevalence of inertia in politics, especially during what seem like exceptional times. As I recently wrote, our analytical eyes are drawn to the spectacular and dynamic, but on short time scales at least, continuity is the norm….

How to escape this uncertainty has been a central concern for decades now of scholarship on democratization and the field of applied democracy promotion that’s grown up alongside it, Ulfelder notes, recommending Giuseppe di Palma’s book, To Craft Democracies as a leading example of motivated scholarship.