The Middle East Channel

Sustaining mechanics of Arab autocracies

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the events that touched off the "Arab Spring," there is no lack of prudent handwringing. Writing in the Washington Post, my colleague Daniel Byman concludes that with the exception of Tunisia, where democratization is moving apace, "the Arab Spring may not bring freedom to much, or even most, ...


As we approach the one-year anniversary of the events that touched off the "Arab Spring," there is no lack of prudent handwringing. Writing in the Washington Post, my colleague Daniel Byman concludes that with the exception of Tunisia, where democratization is moving apace, "the Arab Spring may not bring freedom to much, or even most, of the Arab world. Even as the United States prepares to work with the region’s new democracies, it also must prepare for the chaos, stagnation and misrule that will mark the Arab Winter."

There is ample justification for such pessimism. Egypt’s transition has been marred by the military’s repeated violent repression of popular protests, by its periodic efforts to limit the authority of the new parliament, and by the growing fears among Egyptian liberals sparked by the electoral victories of their Islamist rivals. Further afield, Bahrain’s Sunni rulers have crushed a popular movement led mostly by Shiite leaders, Yemen might be plunging into tribal civil war, and Syria seems to be descending into sectarian conflict between a mostly Alawite regime and its mostly Sunni opponents. As for Libya, friction within the National Transitional Council might herald a much wider power struggle — especially among the 100 or so independent and well-armed militias. Watching these developments, we might ask whether the death knell of authoritarianism in the Arab world was sounded too readily, or at least prematurely?

Perhaps. When the momentous events that shook the Arab world in January 2011 first grabbed the world’s attention, not a few observers eagerly proclaimed the end of "Arab exceptionalism." In the ensuing year, satellite television and the Internet allowed a world audience to experience — as they say in the Olympics business — the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat. Today, we must reckon with a process of authoritarian extraction that could last well into the next decade — one that promises as many if not more disappointments than successes.

By way of analytical preparation for this long and difficult journey, I would suggest that we begin by jettisoning the term "Arab exceptionalism," as well as its conceptual relative — democratic universalism. The assumption that the Arab world was stuck in the deep muck of an authoritarian past is as misleading as the assertion that it suddenly rose up to join teleology of global democratization. The notion that history sleeps or awakens is equally a historical. What we need instead is a pliable conceptualization of the concrete mechanisms of Arab autocracies, and how these mechanisms both sustained and undermined the region’s despots.

For this purpose, I would suggest that we think about Arab autocracies as protection rackets. The latter pivoted around an exchange by which regimes provided a diverse range of groups — ethnic or religious minorities, the business sector, and secular activists — with a haven from the uncertainties of an open democratic process. If many elites accepted this bargain, they did so because they feared that competitive elections would produce assemblies that would undercut their de facto social or political liberties in the name of the majority. In the Arab world, autocracy with would-be democrats has been a long-standing phenomenon.

Although united by a common logic, Arab protection rackets differed in terms of their institutional mechanisms, and in terms of the groups that received protection. Minority regimes that imposed their rule over religious majorities, such as the Alawite-Bathist regime in Syria, the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, or the Sunni-Bathist regime in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, considered democracy a straight path to political (if not physical) suicide. Hence with the short-lived exception of Bahrain, these regimes were "total autocracies" that didn’t tolerate the slightest political openings. Elsewhere, the protection racket was organized around ideological fissures between Islamists and non-Islamists. In Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan, autocracies offered protection to secular elites via the state-controlled press, state-owned think tanks and universities, and via a private sector business elite whose loyalty was rewarded with privileged access to government contracts and credit.

Note that these authoritarian rackets did not rest solely on protecting non-Islamists. On the contrary, precisely because their efficacy depended on the non-Islamists’ sense of vulnerability, these systems required the state’s toleration of Islamist groups and ideas. Thus with the notable exception of Tunisia, most Arab regimes not only allowed but promoted Islamists groups and ideas. In this way, they encouraged Islamists and non-Islamists to seek ultimate protection from regimes. Where appropriate, this cynical game was also buttressed by the state’s protection of particular ethnic or religious groups, such as the Berbers in Morocco, the Copts in Egypt, or East Bank Bedouins of Jordan. Whatever the formula, this divide and conquer system required some measure of open, if state-controlled, political competition in the press, in the non-government organization (NGO) arena, and in the national electoral arena — thus the logic of what I called "liberalized autocracy" in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen.

Over the last decade, the institutional, ideological, economic, and psychological factors supporting Arab protection racket politics began to erode. I argued in 2002 that liberalized autocracy was a "trap" because it did not provide a genuine mechanism for representing competing social, religious, or sectarian interests; and because it was characterized by cycles of regime-led liberalization and de-liberalization that over time robbed regimes of what ever popular legitimacy they might have once commanded.

But recent events suggest that apart from the particular dynamics in liberalized autocracies described above, region-wide forces were weakening protection rackets throughout the Arab world. These included the proliferation of security forces, which made almost daily life hell for the average citizen, the growth of corruption — particularly among those business elites from the majority community who had been co-opted by minority regimes — and the expansion of digital communications and technology. In the context of a rapidly expanding class of educated, unemployed middle class youth, these developments not only elicited widespread contempt for the dirty politics of protection rackets: in some cases they encouraged efforts at bridging the ideological or religious divide. Hence the emergence in Egypt of the Kifaya Movement, which was led by Islamist and secular leaders, and by similar (and in the case of Yemen, much more successful) bridge building efforts in other Arab states. Striking at the very heart of protection racket politics, these initiatives were rarely welcomed — and sometimes violently suppressed — by ruling regimes.

Global developments magnified the above processes. Despite its glaring inconsistencies and multiple standards, George W. Bush’s "Freedom Agenda" signaled opposition and regime leaders alike that the United States would no longer give Arab dictators unconditional support. It was a measure of the expectations generated by this elemental shift in U.S. foreign policy that during the first year of the Obama administration, the White House was vigorously lobbied by young Arab democrats, eager to push Obama to make good on the multi-dimensional program he outlined in his June 4 Cairo "New Beginning" speech. Some of these youth leaders worked with foreign NGOs that brought Islamists and secular activists to talk about a common reform agenda. These initiatives pointed to a new spirit of cooperation among an emerging cohort of activists who grasped the corrosive implications of the region’s protection rackets.

While it was impossible to predict when and where a major challenge to Arab autocracies would emerge, the fate of these rackets is largely a local affair. Although we should not minimize the impact of the "contagion effect," or the potentially momentous regional consequences flowing from the decision of Arab League to back NATO’s Libya intervention, and later to impose sanctions on Syria, what counts most is the particular mix of institutional mechanisms used by each Arab regime to sustain protection racket politics, as well as the local identity conflicts that such rackets were designed to exploit.

For example, in Syria and Bahrain, the initially peaceful drive for political reform was violently repressed by minority regimes that concluded that they could not afford making concessions to even the most moderate demands for democratic change. Syria’s quasi-one party state lacks any institutional channels for generating a negotiated solution, while the potentially more supple instrument of monarchical rule in Bahrain was rendered useless by the royal family’s mounting fears of Shiite ("Iranian") domination. In the first case civil war is possible, while in the second, a quasi-apartheid state could be emerging.

By contrast, Egypt’s powerful military has tried to reinvent protection racket politics in ways that will sustain its influence in a prolonged transition to a more competitive system. While it is too early to tell if this effort will succeed or fail, the Islamist-secular divide continues to provide the military with a rich field of manipulation, as does the wide array of parties, NGOs, and associations that had existed prior to the January 2011 rebellion, and which have proliferated since. Paradoxically, Egypt’s legacy of relatively open — if state controlled — politics has hindered opposition unity that is a necessary, if insufficient condition, for a smooth transition to democracy. As a result the future of democracy in Egypt appears to hinge in part on the readiness of Muslim Brotherhood leaders to offer secular elites genuine power sharing in any future government. Absent offers of "credible assurance," liberal Sunni and Christian Coptic leaders might tacitly support the militarys bid to influence the constitution writing process, not to mention any democratic government that follows it.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, a protection racket system that was far more closed and repressive than that of Egypt collapsed, thus setting the stage for genuine democratization. Several factors particular to Tunisia account for this more optimistic story. First, because the small, 30,000-man professional military had been long ago subordinated to the political apparatus, Islamist and secular leaders could not easily appeal to any authoritarian enforcer to arbitrate competing visions of democratic life. When the 135,000-strong security forces then demonstrated neither the will nor the capacity to violently repress the uprising, the crony-based ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party melted away, thus leaving Islamists and secularists with little choice but to make peace or fight.

Indeed, the near total collapse of the ruling apparatus created a relatively open and unchartered political field, reducing the opportunities for manipulation by all players. While secularists clearly feared that Islamists had a substantial organizational advantage, no party had sufficient information that might have tempted one or more to pursue transition modalities designed to serve narrow or selfish interests. Even when the September negotiations over the procedures for a constituent assembly seemed at their most polarized, everyone pulled back from the brink and compromised. Finally, the presence of a large urban middle class that cut across the Islamist-secular divide provided further incentive for cooperation. Thus out of the ashes of one of North Africa’s most repressive systems competitive democracy seems to be emerging.

The decline, collapse, or foreign-supported military overthrow of protection racket systems in the Arab world has thus far only occurred in one party, presidential systems. While the case of Bahrain (and perhaps to an extent Kuwait, where political resistance to the Sabah Royal Family remains strong) suggest that monarchies are hardly immune to contentious politics. The fact that the Arab Spring has thus failed to rattle — much less crack — the foundations of monarchical autocracy requires explanation.

The structural differences between monarchies and presidential, party-machine systems is one important factor. In Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Syria, presidents were perceived as despots with little or no moral bond with the wider population. Even if these leaders wanted to create (or recreate) such bonds, because they were linked to the ruling apparatus or party, they could not break free of a corrupt system in which they were totally implicated. Thus presidents proved especially poor manipulators of the protection racket system. By contrast, most monarchs have operated at some institutional and symbolic distance from the political arena, and thus had a crucial advantage over their presidential comrades: they could drape themselves in the flag of national monarchical patriotism and thus be perceived more widely as legitimate (and effective) arbiters of competing social, economic, religious, and ideological interests. Protection racket politics have a certain elective affinity for monarchical systems.

Of course, there are differences within such systems. The single-king monarchies of Morocco and Jordan have had much more success in exploiting the institutional and symbolic advantage of monarchial rule by comparison to the competing-princes model of Qatar, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia. But even if the built-in mechanism of princely competition has created a more fragmented ruling elite, this somewhat cumbersome mechanism has nevertheless helped to sustain the protection rackets in all three countries.

Morocco’s recent experience suggests that monarchies — particularly single king systems — are capable of reinventing protection racket politics with far more panache than their presidential analogues. Seeking to distinguish himself from the Mubaraks and the Ben Alis — and thus get a jump on the opposition — in June King Mohammed VI backed constitutional amendments which somewhat enhanced the authority of the parliament, but re-secured his supreme position as "Commander of the Faithful." Not surprisingly, the Islamist Justice and Development Party embraced this compromise once the King promised that the revised constitution would keep Islam as the basis of national identity. This bargain may have appalled many secular Arab and ethnic Berber elites. But until both groups can be assured that full scale democratization will protect them as efficiently as Moroccos liberalized autocracy, they are likely to back a jiggering of the old system rather than take to the streets en masse to demand a revolution. In Morocco, the tacit consensus of all key parties required for sustaining autocracy is yet to fall apart.

These mechanics have analogues throughout the globe, particularly in what Larry Diamond has called "hybrid regimes." Instead of reducing the fate of these regimes to some metaphysical choice between staying out of history or joining it, it is far more useful to see them as part of a multitude of evolving histories that defy easy platitudes about the past or the future. In this sense the Arab Spring is part of a narrative that is both very particular and universal. Although global forces have their role to play, the diverse fates awaiting the region’s autocrats is rooted in local dynamics that will play out in ways that are still untold.

Daniel Brumberg is co-director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University and senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola