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October 11, 2006

Abu Aardvark's Puzzle: The Stickiness of Autocracy
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Marc Lynch (aka Abu Aardvark) poses the question of why Arab autocracies have proven so durable, seemingly immune from the winds of reform? After all, weren’t we talking about the blossoming, blooming, burgeoning “Arab Spring” just last year? As Lynch notes:

Many of the things which [USC economist Timur Kuran] expected to spark this bandwagon have in fact now happened:  the Iraq war toppled Saddam, the post-Hariri Lebanese protests drove out the Syrians, some brave activists began demanding change (Kefaya), Arab satellite TV broadcast it all widely.  But Arab regimes look as entrenched as ever. That has to be something of a puzzle. 

Of course, Lynch is goading us a bit here. It’s really not as mysterious as it sounds and I’m sure Abu Aardvark is well aware of how Spring turns to Summer.

Here are three considerations which may help clarify the matter, the first of which should be obvious to even the most unseasoned observer:

  1. US policymakers cannot pretend to be puzzled at the Arab world’s “democratic deficit,” because they are a big part of the problem. Despite all the fanfare to the contrary (i.e. the sweeping Wilsonianism of early 2005), the Bush administration continues to actively lend economic, military, and moral support to some of the region’s most stalwart dictators, including those in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Yes, it’s a long list. Well, then, why do we support these dictators? Because, apparently, or so we’re told, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. We’re afraid that Islamists will come to power through democratic elections. So we opt for sham, façade, imaginary      democracy. With that said, the “Islamist dilemma” is not an easy one to resolve and there are legitimate concerns about how to handle it. I’ve tried to address this here, here, and here.

  1. The existence and strength of political Islam is also an important factor from the standpoint of Arab domestic politics. In Eastern Europe and Latin America, the primary cleavage between regime and opposition was economic. However, in the Middle East, religion is the primary cleavage (i.e. Islamism vs. secularism) and this fact complicates matters quite a bit. In such a context, divisions between government and opposition are not a matter of differing public policies, but rather one of the raison d’etre of the state itself. Politics, thus, becomes an existential concern and, in extreme cases, a matter of life and death, as it was during the fated Algerian elections of 1991. The zero-sum nature of Arab politics makes democratic compromise that much more difficult.

Here’s another way of looking at it: guaranteeing regime actors that (after they are voted out of office) their private property and Swiss bank accounts will be protected is one thing. Ensuring that their very way of life will not be “affected” is altogether another. Rich people can still live rich under a leftist regime. The “bourgeois” lifestyle, on the individual level, will not be affected in any significant way. An Islamist-led regime, however, will initiate at least some changes which would have direct bearing on the private sphere (i.e. family law, private status law, women’s issues, artistic expression, alcohol consumption). Generally, people are more able to reconcile themselves to changes in public policy. The private sphere, on the other hand, is often seen as “untouchable.” Understandable fears of future Islamist intervention in “cultural production” may, then, provoke relevant regime actors to act in ways that are not necessarily in accordance with their rational self-interest. A good barometer of this is the, I suspect, uniquely Arab phenomenon of secularists and liberals warning that they will “leave” if Islamists come to power.

  1. Then there is the matter of ideological cleavages within the opposition itself. Successful democratic transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe were facilitated by broad-based opposition coalitions which were able to unite behind inclusive pro-democracy platforms. A culture of compromise prevailed as key players were able to agree on the how, when, and why of democratization. Diverse coalitions, based on a certain degree of shared norms and procedural consensus, have been much harder to come by in the Arab world because of the saliency of ideological cleavages. There is a lack of opposition consensus regarding the most foundational aspects of political life – namely the boundaries, limits and purpose of the nation-state. Put more simply, in the Middle East, the opposition can’t get its act together because there is so much suspicion and antipathy between different ideological factions, in particular between Islamists on one hand and secularists/liberals/leftists on the other. So they fight each other, instead of unifying their efforts against the regime.


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Some thoughts,
RE: your second point. It is rather indelicate. The schism you define between secularism and islamism obfuscates more than it defines. In many parts of the Arab world, the most entrenched repressive "private" practices are not advocated by Islamists, but by either the state or cultural conservatives allied with the state. Here I am thinking of extreme cultural codes currently tolerated, such as FGM in Egypt, and honor crimes in Jordan, (the role of European and American groups in defining the nature of these issues is something I dont want to get into and you have addressed in other places), but also of more everyday issues.

More Palestinian-Christians, who would, according to your argument have something to fear in an Islamist government--they are largely middle class, and they are also strongly secular--by and large, yet they overwhelmingly voted for Hamas. I think the fear of Islamist incursion into public life is a red herring. Unfortunately, some Arab liberals have used it to shore up western support for their cause. This can only backfire.

Back to the examples of FGM and honour crimes. In the former case, the Islamists have been quite active in their condemnation of the practice. In the latter, the Islamist position on honor crimes has been entirely enmeshed in a very public contestation with the cultural conservatives (some, but not all, of whom are regime actors) over who holds the keys to "Islamic" legitimacy. See here, for example, the MP Mahmoud Kharabsheh's rather inchoate engagement on the subject. He is not a member of the IAF, far from it, yet he is also not secular.

At the level of daily political life, the cleavage you see is a phantom one. It cannot explain the entrenched nature of any of the regimes.

You use the term "cultural production." I am not sure how you are trying to use it here. As far as I can see, the weakest cultural producers have been the Arab liberals, particularly those most attuned to Europe and the West. Arab nationalists/leftists, whatever is left :) of them, have mostly decided that in manner of politics they will align with the Islamists--and this you see across the board--from Morocco (where the fascinating public discussion on prisoners (though it is has been curtailed in scope) is being looked at very closely by the Arab public (particularly through AlJazeera). That the liberals threaten to leave does little to help us understand what is happening in a place like Egypt. You might have missed it, but the Arab reaction--in even some of the liberal Arab press, has been to say to those liberals, "Fine, leave, good riddance to your sell-out asses." In fact, the current rise in both public and private religious practice in the Arab world, would in fact say the exact opposite--that Arabs would likely welcome an Islamist political regime because they see it, at the basest level, as a political transformation that negates the current status quo. Regime actors, in this sense, while they might hope to any form of cleavage, do not do so between Islamism and secularism. They cannot create an ideological cleavage at that level. It doesn't work. And maybe the Latin American example is more useful than you acknowledge. Look at the perks of the loyal public bureaucracy in a place like Jordan, for example. Or the massive police force in Egypt. Then look at the Alawis in Syria. Is that secularism (as represented by the Alawis) vs Islamism (as represented by the Sunnis?) Of course not.

You must have a historical understanding of the different contexts within which Islamists and nationalists (as well as nationalist Islamists), liberals, leftists, arose. The cleavage that you claim between secularists and Islamists might make some sense in Egypt--does it look the same in Lebanon? Palestine? Iraq? Syria? Sudan?

No, it doesn't.

Watch some of the current Ramadan serials. One of the most fascinating things emerging from these uber-products of Arab popular culture--as important as Al-Jazeera (absolutely EVERYONE in the Arab world watches the serials) is the interesting search for linkages and the compromises being made between Islam and understandings and imperatives of the nation, and the notion that Islam as a religious public and private practice, and democracy as a political one, need not work in opposition to each other. There is something going on here. In one of your earlier posts, you talk about an Egyptian friend saying Arabs look at the past. While the statement reeks of essentialism, his point still rings some truth. Most of these serials are set in the 1950s. Why? Nationalism, of course. The searching within understandings of nationalism and islamism is the current mood. It is boring, perhaps, but it still matters. Most importantly, to those living in the Arab world.

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