Legacies of Authoritarian Stability

By: Kjetil Selvik and Stig Stenslie, authors of Stability and Change in the Modern Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2011).

When authoritarian leaders in the Arab world come down important obstacles for democracy remain from the mechanisms that kept them up.

40 years of regime stability has been replaced by instability through the Arab uprising. Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Husni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi and – possibly – Yemen Ali Abdallah Salih’s are all history. Syria’s Bashar al-Asad is literally fighting for his life.

But what comes after? Removing authoritarian leaders is not tantamount to a speedy democratization in the Middle East. Decades of authoritarian regimes, which clung to power through survival politics, has left deep wounds. In the extreme cases, the toppling of rulers can be followed by collapse.

The Price of Stability

Up to 2011, regime stability was maintained despite a shortage of legitimacy. After the humiliating defeat by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, the Arab leaders appeared stripped of credibility. They had not succeeded in defending Palestine. Arab unity was not realized. Expectations of political rights were not met. At the same time, many felt that the state – imposed by the colonial powers – neither mirrored local identities such as tribal, regional, and sectarian belonging, nor overall identities like those of being an “Arab” or “Muslim”.

Nonetheless, the rulers clung to power. In the absence of legitimacy, they resorted to survival politics. The rulers gave key positions in the security establishment to family members and friends who were commissioned to monitor the state apparatus and the opposition. They rewarded loyal supporters, punished opponents by brutal oppression, and pitted groups against each other. Many enjoyed the support of major powers outside the region – that pursued their own interests at the detriment of socio-economic development.

The authoritarian based stability went hand in hand with stagnation. The Arab countries score worse than most other developing regions when it among other things comes to freedom, women’s rights, and knowledge production. Unemployment has shot to the roof as a result of a very young population coupled with low economic productivity. The development had long been alarming when the Arab uprising occured.

Challenging Democratization

The Arab uprising has put democracy on the agenda, and weakened the notion of Muslim-Arab otherness. In the Middle East as anywhere else, people are committed to ensuring the best possible future for their societies – and often willing to sacrifice a great deal for their goals. But the process of change is challenging due to the region’s political legacy.

Three structural barriers stand in the way of consolidating democracy.

The first is the concentration of power in both politics and the economy. Most constitutions in the region place an extensive amount of power in the hands of the executive authority, at the expense of the legislative and judicial. The authoritarian leaders used martial law and numerous other tricks to concentrate power even more. The economic development has been dominated by the state, partly as the result of Arab socialism, and partly because of oil. Privatization has benefitted crony capitalists and rarely created any economic counter-powers to the rulers.

The second is the involvement of military and intelligence networks in economic and political power structures. The military was historically the springboard to power in the Arab republics, and military regimes thrived on regional conflict. The rulers built thereto Kafkaesque intelligence agencies to control the security forces. In countries such as Algeria, Syria and Egypt large industrial and construction enterprises are dominated by these networks, which obviously oppose democratization.

The third is societies characterized by social and ideological polarization. This is to some extent a reflection of old conflict lines. But the polarization is above all the outcome of decades of divide-and-rule policies. In some cases, such as Syria and Bahrain, Sunnis are opposed to Shia Muslims. In others, such as Yemen and Libya, the dominating trait is regional divisions. Mutual distrust – and ideological differences – split Islamists and seculars across the region. The consequence is that political leaders can strengthen their hand by pitting groups of people against each other.

The Curse of Dived Societies

In the societies more affected by polarization, the “Arab Spring” has fared the worse.

The outcome is particularly grim in Syria. Here the Alawi clan in power has taken the extended Alawi community hostage for the regime’s survival. Asad uses brute force against the rebels – among which Sunni Muslims are in majority – and is nurturing minority fears of revenge attacks and majority tyranny if the regime should fall. Moderate and conciliatory voices are drowned; weapons take over for peaceful demonstrations. The country seems to be torn apart from within.

Also Bahrain’s ruling house is fuelling sectarian tension. The Sunni Muslim Khalifa family, which controls the kingdom, has tried to depict the democracy movement as a Shia rebellion. They find support with many Sunnis who fear a takeover by the Shiite majority.

In Yemen and Libya the strongmen are gone, but the societies are still so divided that it is difficult to agree on a common political project. Yemen is torn between the north and the south, different tribes, and religious groups. Libya is ruled by the militias that fought the Qadhafi regime to its end. The National Transitional Council has little authority. Short of disarmament and national reconciliation a new civil war may be looming. The hope is that the forthcoming parliamentary elections will be a step towards a stronger – and legitimate – government.

Egypt is to some extent affected by the same curse. The fronts are steep. Islamists stand against seculars, radical versus moderate opposition, sometimes also Muslims against Copts. Such divisions help the military hold onto power. On the positive side, the Egyptians’ political awareness is increasing and the demand that power should be transferred to the people has widespread support. This gives grounds for some optimism.

Tunisia so far has fared the best. Besides a long constitutional tradition, the country’s prime advantage is a homogeneous population. For authoritarian rulers, it is more difficult to play the Tunisians against each other. Islamists and seculars have bridged earlier divides and managed to form a coalition government together.

The Next Effort

The legacies of authoritarian regimes are a heavy burden to carry for those who strive for democracy in the Arab world. The people behind the uprising had the courage to stand against their oppressors. The next effort will be to lay the groundwork for stable governments that are based on legitimacy and popular sovereignty, rather than survival politics. This is likely to become an even greater challenge.