Monday, May 30, 2016

The Twilight of the Dictators: the End of Authoritarianism as We Know It in the Contemporary Middle East أفول عصر الطغاة.. نهاية الاستبداد كما نعرفه في الشرق الاوسط المعاصر


A funny thing happened on the way to the Arab Spring.  Arab citizens gained their first taste of freedom.  More importantly, they learned what it means to break down the “barrier of fear.”  It was an exhilarating moment, but one which did not produce the democratic reforms which the protesters had sought.   But was the Arab Spring, as many analysts have concluded, really a failure?  More to the point, what is its legacy for authoritarian rule in the Middle East?

One of the Arab Spring‘s lasting impacts is to have brought about the end of authoritarianism as we have known it since the 1950s.  We have entered a new era - the “Twilight of the Dictators” - because none of them is secure in their rule.  No authoritarian ruler, whether Egypt’s 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Syria’s Bashar al-Asad, Sudan’s 'Umar al-Bashir, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, or Iran’s Ayatollah Khamane’i, is self-confident and able to offer  a vision of the future. 

Instead, these rulers increasingly rely on brute force and repression, as lashings, torture, executions, imprisonment  and cyber surveillance spread.  These regimes are bereft of ideology.  Neither the secular authoritarianism of the pre-Arab Spring, nor the vacuous and increasingly hollow Islamism – whether Sunni Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism, or Shi’i Iran’s State of the Supreme Jurisprudent – hold any promise for the future.

The impact and legacy of the Arab Spring by no means suggests that democracy is anywhere close to coming to fruition in the Arab world or the broader Middle East.  But its legacy does suggest that the continued ability of dictators throughout the Middle East to rule in a way that assures the outcomes they seek has come to an end.  Further, it suggests that the Arab world and larger Middle East can expect significantly more turmoil and political instability in the decades to come.
Cairo's Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring uprisings
What has caused the Twilight of the Dictators?  I offer 5 arguments to explain why traditional forms of authoritarian rule are no longer tenable.  These 5 clusters of variables do not constitute discrete causal factors, but are interdependent.  Thus they need to be combined and integrated as part of a holistic explanation. 

The first variable is the ideological fragmentation which has beset the Arab world and the broader Middle East.  Authoritarian regimes are no longer able to offer a coherent legitimation of their rule. They increasingly appear for what they are – predatory, corrupt and repressive regimes which serve nepotistic and narrowly defined elite interests.  

The second factor is the lack of political institutions which fail to offer participation, accountability, transparency or the rule of law.  Instead, Middle East regimes are highly personalistic.  In no way do they function in the manner designated by the nation-state’s ostensible constitution.  Likewise state institutions fail to provide social services, education, or physical security. 

A third factor is the lack of economic growth.  This set of variables combines three elements.  First, the Arab Spring adversely affected FDI by undermining investor confidence in large parts of the MENA region. (http://www.fdiintelligence.com/Info/What-s-New/Press-releases/Middle-East-and-Africa-FDI-growth-affected-by-Arab-Spring).   In 2011, 666 projects were announced at a total of 27 billion Euros, the lowest level since 2004.  In 2012, the rate increased to 37 billion Euros but this only matched the FDI rate of 2005.   

Second, corruption has increased throughout the MENA region since the Arab Spring. Third, most regimes in MENA region have sought to “liberalize” their economies.  This does not at all indicate the spread of free markets, but rather the reduction of state subsides of food and energy to attract foreign investors.  

The fourth factor undermining authoritarian rule is the end of the monopoly of information controlled by the state.  The spread of new forms of media, from channels such as al-Jazeera, which covered political and social topics heretofore considered taboo, and the spread of satellite television, to the proliferation of social media, has flooded the citizenry of MENA states with opportunities to obtain information formerly forbidden and unavailable. 
Libyan protestors during the Arab Spring
Finally, the development of a “youth bulge” in most countries of the Middle East, where large numbers of youth have been unable to find employment, has created a large, disaffected demographic.  With 70% of the population under the age of 30 in many MENA states, the inability of youth to obtain a quality education, find appropriate employment and express themselves politically provides a “perfect storm” for recruitment to criminal and extremist organizations, hence enhancing the region’s instability.

Exacerbating all these regional challenges facing the dictators of the Middle East is the recent contraction of the world market followed by the international collapse of oil and commodity prices.
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Ideology
Authoritarian regimes can no longer count on the implicit social contract which they were able to establish when they first seized power.  While citizens, especially the educated middle classes, were not pleased to lose their personal freedoms, especially the freedom of expression, the promise of economic security, and law and order offset this concern.  However, once economic development stalled, and state corruption and nepotism became obvious, authoritarian states found it more difficult to force citizens to behave in ways that conformed to their desires.  

Secular regimes, often populated by former army officers, who promoted a corporatism which denied social difference and subsumed the entire populace under an all-encompassing “revolutionary” ideology, have successively undermined their ideological message.  By the 1980s, the revolutionary narrative of Arab nationalism, and variants such as Algerian “socialism,” had run its course, having failed to fulfill the promise of “unity, freedom and socialism.”   Nationalized industries became a drag on the national economy and top-heavy and inefficient Soviet-inspired heavy industry failed to bring about economic growth.

Following the defeat of Arab armies in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, one response of secular dictatorships was to invoke religious tropes to augment their declining legitimacy.   This process began with Anwar Sadat’s efforts to break with the leftist tilt of Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir’s (Nasser) regime as he dispensed with the United Arab Republic, which once again became Egypt, and called for a state built on “science and faith” (al-cilm wa-l-iman).  This trend continued with Saddam Husayn’s shift to “religion” after the onset of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 when it became clear that the lightening victory over Iran he had expected failed to materialize.

To understand the development of an ideological vacuum which began during the 1970s, and accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, requires an examination not only of the rise of Islamism, whether in the form of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical variants of Islam, but a focus political economy as well.  

The Middle East has known three forms of ideology and political organization since 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.  The first ideological modality, the “ersatz” liberalism imposed on the region by British and French colonialism after WWI, was not as bad as subsequent authoritarian regimes claimed it to be.

Under monarchical rule in Egypt and Iraq, for example, there was a modicum of civility which included extensive associational life, including a rich urban culture of coffeehouses and salons, a press and literary production which saw relatively limited control by the state, and a cultural and religious diversity which saw different sects and ethnic groups live together in relative harmony.  While elections were manipulated to bring about the desired ends of rapacious elites, there were urban electoral districts where they were largely free and fair.

The authoritarian regimes which gradually took over the Middle East following WWII were largely the response to the unwillingness of pre-War political and economic elites to address the rising social problems of the region.  Large scale rural-urban migration during the first half of the 20th century, lack of jobs, and increased political participation of the lower middle and lower classes, spreading unrest in urban areas (think of the burning of Cairo in 1952), spelled the end of colonially constituted “liberal” regimes.  

The new post-WW II dictatorships, such as those which seized power under the aegis of the Syrian, Egyptian, Iraqi Yemeni, and Libyan military, along with the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria, offered their citizenry a new social contract which exchanged personal freedoms for security and material well-being.  

 Education would now be free, government jobs would be guaranteed to those with university degrees, food subsidies would protect the poor and Western imperialism would end through the nationalization of foreign assets.  The laissez-faire monarchies, which offered considerable personal freedoms to the small middle and upper classes persisted in Jordan and Morocco, but elsewhere became a thing of the past.

The corporatist ideology of military-based dictatorships emphasized binary thinking.  Only two types of sociopolitical groups were recognized, “reactionaries” and “revolutionaries.”  Except in Lebanon, a state built on confessionalism, diversity in the Arab world was subsumed under the category “Arab” or “revolutionary.”  Political pluralism went by the wayside, as did the respect for multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural tolerance which had characterized the “liberal” regimes of the inter-war era.

The problem with the ideological rhetoric of the second or post-1945 phase of rule in the Middle East was its inability to deliver on its promises of material well-being.  The public sector which emerged from the nationalization of foreign enterprise was inefficient.  It provided fertile ground for nepotism and corruption.  In short, it was unable to sustain meaningful economic growth in face of population increases, especially among the young, for whom the promised economic future – stable jobs and income - was not to be.

By the 1970s, economic constraints led the Egyptian regime of Anwar al-Sadat to proclaim the so-called Economic Opening (al-Infitah).  Other authoritarian regimes approached the problem of economic stagnation in less dramatic fashion.  Nevertheless, both the Syrian Bacthist and Saddam Husayn’s regimes likewise began a process of “liberalization” of the economy.   Only Algeria remained true to the failed Soviet model of development, resulting in large scale migration of its citizenry abroad, especially to France, due to lack of jobs. 

What this development meant was a backing away from the economic promises of the Social Contract.  In Egypt in 1977, this led to food riots in Egypt when the state reduced subsidies for basic goods in an effort to obtain an IMF loan. These riots foreshadowed the peaceful protests of Tunisians, Egyptians, and Syrians which later would initiate the Arab Spring.

Arab Socialist Ba'th Party emblem
During the 1970s, Syria began its own “Open Door.”  Efforts were made to give the economy greater dynamism, including efforts by the Alawite dominated Bacthist regime to create ties to powerful Sunni Muslim merchant families in Damascus and Aleppo.  In Iraq, the 8th Congress of the Arab Socialist Bacth Party in 1974 turned away from its anti-imperialist rhetoric and put the economy on a much more traditional basis, albeit still dominated by the state.  Collective farms were dispensed with and foreign capital, e.g., the American Bechtel and the French Creusot-Loire corporations, was invited into the country to assist in the process of translating oil wealth into industrialization.

Of course, ideology in the MENA region was not the sole property of secular corporatist nationalist regimes. Islamism had always been waiting in the wings to pick up the political pieces should secular nationalism fail.  Islamism had many similarities with corporatist nationalism in its reliance on unitary and binary thinking.  In reducing all problems to the oft repeated formula: “Islam is the solution” (Islam al-hall), and dividing the world into “believers” and “non-believers,” or even worse, “apostates,” Islamism offers no better path to solving the pressing problems facing MENA nation-states.

In the Islamist state par excellence , the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran (whose constitution Olivier Roy has demonstrated in, The Failure of Political Islam, is derived largely from the French constitutional model, not from al-Sharcia), simple slogans such as “Death to the Great Satan” (Marg bar Shaytân-e Bozorg) have done little to improve the standards of living of most Iranians.  Instead, the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite has produced massive corruption, repression, especially of youth and intellectuals, and, until recently, led to Iran’s isolation as a pariah state.

Political Institutions
The political institutions imposed by the colonial powers after WWI never sprouted deep routes. As in many former colonial states, the constitutions which structured the form of these institutions bore little relationship to the country’s history or traditions.  The political elites privileged by colonial rule undermined what little support had existed for parliamentary rule and Western style judiciaries by rigging elections and excluding the bulk of the populace from political participation.

The close alliance of post-WWI political elites with the colonial powers, especially Great Britain and France, further delegitimized the political systems established by colonial rule following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.  Democracy came to be associated with corruption, lack of caring about the interests of the populace at large, and a willingness to subordinate national interests to those of Great Britain and France and, after WWII, the United States.

The establishment of one-party states by “revolutionary” regimes, whether dominated by the Bacth Party and/or the military, reduced opportunities for political participation still further.  National elections became farcical spectacles of dictators who invariably received 98% or more the popular vote.  The degradation of politics meant that youth had no education in, or understanding of, how democratic political institutions function.

The lack of economic growth
The first decade of authoritarian rule produced a distribution of income through generous state-sponsored subsidies of basic necessities, such as bread, cooking oil, sugar and propane gas.  The nationalization of foreign industry provide a windfall for the state in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran as did the seizure of domestically owned agricultural land, banks and businesses.

Two factors quickly undermined this “economic development model.”  First, there was a no ability or incentive for public sector managers to innovate or employ entrepreneurial strategies.  Instead, these managers used their position to enrich themselves, their families and their clients.

Second, the authoritarian states which had national foreign and domestic holdings lacked the capacity to make the enterprises and land which they had seized profitable.  Their ability to technologically innovate to modernize and make them more efficient was severely limited.  Egypt, the most economically pressed of the authoritarian regimes, given its rapid population growth and limited resources, realized that, without foreign capital and the technology such investment would bring, the economy would continue to stagnate.

However, the opening up of economies dominated by the state public sectors only strengthened this form of economic organization.  “Liberalization” was not synonymous to promoting market forces, as quite the opposite was true.  As the state public sector gained access to additional foreign capital, its managers had even less incentive to open up the economy to entrepreneurs who were outside the political elite.

The downside of “liberalization” has been the state’s efforts to cut subsidies on which large segments of the less well off in the populace depend upon.  To attract FDI, authoritarian states need to convince investors that the economies in which they are investing are being run according the desired financial discipline.  With economies in the MENA region facing serious declines in growth rates – even former power houses like Saudi Arabia (which has an estimated poverty rate of 25%) – the reduction in subsidies had only further undermined regime legitimacy.

The end of the monopoly of information
One of the key factors in the success of the Arab Spring was the role of social media.  Not only did social media play a key factor within the countries which were involved in the Arab Spring but among all countries of the MENA region.  Not only did social media allow organizers of the Arab Spring to efficiently mobilize and situate demonstrators for maximum impact in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, but information disseminated through the MENA region was critical in encouraging demonstrators to persist in their efforts, seeing the success of demonstrators in other countries.

While the impact of social media in the Arab Spring has been exaggerated, there is no doubt that opposition elements gained a sense of power in their ability to use it to mobilize against authoritarian regimes. What has become clear is the inability of authoritarian regimes to control social media, despite Egypt having literally shut down the Internet during late January 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings.  Other Arab Spring states tried to block Facebook and other social media platforms.

While in Iraq during the recent peaceful demonstrations at Iraq’s Green Zone in Baghdad in mid-March 2016, I saw live feeds as police and local security forces facilitated demonstrators’ ability to approach the Green Zone and pitch tents there.  Eventually the demonstrations forced the resignation of the entire cabinet of 22 ministers from Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi’s government. Clearly Iraq has come a long way from Saddam Husayn’s regime when owning a typewriter without a state license was a capital offense.

In light of the increasing sophistication of youth in the MENA region to use social media, authoritarian regime are finding it difficult if not impossible to prevent their populaces from gaining access to information which they regimes consider sensitive and a threat to their rule.

The “youth bulge”
In most countries of the MENA region, 60-70% of the populace is under the age of 30.  What demographers have referred to as a “youth bulge” need not constitute a negative phenomenon.  In East Asia, in many of the so-called “Asian Tigers,” a youth bulge was beneficial to economic growth as young people provided labor and often professional technological skills.

However, in the MENA region, for reasons described above, local economies have not generated jobs, and those which have been created are frequently reserved for the youth of families connected to the ruling political elite.  As the number of youth throughout the region without hope of stable employment increases, the ability of criminal syndicates and terrorist organizations to find recruits increases.

Conclusion
The Twilight of the Dictators is the tip of the “perfect storm” which is about to hit Middle East.  Ruling political elites are devoid of ideological legitimation.   To paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, authoritarian regimes in the MENA region lack a hegemonic political culture through which to generalize their interests to those of the public at large,   They lack credible “organic intellectuals”- those in the media, the religious community, and the higher education system  who promote the idea that the masses and the ruling elites share the same political social and economic interests.

With the lack of functioning political institutions, the personalistic rule of authoritarian rulers becomes all the more apparent.  Corruption and nepotism become more glaring in economies which cannot meet even the basic needs of their citizens.  Violence is spreading.  Indeed, in Syria, civil strife has resulted in the displacement of half the country’s population.

Youth are becoming ever more restless.  Frustrated, many are turning to extremism.  With the global downturn in commodity prices, and stagnant t economies in the EU and Japan, FDI in the MENA region is declining.  This trend has become a self-fueling downward spiral. Less economic growth leads to more unrest and violence.  Greater instability, in turn, hampers foreign investment and local economic growth.

What is the projected outcome of the Twilight of the Dictators?  The most likely scenario is not a turn to radical Islamism or more repressive military dictatorships, but rather an increase in the number of failed states. Already, we can count Libya, Yemen and Syria as members of this category.

In the category of semi-failed states, we can count Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon, because large parts of these countries are engrossed in civil strife and not under the control of the central government. The outcome in both cases - failed and semi-failed states - is not only domestic instability in the states in question, but the "spillover" effect on neighboring states, e.g., to Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia. 

Unfortunately, more failed states seem in the offing in the decades to come.  Egypt and Jordan could fall into this category.  What is needed is a comprehensive international strategy to address the crisis of political stability in the MENA region.  Will the US take on the role of bringing the key stakeholders together to seek a solution to the crisis, or will it continue to view Middle East politics as a "spectator sport"?




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