Four years after the Arab revolts of 2011, the majority of Arab regimes that embarked on a process of political change in 2011 have since readopted the authoritarian governance practices of the past. Simultaneously, those Arab countries that did not embark on the path of reform in 2011 have continued and in some cases increased their repressive governance practices. In the Gulf sub-region, the incumbent authoritarian monarchs and sheikhs continue to govern and rule without popular oversight and control. In the Levant, repression and exclusion continue to dominate regime practices, from Syria’s persistent massacres of its internal opposition to Egypt’s more recent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and other challengers of the military regime. And in North Africa, the persistent inability of domestic, regional and international partners to fi nd a comprehensive peace deal that includes the demobilization of the militias in Libya has continued to hamper the prospect of short- term regional stabilization.
In parallel with the restoration of authoritarianism, the repertoire of non-violent contentious politics that spread to the entire Arab region in the wake of the successful protests in Tunisia and Egypt in late 2010 and early 2011 has diminished signifi cantly in size, scope, and its impact on political decision-making. Moreover, that process has been accompanied by a sharp increase in the scope and size of rebel politics and political violence. In a host of Arab countries, new contentious actors relying on violence and armed rebellion have replaced the peaceful street protesters who were at the forefront during the early days of the Arab Spring. From the anti-regime rebels who kill government offi cials in Egypt’s Sinai to the militias in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, the brutality of the latter is directed as much against one another as it is against the incumbent regimes.
As a potential driver for further consolidating the tendency towards the restoration authoritarianism and the militarization of contention, the past four years have seen the rise of regional great power competition to an unprecedented level. In particular Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, but also Qatar, Egypt and Algeria, have embarked upon a protracted struggle to expand their influence over the post-revolt regional political order both by proxy and by direct military and economic intervention. Combined with
the partial implosion of the national political situations in a row of Arab countries, the collapse of territorial integrity in several Arab states and the polarization of public opinion along ideological and sectarian divides all over the region, the prospect for short-term changes in governance and opposition practices are today limited.
These changes in the domestic and regional political order are not only the product of path-dependency and historical legacy in each of the Arab countries and in the region as a whole. They are also the unintended consequences of the changing US and western foreign policies in the Middle East and North Africa under President Obama.
By rolling back its will to employ diplomatic, economic and military pressure on local stakeholders in the region, the US and its key Western allies share their part of the
responsibility for the current restoration of authoritarianism led by regional great powers and domestic actors who have little appetite for democratic governance.
True, the Arab revolts did generate the first-ever liberal Arab democratic governance in Tunisia. As long as that continues to function and remains capable of regulating internal conflict, managing the potential spill-over of conflict in neighboring countries and steering free of excessive interference in its internal politics by autocratic regional great powers, it will confirm the fact that under the right structural conditions Arabs are indeed capable of changing the configuration of the political order and breaking away from the legacy of autocratic governance and militarized contention. It is also true that developments since 2011 in Algeria and Morocco, the two competitive great powers in North Africa and the Sahel, may actually provide the best current regional environment for the Tunisian exception to endure: over the past four years both of these sub-regional great powers have introduced minimal political reforms in order to avoid the mass politicization of local grievances. As such, their long-term trajectory does not exclude the possibility of gradual change away from the authoritarian model.
At the same time, the unprecedented collapse of the security architecture in the region, including the unsolved and unpredictable nature of the Libyan conflict, hampers the prospect of seeing Tunisia develop into a model inspiring broader regional political development. The Gulf and the Levantine sub-regions, for their part, seem firmly set on a development towards protracted authoritarian governance based on the well-known dynamics of repression and rebellion.
The core claim of the present report is that the authoritarian governance that emerged in the Arab region in the post-colonial period still prevails four years after the Arab revolts. Yet, today’s Arab authoritarianism differs from that prior to 2011: while the previous form of authoritarian governance provided a minimum of domestic and regional stability, the current configuration is correlated with unprecedented levels of mass contention, rebellion, state collapse and regional great-power competition. The report suggests this specific historical conjuncture in Middle Eastern and North African politics be conceptualized as “unstable authoritarianism”. It also suggests that this new hybrid of Arab authoritarianism manifests itself in at least the following six correlative political trends:
■ An increase in the Arab military’s role in political decision-making
■ An increase in the repression of opposition and challengers by Arab regimes
■ An increased erosion of the capacity and territorial integrity of the Arab states
■ A decrease in non-militant contentious politics and an increase in rebel politics
and political violence in the Arab region
■ An increase in the polarization of Arab public opinion along sectarian and
■ An increased level of Middle East and North Africa great-power competition
through both proxy and direct intervention.
These six trends should not be understood as template that fits all twenty-something Arab countries. While present political developments in a country like Egypt do indeed exposes traits of all six trends, most Arab countries will show only a few of them. And while one or two trends may emerge strongly in one country, they may only appear vaguely – if at all – in other Arab countries.
It must at the same time be stressed that none of the above trends lacks precedent in the Arab region. On the contrary, prior to the uprisings in 2011, Arab regimes had relied for decades on exclusion, repression and co-optation of the opposition as a way to assure their own survival. Equally, prior to 2011 contentious actors in the Arab region had for decades relied on rebellion and political violence to influence political decisionmaking.
And regional great powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia fiercely competed for
influence in countries like Lebanon and Palestine prior to the 2011 uprisings.
However, the present report argues that the significant novelty of the current situation is the level and correlation of these tendencies. Nowhere else in recent Arab history have these six trends manifested themselves so forcefully at the same time. Taken together, they provide the contours of a new and inherently unstable hybrid of the Arab authoritarian order. “Unstable authoritarianism” describes a specific conjuncture of the increase and decrease of pre-existing tendencies in Arab politics that have emerged at a precise historical moment and which, therefore, are likely to undergo further change in the future. It is a conjuncture, but a rather worrisome and unpredictable one.
The present report is organized in six sub-chapters, each of which treats one of these tendencies on the basis of one or two country-specific empirical cases. The selection
of these illustrative cases reflects the following categorization of the trajectory of regime and opposition politics in each of the major Arab countries in the wake of the Arab revolts in 2011:
■ Countries that experienced mass revolt against the incumbent regime and subsequent democratization. In early 2011, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen were candidates for this category. By late 2014, only Tunisia remained firmly rooted in this category.
■ Countries that experienced mass revolt against the incumbent regime and subsequent authoritarian restoration. In early 2011, Bahrain and Syria were key cases of this. Today the category consists predominantly of Egypt and Bahrain.
■ Countries that experienced mass revolt against the incumbent regime and subsequent partial state failure. In 2011 Libya appeared to be the most potent case in the category. By late 2014, Syria and possibly also Yemen had joined the category.
■ Countries that did not experience anti-regime mass revolt, but did see slow regime-initiated reforms. Morocco, Jordan and Algeria are key cases in this category.
■ Countries that did not experience anti-regime mass revolt, nor saw regime-initiated
reforms. Saudi Arabia is a key case of this, with supporting cases in other Gulf countries like the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman.
■ Countries that did not experience anti-regime revolt but whose increased disintegration during the period under scrutiny was provoked by factors preceding 2011. In this category we find in particular Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.