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Roots of the Arab Spring

The first book-length assessment of events whose ramifications are still unfolding, Roots of the Arab Spring is a coherent and incisive account of the factors that gave rise to the Arab Spring.

Roots of the Arab Spring
Contested Authority and Political Change in the Middle East

Dafna Hochman Rand

2013 | 184 pages | Cloth $55.00
Political Science
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Table of Contents


Introduction. Authority in Flux: Three Drivers of Change in the Middle East and North Africa
Chapter 1. The Demand for Free Expression and the Contested Public Sphere
Chapter 2. Dedemocratizing through the Rule of Law
Chapter 3. New Sons and Stalled Reforms
Chapter 4. The Drivers of Change and the U.S. Response


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In the mid-2000s, I traveled to Morocco, Tunisia, and Bahrain to conduct research on the political strategies enabling authoritarian governments to persist in the Middle East and North Africa. Middle East comparative politics specialists considered the endurance of authoritarianism in this region a puzzling anomaly. Most of the developing world had at least experimented with some type of democratization from the 1970s through the 1990s—even if many of these states later regressed back to "hybrid" regime types, neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian. Yet the states of the Middle East and North Africa remained undemocratic, lagging on all of the global rankings that measure political freedom and civil liberties.

After conducting over a hundred interviews in these three countries, sitting in on parliamentary sessions, and participating in civil society and political activities, my search for a generalizable explanation for the democracy deficit in the region seemed beside the point. Though there were constitutional, bureaucratic, and socioeconomic explanations for authoritarian endurance, this endurance did not appear to be the most apparent trend in the region. On the ground, from the Casbah of Rabat, Morocco to the ports of Bahrain, the most remarkable characteristic of the region's politics during the first decade of the twenty-first century was its widespread dynamism, including a pervasive uncertainty about the future of both regional and local politics.

Of course, the authoritarian state appeared just as strong as I had expected. Internal security services, including, in some places, despised secret police, exercised powerful oversight roles, often interfering in daily life. Political opposition activists traded stories—some real, some imagined—of arbitrary detentions and deplorable prison conditions. The rulers commanded a pervasive physical presence, with pictures of leaders adorning everything from public buses to hotel lobbies, reminding the citizens of the established political order. Yet in Morocco I also found journalists and women's rights activists trying to push the monarchy's limits. These groups and individuals were seizing upon the relatively permissive atmosphere under a new king to publish daring and critical newspaper articles, to mobilize protests in front of parliament, and to advocate for minority and human rights. In Bahrain, I saw a political opposition deeply divided, and a public growing increasingly disillusioned with a new king whom most had expected would be a reformer. In Tunisia, the public was increasingly fed up with the methodical efforts by the president and his cronies to transform a once moderate, pluralistic state into one of the most closed political systems in the world.

Thus, my field research suggested that the autocrats in the region were not at all uniformly "robust," as described at the time by Middle East and North Africa experts. While it was true that many of these leaders had ruled for decades, and had successfully overcome intense public opposition and intermittent crises, by the twenty-first century, most were nervously trying to manage the varied political changes occurring around them. Some were doing so more successfully than others. Often, economic, social, or political reforms could appeal to popular and elite allies, minimally allay opposition or civil society demands, and solidify the autocrat's rule by building credibility or by coopting opposition groups. In the short term, these strategic efforts seemed to be working: The autocrats appeared in some cases to be cleverly staying one step ahead of the changing political pressures surrounding them—whether by revising press codes to rein in the expanding media space or by revising constitutions to carefully limit the electoral participation of political challengers. But their ability to stay a step ahead of the game was precarious at best. It seemed apparent that top-down efforts to manage the changing dynamics could easily go awry, and could generate unknown and unintended consequences.

My field research found a degree of flux at odds with both the widespread conclusions reached by academics studying the Middle East and North Africa at the time, as well as the consensus among policy makers working on the region. Both groups considered the regimes and rulers of the Middle East and North Africa robust, persistent, and strong. At the time, scholars and policy makers were focused not on the dynamism in the region, but rather on analyzing the explanations for what appeared to be a nearly monolithic freedom deficit. Given this overarching lens, few academics or policy makers were searching for political cracks—sources of instability. So focused on the vast power imbalance between the state and societies, neither community dedicated sufficient analysis to the potential sources of political change.

Many scholars subscribed to what was loosely dubbed "the authoritarian resilience research agenda"—offering a set of hypotheses to explain how the region's autocrats used economic, institutional, and electoral means to wield power, typically by outwitting and outmaneuvering other actors, including the international community and political opposition. As the author of one seminal article argued, these autocrats' "robust and politically tenacious coercive apparatus" could overcome "any opposition with strength, coherence, and effectiveness." While regionalists had previously explained Middle East and North African authoritarianism by studying external rents and foreign patronage, the natural resource curse, or the Islamic world's religious and cultural traditions, over the past ten years they were focused increasingly on the micro foundations of authoritarian rule. They honed in on the institutional logics governing constitutions, party systems, and electoral rules. This literature also explored how selective economic growth, cronyism, and economic crises sustained authoritarian systems. As regional scholars explored the ways in which institutions enabled authoritarian rule, they found that many leaders were choosing proactive strategies to deliberately divide and co-opt opposition factions, particularly Islamist parties and movements from secular opponents.

By emphasizing how and why the region's regimes were so extraordinarily successful at staying in power, however, this research agenda often painted, with broad brush stokes, a picture of a stagnant region. The Middle East regionalist scholars pursued a very useful set of research questions by focusing on the nuts and bolts of authoritarianism, but they sometimes marginalized, whether intentionally or not, the political orientations, attitudes, and changing views of the region's citizens. Hypothesizing why authoritarianism survived not only reflected a bias toward studying elites, but also diminished the attention paid to social movements in the region, whether youth, workers, or the new communities that were developing online. The prevailing scholarly approach, in short, inadequately addressed the potential of individuals to mobilize.

In Washington during this time period, U.S. policy makers began advocating for a "Freedom Agenda" in the Middle East and North Africa. They turned their attention—at least temporarily—to the promotion of democracy and human rights in a region where both were flagging, in addition to new trade and investment programs. New U.S. government funds focused on the capacity of independent civil society organizations and media, as well as small business and entrepreneurship promotion programs, most notably under the new Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and the multilateral Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) program. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered unprecedented public support for democracy and universal rights in the region—in the former's second inaugural address and in the latter's address at the American University of Cairo in 2005.

The logic of the U.S. Freedom Agenda began with the assumption that the states in the region were durable and strong, with the leadership firmly entrenched. The policy makers who championed this agenda often overlooked the local movements and organizations that were advocating for change, many of which had existed for decades. They discounted, like many academics, the potential for collective action by the region's citizens. Policy makers interested in promoting democratization in the region were also particularly interested in national level elections, and to some extent they failed to imagine how political change might come about any other way. This failure of imagination meant that policy makers paid less attention to the non-electoral spheres of political society. Focused on promoting freer and fairer elections, many policy makers did not adequately consider other sources of political change, including the potential for cross-cutting revolutionary movements.

Although many policy makers were committed to the principles behind the Freedom Agenda, particularly during its first few years, in practice U.S. efforts had mixed results. Many people in the region rejected the U.S. foreign policy approach to the region post-September 11, 2001, particularly the 2003 Iraq War, and these policies tainted the Freedom Agenda. U.S. democracy-promotion strategies also failed to differentiate between those tactics appropriate for the stable authoritarian regimes of the region and those more suited for the unstable, ethnically divided, and conflict-ridden states, such as Iraq and Lebanon. Finally, when elections in Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon in 2005-2006 yielded victors considered inimical to U.S. interests, policy makers' enthusiasm for democratization in the region withered.

U.S. public rhetoric about democracy moderated after 2006 for a number of reasons. Policy makers' emphasis shifted—from public messaging and large scale new initiatives to a greater emphasis on private diplomacy and programmatic assistance focused on building the capacity of civil society organizations, independent media, and institutions. Nevertheless, even the new, more subtle approach rested on the assumption that the political status quo in the Middle East and North Africa—a set of strong, autocratic regimes—would endure for the foreseeable future.

This book presents a new argument about three drivers of political change that were occurring in the region from the 1990s through the 2000s: (a) an increasing demand for free expression, which over time created an enlarged public sphere, a space for public debate beyond state control; (b) top-down de-democratization efforts, where authorities initiated new rule-of-law reforms in order to restrict political rights; and (c) a pattern of liberalizing reforms that, over time, stalled, as new leaders who had come to power at the turn of the twenty-first century lost interest in reforming.

A decade after these drivers emerged, they had begun to change the relationship between states and societies, between authorities and citizens. These three drivers of change were catalysts of the Arab Spring protests, though they neither explain the origin of any particular individual uprising nor together are exhaustive explanations for the broader systemic change that was occurring during this period. Rather, the combination of these three drivers of change generated public frustration, anger, and alienation, contributing to the intensity of the unprecedented public protest movements. These drivers were widespread in particular during the fifteen years before the Arab Spring, due to the rise of new innovations, new leaders, and new norms during this period. They did not all occur to the same extent in every Arab state, but in some states the convergence of two or more of these drivers proved to be particularly combustible.

Temporally, the argument offered in this book ends in January 2011 and does not explain why the protest movements took on different degrees of intensity and scope in different countries. Each of the uprisings has taken a divergent path, leading some states toward tentative democratic openings, others toward civil conflict, and still others toward violent crackdowns. Scholars have begun and will continue to study these divergent outcomes for years to come. In fact, the three cases discussed in this book, Morocco, Tunisia, and Bahrain, have each emerged from the protests of 2011 on increasingly divergent political trajectories. Instead, this book looks backward from the start of the Arab Spring, analyzing how three drivers of change generated greater regime insecurity and augmented public willingness to mobilize and to participate in antiregime activism.

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