Why The Middle East Gravitates Towards Authoritarianism?
Since the first Gulf War, the Arab Countries of the Middle East and the Maghreb have experienced a succession of upheavals which, everywhere else, would have destabilized many powers. Yet most managed to maintain archaic structures that neither the Second World War nor decolonization had removed. An effective opposition is struggling to emerge as the leaders try to regain their virginity in the eyes of the world. The deluge of optimistic rhetoric triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Saddam Hussein’s weakening during the aforementioned war, allowed the establishment of a new world order led by the United States. The rules of international law and United Nations resolutions would henceforth be applied everywhere including the Palestinian territories. A wave of democratization and human rights would become the same across the globe, and authoritarian regimes would have strong incentives (but not pressure) to democratize.
On the economic level, “structural adjustments” (including privatizations and the reduction of state subsidies), free trade agreements, calls for investment, and incentives to undertake would finally bring out new middle classes. These social and economic actors, in symbiosis with other national and international forces, would propel the region on the path of economic dynamism and democratization. More than twenty years later, the assessment of these hopes in the various fields (political, economic, ideological, and international relations) is distressing. Politically, three types of regimes are predominant in the region: “hermetic” regimes (Libya, Syria, etc.), where pluralism is null; “hybrid” regimes (Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan), where authoritarianism coexists with forms of pluralism; finally the “open” regimes, the only case of which, for the moment, is that of Saudi Arabia, which has experienced a real alternation.
Economically, while neoliberal policies have spurred growth, they have not transformed these countries into dynamic elements of the global economy, and certainly have not alleviated either misery or social injustice. The oil-producing countries, of course, are overwhelmed by currencies, but this is only thanks to the soaring price of “black gold”, and this does not reflect any structural innovation. Thanks to instruments like sovereign wealth funds, some of them can “flex their financial muscles” by acquiring pieces of major industrial countries in crisis, thus diversifying their sources of income. But this is only a consequence of the shortcomings of the North and in no way the sign of a successful transformation of economic structures. As for the other major Arab countries, they continue to be confronted with the serious problem of massive populations of young people in poverty.
The new middle strata remain dependent on the flow of oil revenues and more generally on patronage social relations, which have not been broken. Monarchical or republican, the authoritarian state persists, showing great adaptability. Businessmen owe the state their networks of influence and their contracts; smaller entrepreneurs – and even street vendors – must continue to submit to ministerial directives, finicky regulations, and the rule of bribes. Even the liberal and intellectual professions remain dependent on state institutions and pay a high price for any transgression of the prescribed limitations. Certainly, the label “middle strata” is elastic and covers various social groups, from businessmen to teachers, nurses to shopkeepers, and artists to civil servants. Some come from families of old roots firmly established locally or nationally; others are the first in their families to rise above the subsistence level and emerge from illiteracy; among these, a good number will fall back into poverty at the first crisis. Senior military officers now belong to the new bourgeoisie, holders that are important assets in the national economy. Together with the high civil servants and bureaucrats who have accumulated wealth thanks to their position, they constitute a sector of the “middle layers” hostile to any change. At the same time, these different “middle layers” constitute only an infinitesimal part of the population of countries where the vast majority live close to the subsistence threshold and where public education barely exists.
Ideologically, all these groups agree to demand “democracy” but they are divided in a very specific way to their region on this or that important question. Since the beginning of the 1990s, economic and political liberalization have not made it possible to advance progressive and secular ideas among the middle and working classes. Islamism, in its various guises, has come to emerge as the best voice for discontent and demands for change, even among traditionally left-wing and secular groups, such as students. If secular and Islamist voices are part of the same great choir demanding democratization, some sing the melody of a social order based on law and universally accepted modern political principles, while others chant the principles of a social order policy based on a set of Koranic precepts. Some seek to establish the sovereignty of the popular will delimited by law; others to establish the absolute sovereignty of a belief system. In short, the “reforms” inflicted in that region over the past twenty years – under pressure from the West – have not led to a path that would lead inexorably from economic liberalization to democracy, via modernization and secularization. On the contrary, they have provided irrefutable proof that no mechanical link exists between these different stages.
Many regimes base their legitimacy on great, almost mythical nationalist narratives in which they figure as liberators and defenders of the nation against foreign domination, sometimes also as defenders of the faith. These stories are often true: many ruling parties and families did indeed play a heroic role in gaining and maintaining national independence. Widely disseminated by the official media, these “unifying” mythologies have created a false identification between the regime and society, often with the enthusiastic support of intellectuals seeking to defuse dissent and encourage docility. But, in all these great stories, they are always absent: in Egypt, it is the Copts, in Morocco and Algeria, the Berbers; in other countries, the Kurds or the Shiites. Under the veil, social tensions were resistant to this homogenization and the leaders were afraid of their people, terrified of any real political opening. Some forms of authoritarianism have a populist tinge; others go so far as to celebrate the people. But under these paternalistic facades, governments and elites despise the people on the pretext that they owe them independence and the achievements of the nation.
Over the past two decades, the magic of these unifying ideologies has lost its power. Now the authoritarian state has to deal with a whole breeding ground of new groups, each with its cause for discontent, and not all of which can be gagged or bought off. At the same time, these groups distrust each other. Authoritarian regimes have learned to turn these divisions to their advantage. The state no longer presents itself as a rigid defender of its right to exercise power alone over an incompetent populace; rather, it became the protector of “moderate” opponents against their brother enemies, the “extremists”. The “extremists versus moderates” scenario facilitates greater tactical flexibility for regimes. It is no longer necessary to openly rig elections. We can admit the participation of more opposition parties. The dominant party can afford to win only 70% or even 60% of the vote instead of the usual 90%. More voices are being heard in the media – especially the written press – where the constraints are less severe than before, but the red lines are not to be crossed just as precisely. There is no longer any need to put so many people in prison, or for so long – except for “extremists”. The state is firing on all cylinders, it is creating its media, its non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and its sham of civil society. It is a staging, a limited rationalization of the political order. The authoritarian state has not been transformed by democratization, it has taken on its accessories. We could call it “authoritarianism 2.0”.
Geopolitical factors weigh on these developments. The region’s close involvement in world politics dates back to the pact between US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdulaziz Ibn-Saud in 1945 regarding oil supplies. Nevertheless, since 2001, the administration of George W. Bush opted for a new pact: the priority of the United States would no longer be stability but the establishment of democracy, if necessary by strength. This abandonment of an old principle frightened several regimes, but Arab opinion quickly sensed it: this democratic fervor was only the camouflage of a program of interventions in the sole interest of the United States. The local regimes quickly learned to decipher the contradictory declarations coming from the West and regained their confidence. A democratic facade was going to be enough for them, provided they contributed their stone to the “war on terrorism” and did not oppose too vigorously the hegemony of the United States nor the interests of Israel.
Undoubtedly, democracy is in crisis elsewhere in the world because it has not kept its promises. In the Arab countries of the Maghreb and the Middle East, it was devalued before it existed; the very word is discredited. Within Arab public opinion, “democracy” has become the hated symbol of the hypocrisy of repressive regimes, the neoconservative agenda of pre-emptive attacks, and foreign interference in general. This discredit has even struck NGOs. Some of them have become commoditized and thereby become disconnected from local realities. Their executives’ future and vision have turned to the West which subsidizes them; this is the hope of democratization. The traditional agents of change – union or political activists, students, etc – seem weakened than ever. The new actors – regional or linguistic minorities, journalists, and independent intellectuals – are still struggling to unite and loosen the grip of a long-established authoritarian policy.
Thus, we cannot predict what instruments of change will one day emerge from the growing lateral resistance. In Egypt and Pakistan, judges and lawyers bravely resist the destruction of judicial independence. In Morocco and Algeria, journalists are fighting for press freedom. Throughout the Muslim world, young theologians are inventing new links between Islam, democracy, and modernization. The authoritarian state knows how to absorb and divert change, but it is not a perfect and impenetrable machine. The spaces it has created for its maneuvers also constitute real fields of political action. There will be breakthroughs; expect the unexpected. The majority of democratic transitions that have been observed in the world since the 2000s have occurred in “hybrid” authoritarian countries.
To contribute to the changes, it is necessary to “indigenize” the progressive message, to reinvigorate the feeling of a shared objective, including the nation and Islam, but not limited to them; present a vision that addresses the immediate needs of people while involving them in larger peace and democracy projects.