Mehran Kamrava, ed. Beyond the Arab Spring: The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xiii + 480 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-938441-9.
Reviewed by Scott Hibbard (DePaul University)
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2015)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
States and Society Post-Arab Spring
Four years on, the meaning of the 2010-11 Arab uprisings remains difficult to discern. The early optimism of peaceful transformation—and the promise of a new era in the politics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—tragically gave way to Islamist overreach, the reassertion of military rule, and civil war. The old order, it appears, has refused to go quietly. Nonetheless, there is a widespread belief that the mass protests that convulsed the region will have an enduring impact that will be difficult for future leaders to ignore. Understanding why these revolutions occurred—despite a widespread belief in the stability of the region’s authoritarian governments—and why they turned out the way they did is the focus of much academic interest and scholarship. So too is divining the future and attempting to determine what the legacy of the Arab Spring will be. It is to these issues (and specifically the latter) that Mehran Kamrava and the other contributors to Beyond the Arab Spring: The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East direct their attention.
There are other books whose primary focus is the history of the uprisings and an assessment of their underlying causes. James L. Gelvin’s The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (second edition, 2015), Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren’s The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era (2012), and Marc Lynch’s The Arab Uprisings: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (2012), all provide a good, comprehensive introduction to the topic. These works cover the underlying structural causes of the revolts—growing populations, stagnant economies, and a legacy of misrule—while also looking at the precipitating factors that sparked the protests of December 2010 and early 2011. These and related studies are motivated, at least in part, by the fundamental paradox of the Arab Spring: no one saw it coming. Academic specialists and government analysts alike assumed that the coercive stability of Arab authoritarianism would persist. This assumption is not surprising given the weakness of civil society actors, the lack of a viable political opposition, and the vested interest of outside powers (notably the United States) in regional stability. Hence, everyone was shocked to see popular protests sweep three regional autocrats from power, threaten numerous other regimes, and plunge several countries into civil war.
What the enduring legacy of the 2010-11 uprisings will be, however, remains an open question. On the one hand, the counterrevolution led by Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] countries) has helped to contain the spread of democratic reform, while military reassertion in places such as Egypt and Bahrain has all but killed the revolution in those countries. The violent turn in Syria, Libya, and Yemen has also provided a cautionary tale for individuals in neighboring countries. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that the underlying demand of the uprisings—bread, dignity, and government accountability—has not left its mark on the politics of the region.
The primary focus of Beyond the Arab Spring is the impact of the Arab uprisings on state-society relations. The central argument of the book is that the popular revolts of 2011 represented the culmination of a decades-long unraveling of the “ruling bargain” that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s between the leaders of the postcolonial states and the populations over whom they ruled. Though never formalized, these bargains required the local populations to “surrender their political and social rights to participatory government” in exchange for the promise of higher living standards and a better future (p. 2). There was also an assumption that states would rule in the national interest (whatever that might be). The ruling bargain, in short, was a tacit agreement between ruler and ruled that, at least for a time, provided an aura of legitimacy to authoritarian governance.
As Kamrava argues in his introductory chapter, the ruling bargain of the postcolonial period began unraveling in the 1970s, and was replaced in subsequent decades by coercion and fear. By the end of the twentieth century, it was clear that the autocratic states of the region served little more than the interests of the ruling elite. In these new “security states,” political leaders—particularly in the autocratic or “monarchical presidencies”—used their positions of power to enrich themselves, their families, and their political allies. The role of the security services was to keep the population in check. Favored groups, such as the military and business elites, benefited as well, though at the expense of the general population. The real significance of the popular protests that swept the region in 2010-11, then, is that they laid bare the reality of the situation and, as Kamrava argues, forced a renegotiation of the underlying social compact.
Given the different histories, and the different levels of institutional development, this process invariably played out differently in different countries. Hence, the volume—which is a collection of research papers organized into a larger compendium by Kamrava and his colleagues at the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar—provides both a thematic overview of the broader trends along with a number of chapters dedicated to different case studies. It is this combination of broad thematic reflections coupled with in-depth cases that is perhaps the greatest strength of the book.
While the goal of Beyond the Arab Spring is different than the broader surveys mentioned above, it does provide a fair amount of historical analysis of the events in question. To this end, the various chapters examine why the uprisings occurred, and perhaps more significantly, why they occurred at this particular moment in time. The answer to the first of these two questions will be familiar to anyone who follows Middle East politics. The demographic boom throughout the MENA region, coupled with stagnant economies and the exclusion of the general population from political life, set the stage for widespread discontent. Rampant corruption, neoliberal economic policies, and a recognition that the economic ills of society were deeply intertwined with authoritarian rule helped to translate economic discontent into political protest. Particularly in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, the ruling families (and those associated with them) were seen as plundering the national wealth for their personal benefit.
These issues are not new, of course, which raises the question: why 2011 and not some other time? The answer to this latter question is multifaceted and includes the coming of age of a younger (better-educated) generation and the technological revolution that defines the contemporary period. While much is made of the use of Facebook and Twitter to coordinate political protests, the advent of satellite television and cell phones was arguably more significant in shaping the direction of the revolts. Two other precipitating factors discussed in the volume include the dramatic increase in the price of wheat on the global market and the multiyear drought that—at least in Syria—pushed many farmers off their land and into the cities. Both of these phenomena greatly exacerbated an already dire economic situation for the region’s poor. Finally, there is the contagion effect of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, both of which inspired hope in neighboring populations and helped to break the grip of fear that historically deterred people from expressing their discontent with the powers that be.
The book dedicates a great deal of attention to the role of the Islamists in the Arab Spring and the failure of the opposition to consolidate their gains. As Abdullah Al-Arian notes in his chapter on Islamist movements, it is important to distinguish between the initial uprisings when the political opposition was united behind a common objective and the transitional phase when these same groups competed with one another over the direction of the revolution. The failure of the opposition to unite, in short, was due to the lack of a shared vision over what comes next. This was especially relevant in Egypt, where the secular left and the Muslim Brotherhood (and the Salafists) had very different ideas about what kind of society they ought to create. The diverse social forces that converged in Cairo’s Tahrir Square may have shared a common antipathy to the Hosni Mubarak regime, but they differed significantly over economic policy; the role of religion in society; and constitutional protections for the rights of women, religious minorities, and dissent. For a variety of reasons—including the marginalization of the left and decades of state support for Islam (a topic largely overlooked in this section)—the Islamist groups were well poised to dominate the postrevolutionary moment.
This last point sheds light on how and why the Islamists so badly misplayed their hand in Egypt. Despite winning the parliamentary and presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood overestimated its support and assumed a mandate that it did not have. As Carrie Rosefsky Wickham notes in her recently revised The Muslim Brotherhood (2013), the Brotherhood failed to work with other members of the opposition. Instead, it pursued an exclusive, majoritarian strategy that did not include the secular left, women, or Christians. In short, the Brotherhood underestimated its need for support from “other sectors of the revolutionary camp in order to confront the forces of the ‘deep state’ head-on.” This left the Brotherhood isolated when the military turned on it and removed President Mohamed el-Morsi from power in July 2013.
Beyond the Arab Spring also covers a number of other topics, such as the openings created by the uprisings for the “formation and development of political parties” in the region (p. 134), the labor movement in Egypt, and Baghat Korany’s sociological analysis of the Tahrir Square demonstrators. Similarly, the inclusion of Nader Hashemi’s chapter on Iran is a strong contribution to the volume. Although not typically associated with the Arab Spring, Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution was a forerunner to the events of 2010-11 and highlights many of the same underlying dynamics as the other cases. The treatments of Syria, Libya, and Yemen are also very well done, and illustrate the extremely tenuous nature of the pre-Arab Spring politics in each of these countries. These latter chapters also demonstrate the difficulty of writing on a topic that will invariably be overtaken by events. Nonetheless, each of these three cases provides a good overview of the history and key variables for understanding why each of these cases degenerated into civil war.
The volume is not without its flaws. As in any edited collection, there is some variability between chapters. Moreover, a few of the chapters appear to deal with the central theme of the volume—the renegotiation of the ruling bargain—as something of an afterthought. There is also some redundancy in the book, with a few of the thematic chapters providing much of the historical narrative that should have been left to the case studies. Finally, it is somewhat surprising that there is not more discussion of the regional dynamics, specifically the influence of Saudi Arabia’s “counterrevolution” that helped to stop the democratic turn. Granted, the contributors to this volume have written on the topic elsewhere, but given the importance of the GCC countries in supporting a return to the status quo ante—and particularly the Saudi role in bankrolling both Salafi parties and military rule in various countries—one might have expected a more expansive discussion of the matter.
At the end of the day, the question remains how much has really changed in the region, and whether a more democratic Middle East will ultimately emerge from this period. In short, “how will history ultimately judge the events of 2010/2011?” (p. 13). Despite a very optimistic assessment in the chapter “Global Affinities,” the cases in the volume appear to offer a more chastened view. Repression, patronage, and fear have returned with a vengeance. Perhaps even more troubling is the unraveling of the regional order that is epitomized by the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and western Iraq. Having said that, there is a new relationship between state and citizen that is unfolding in the region, even if it is a work in progress. Perhaps Dirk Vandewalle’s closing comments in his chapter on Libya are appropriate here. To paraphrase, given the troubled history of the region—and the lack of functional institutions—it should come as no surprise that efforts to create a new political order based on inclusion and constitutional rule would be rocky and uneven. Moreover, as Kamrava and his colleagues amply illustrate, the region has changed. It is younger and better educated, and the population is demanding more from its governments than previous generations. In other words, the underlying causes of the 2010-11 uprisings have not gone away, and the new ruling bargains that are emerging fitfully in the MENA region will have to take these issues into account. Governments that refuse to accommodate legitimate demands for dignity, accountability, and economic well-being do so at their peril.
. Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 296.
. See, for example, Mehran Kamrava, “The Arab Spring and the Saudi-Led Counterrevolution,” Orbis 56, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 96-104.
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