By Sean Yom
In this article Sean Yom discusses how the lack of permanence of Middle Eastern governments means that democracy is for the time being elusive.
The Middle East and North Africa remains haunted by the specter of instability. The fundamental problem is not so much the lack of democracy but the lack of durability – of stable and long-lasting governments that are robust, popular, and responsive to society. Most of the problems that dominate Western headlines from the region, from terrorism and violence to invasions and revolutions, reflect the uncomfortable fact that many Middle Eastern countries are ruled by political regimes that seem one uprising away from disintegration, leaving their territories open to unsavory groups like the Islamic State.
Why? Certainly, national borders are contested, oil wealth is a curse, and the youth generation is booming. Yet as my book explains, prior to all these factors is an underlying pathology of distorted state-building. Since gaining independence, most dictatorships in the Middle East have seen their societies as threats rather than partners in the enterprise of state-building, and so seldom sought to mobilise broad bases of popular support. What has catalysed such destructive patterns of detached governance has been frequent outside interventions, often in the form of foreign aid and military assistance that helped many regimes overcome domestic opposition. For outside powers like the United States, this assured the existence of client states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Pahlavi-era Iran. Yet such external subventions paradoxically hurt rather than helped in the long run by discouraging these dictatorships from relying upon domestic legitimation and instead looking to the outside world during periods of crisis.
To understand this pathology, consider the logic of dictatorship. Unlike electoral democracies that require political leaders to win at the ballot box in order to govern, most dictatorships see elections as little more than window-dressing exercises. Yet at the same time, they cannot rule through repression alone. Any self-anointed grand leader that enjoys absolutely no compliance from any citizen would have to coerce and violate everyone, all the time, just to enact the simplest laws. In actuality, the most durable autocracies have plenty of popular backing, securing the support and loyalty of various groups in return for patronage and protection. Those groups typically include business leaders, urban middle classes, rural landowners, the military, and other forces who may feel threatened by the ‘radicalism’ of elected government – one that may, for instance, wish to redistribute land, stamp out corruption, promulgate fair taxation, and rein in army spending. Such grand bargains typically result in decades or more of stability, for better or for worse. For example, autocracies as diverse as Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Paraguay, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cuba all outlasted the Cold War on the backs of popular ruling coalitions. Today, China is testament that even without elections and pluralism, a single-party autocracy can rule comfortably without any revolutionary threat on the horizon.
To craft such durable political order, national leaders need incentives to partner with social forces, who typically desire something tangible – a slice of power, substantial material goods, or even social privileges – in return for support. The reason that many national rulers across the broader Middle East region did not pursue this coalition-building strategy has nothing to do with culture or religion and everything to do with geopolitics. From the 1950s onwards, outside powers like the US and Soviet Union placed extreme value on the stability of various Mideast states due to their strategic location, natural resources, ideological affinity, relationship with Israel, or some other asset. As a result, such foreign patrons willingly intervened when post-colonial governments fell into crisis due to uprisings and unrest from society. If left to their own devices, such regimes would have been forced to reach out and gain a mass following – to surrender their absolutist imperatives and instead win over opposition through non-coercive means, such as offering friendly policies and economic protections.
This did happen in a few countries early on, such as Kuwait and Tunisia during the 1950s, where domestic conflicts played out mostly without British or French interference, respectively. Faced with the possibility of their own demise at the hands of societal opposition, the Kuwaiti monarchy and Tunisian republic were forced to respond by mobilising a broad coalition – wooing groups as disparate as religious minorities, tribal sheikhs, trade unions, urban professionals, and merchants. Such early choices had long-term legacies: both enjoyed more than a half-century of relative stability, with society deeply tied to the state. Such durability still typifies Kuwait today, while Tunisia experienced the Arab Spring only after the President Ben Ali, who took power in 1987, turned his back on the populist system he inherited in favor of more nepotistic and repressive governance. Even so, it took more than two decades of his corrupt rule before revolutionary sentiment emerged.
Yet such cases of geopolitical seclusion were the exception, not the rule. Almost everywhere else, dynastic kings, military juntas, and self-anointed presidents faced down contentious opposition at the dawn of post-colonial independence while also being saturated with superpower support. For instance, Jordan and Bahrain received massive American and British assistance, respectively, during their defining crises of the 1950s pitting nationalist movements against teetering monarchies. Outside subvention, from diplomatic cover to financial grants to military interventions, discouraged these regimes from reaching out to ethnic majorities in favour of loyal minority groups – an ethnocratic formula sustained with continuing Western support. The next half-century brought repeated instability and challenges from the excluded masses: witness the 1970 Black September civil war in Jordan, for instance, or the Shi‘a uprisings in Bahrain during the 1970s, 1990s, and most recently 2011. Even today, the Palestinian majority of Jordan and the Shi‘a majority of Bahrain still feel excluded from power and privilege, an artifact of the decisions made long ago by these vulnerable monarchical regimes.
In the most extreme cases, too much outside support can encourage autocracies to become extremely narrow and personalistic, eschewing any societal linkage whatsoever in favour of repressive and elite-oriented governance. Such cases have mostly vanished because they were not built to last for longer than a decade or two. Here, the Middle East offers plenty of evidence. From the Anglo-American coup and subsequent US economic and military bailout of the Pahlavi Shah in Iran during the 1950s, to repeated Soviet efforts to prop up leftist-nationalist republics in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, many regional states received great power support hoping to immunise their client regimes from domestic instability. Ironically, such ‘help’ amplified their vulnerability to future unrest by creating dependent states that had little knowledge of their own societies and so had few supporters during future crises. From repeated coups and counter-coups to the Iraqi Revolution of 1958 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979, regional history is replete with geopolitics interfering with the perilous enterprise of state-building, seriously inflecting the political development of these countries towards unsustainable ends.
That syndrome of substituting outside legitimation for domestic support continues today. Some of the iconic cases of the Arab Spring – Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen – were autocracies whose leaders leaned far too heavily on external powers early on and spent too little time mobilising a cross-cutting coalition of social forces from within. Their presidential dictators saw the masses not as potential partners but rather perennial threats, and so blanketed their public arenas with coercion and neglect. Seen from this perspective, it makes sense why mass insurrections broke out during 2011-12 in such cases: citizens in these countries felt more like subjects rather than stakeholders. There was nothing worth defending with the status quo, so why not roll the dice and take a revolutionary chance?
Such insights weigh heavily as history progresses in the Middle East. We still live in an era of state-building, with some countries falling apart and new ones likely to take their place. Every so often, fresh governments are also installed through invasion and occupation, as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. With the rise of new political leaders, however, come familiar questions about how to govern – that is, how much power to sacrifice, how many resources to share, and how much protection to promise in order to turn citizens into stakeholders. The failure of the US-supported governments of Afghanistan and Iraq to transcend ethnic and sectarian divisions in order to mobilise mass support does not bode well for newer states, which must look inwards rather than outwards in order to attain long-term stability. As outside actors continue to intervene in the Middle East, this dramatic lesson cannot be forgotten. Helping can hurt.
About the Author
Sean Yom is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Temple University, and Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
He is the author of From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East (Columbia University Press, 2016).