It is sometimes hard to remember that the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 promised the possibility of meaningful political change. The unprecedented outburst of popular mobilization overthrew some regimes and unsettled most of the others. Those hopes have long since come crashing down. Egypt’s transition ended in a military coup, bloody repression, and a neo-authoritarianism legitimated through xenophobic populism. Tunisia’s survived, barely. Libya, Yemen and Syria have suffered near-complete political collapse, polarization, and civil war. Almost every regime has become more intolerant and more repressive. Violent, extremist Islamist movements such as the Islamic State group have surged in this chaotic atmosphere.
How should we understand the authoritarian resurgence in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings? In October 2014, Toby Dodge and I jointly convened a Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS)-London School of Economics workshop to dig more deeply into the causes, mechanisms, and drivers of what he called “The Arab Thermidor.” More than a dozen scholars looked deeply at specific sectors such as the military, police and intelligence services, different countries, and the broader regional environment. Some of the papers produced for that workshop have been published on the Monkey Cage, and all of them have today been released as “POMEPS Studies 11 The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State,” available as a free downloadable PDF. The papers in this collection offer a sharp, comprehensive and acute look at the resurgence and persistence of the Arab authoritarian state.
From a historical perspective, the authoritarian resurgence should not be a great surprise. My 2012 book “The Arab Uprising” dedicated an entire chapter to demonstrating how each previous revolutionary wave in the Arab world had ended with a fiercer, deeper and darker form of authoritarian control. In his essay for the collection, Raymond Hinnebusch grounds this pattern in the historical sociology of the region and the “iron law of oligarchy” by which “revolutionary mass activism, at best, infuses elites with new blood from below” and triggers ever more intense political struggle. The catastrophe of the Arab uprisings, then, is not simply a story of failed activists or fallen regimes or Islamist ambitions. It is a story of states: strong, weak, and fierce, in Nazih Ayubi’s classical terminology. Since the Arab uprisings, Arab states seek to project that they have become stronger, but in fact they have only become fiercer — and that does not bode well for their long-term stability.
The authoritarian resurgence by regimes that survived the initial wave of the Arab uprising is not so difficult to understand, of course. While some states – notably in Libya and Yemen – cracked under pressure and left an institutional void at the center, in most other countries the core institutions of the state remained largely untouched regardless of the fate of individual leaders. In Egypt and Tunisia, where long-ruling leaders were driven from power, virtually no progress was made in reforming state institutions. From the military, police and security services to the judiciary and the official media, key personnel remained in place along with their entrenched worldviews, interests and identities.
Almost all of the contributors to the collection note the importance of these continuities in state institutions, described evocatively by Salwa Ismail as “an entrenched apparatus of rule with high-stakes in existing power structures and arrangements.” Ismail focuses on the role played by the police in Egypt in counter-revolutionary mobilization, while Curtis Ryan examines the performance of the state security sector in Jordan and Toby Matthiesen does the same in Bahrain. Robert Springborg looks at the role of the militaries, which he sees as the greatest winner of that authoritarian resurgence, while Yezid Sayigh sees a deeper level of crisis lurking within the military’s seeming triumph. Peter Moore digs in to the public finances of Arab states. Nathan Brown has outlined the implications of continuity within the Egyptian judiciary. Ellis Goldberg brings in the old elite itself, those who most benefited from the old status quo and whose social and economic power could not be ignored amidst transitions that fell short of full social revolutions. In a forthcoming article (not included in this collection), I dissect the role played by unreformed state media sectors in Egypt and Tunisia in undermining opposition, driving fear and polarization, and mobilizing support for anti-Islamist, populist nationalism.
The regional environment also contributed to this autocratic revival. Gulf states actively intervened to maintain or restore the status quo, helping to prop up like-minded leaders in Morocco and Jordan and channeling support to their chosen proxies in transitional countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Catastrophes in Libya and Syria, covered lavishly in the Arab media, helped to dim popular enthusiasm for political change. The rise of the Islamic State offered unprecedented political cover for heavy-handed security crackdowns on all forms of dissent in the name of combating extremism and terrorism.
In short, having faced down an existential threat to their own survival in power, leaders from the Gulf to North Africa set out to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again by doubling down or intensifying some of their worst practices. They seem to have mostly concluded that the iron fist, rather than reforms and political concessions, would best serve their survival needs. As Steven Heydemann argues, they learned the best practices of repression from one another, upgrading their control to meet the new challenges. They did not simply fall back on the practices of the past: Their “adaptations seem to signal more fundamental changes in elite perceptions about the nature of the threats they face and the changes that would be required to ensure regime survival.” Their fears and their very real new challenges led them to “narrowly-nationalist and exclusionary-repressive modes of authoritarian governance.”
It seems unlikely that these resurgent autocrats will succeed in stabilizing their control over the medium term. They have shown little ability to solve any of the underlying problems that drove the Arab uprisings in the first place. The collapse of oil prices could eventually erode the capacity of these Arab states to sustain these new patterns of authoritarian governance, whether at home or in the region. The young, wired generation of citizens who drove the Arab uprisings have higher expectations of their states, less tolerance for abuse and failure, and a demonstrated ability to take to the streets when the conditions demand it. The Arab Thermidor may have put states back in control for now, as the essays in this collection demonstrate, but this is likely to only be a passing stage in the long-term political reordering of the Middle East.