Steve Heydemann, an outstanding political scientist and Middle East specialist who is currently Associate Vice President of the Jennings Randolph Fellowship Program and Special Advisor to the Muslim World Initiative at the US Institute for Peace, recently published an extremely interesting Brookings working paper on the evolution of Arab authoritarianism. I asked him to adapt its main points for an Abu Aardvark audience, and he graciously agreed. You can read the whole thing here.
UPGRADING AUTHORITARIANISM IN THE ARAB WORLD
In recent years, a new model of authoritarian governance has emerged in a number of key Arab states. A product more of trial and error more than intentional design, Arab regimes have adapted to pressures for political change by developing strategies to contain and manage demands to democratize. They have expanded political spaces—electoral arenas in particular—where controlled forms of political contestation can occur. They have also tempered their opposition to Islamist political participation. In some instances, notably Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, Islamist representatives have secured meaningful representation in parliament.
Regimes have also adapted selectively to demands for economic liberalization and the integration of Arab economies into global markets, and expanded opportunities for social and economic élites. They have developed techniques for managing and easing public access to the internet and new communications technologies that until recently were resisted as potential carriers of democratic ideas. They have also recognized that authoritarian governance is not inconsistent with, and that its persistence may actually depend upon, the strengthening of state capacity and public services through programs such as civil service reform, education reform, and labor market reform.
In addition, upgrading has involved shifts in the foreign policies of Arab regimes. They increasingly seek out trade, investment, and political ties with states that either share or are broadly sympathetic to the political concerns of Arab autocrats in the Levant and North Africa, such as the Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf. They have built relations with states such as China that are largely indifferent to issues of human rights and democracy. This not a “zero sum game” for these Arab regimes. They continue to enhance their commercial relationships with European Union countries and the United States. Yet the diversification of their economic and political relationships generates new sources of leverage for Arab regimes in an international system dominated by the United States, even while diminishing the West’s economic and diplomatic influence.
Authoritarian upgrading consists in other words not in shutting down and closing off Arab societies from globalization and other forces of political, economic, and social change. Nor is it based simply on the willingness of Arab governments to repress their opponents. Instead, authoritarian upgrading involves reconfiguring authoritarian governance to accommodate and manage changing political, economic, and social conditions. It originated in no small part as a defensive response to challenges confronting Arab autocrats during the past two decades. In recent years, however, authoritarian upgrading has accelerated. It has benefited from U.S. failures in Iraq, and the association of democracy promotion with regime change, social violence and political chaos. Yet the core features of authoritarian upgrading have been shaped more by concerns about how to sustain authoritarian governance in an era of global democratization than in response to U.S. experiences in Iraq.
Authoritarian upgrading takes a variety of forms, each influenced by the particular tensions facing individual regimes. Consequently, it would be a mistake to exaggerate its coherence. There is no single model or template of authoritarian upgrading that Arab regimes have followed. Nor should we overstate the capacity of Arab regimes to absorb and implement policy innovations.
What is clear, however, is that authoritarian upgrading is shaped by what might be called “authoritarian learning.” Lessons and strategies that originate within, and outside the Middle East, are diffused across the region, traveling from regime to regime and being modified in the process. Regimes learn from one another, often through explicit sharing of experiences. However, they also learn by observing experiences elsewhere. Most recently, China has emerged as a model of particular interest for Arab governments exploring ways to improve economic performance without conceding political control. Yet learning goes well beyond fascination with the Chinese model.
While attention was focused in the 1990s on prospects for global democratization, what transpired in much of the developing world was instead the globalization of new hybrid forms of authoritarian governance, including electoral-authoritarian, competitive authoritarian, and other hybrid regime types that exploit elements of openness and contestation to reinforce systems of authoritarian rule. The Arab world is often treated as exceptional in its resistance to democratization—a global outlier that avoided the so-called Third Wave of democratization. Yet its experience of authoritarian upgrading and the rise of new hybrid styles of authoritarian governance across the region place the Arab world squarely within leading global trends over the past decade or more. As a result, authoritarian upgrading in different countries exhibits shared features and reflects common perceptions among Arab autocrats and their counterparts outside the Middle East about how best to position their regimes to survive.
These emerging strategies of governance have undermined gains achieved by democracy promotion programs, and will continue to blunt their impact in the future. Has democracy promotion in its current form run its course? Has it outlived its usefulness? The possibility should be on the table. If democracy promotion has, even if unintentionally, provided Arab regimes with new tools for securing authoritarian forms of governance, should it be continued? If so, in what form?
At a minimum, authoritarian upgrading underscores the need to rethink how the U.S. pursues democracy promotion and to recognize, in particular, that Arab regimes are converging around policies that are explicitly designed to stabilize and preserve authoritarian rule in the context of ongoing demands for political change. At the same time, authoritarian upgrading holds out clues to the kinds of democratic changes it is reasonable to expect in the Arab world, and how these are likely to differ from the Latin American and Eastern European experiences that have been a principal inspiration for U.S. democracy promotion policies worldwide. To be effective in this context, democracy promotion efforts must also adapt.
After twenty years, Arab regimes have become proficient at containing and disarming democracy promotion—if not exploiting it for their own purposes. Strategies that take advantage of the openings offered by authoritarian upgrading are more likely to advance democratic change in the Middle East than the continuation of policies that do not take into account how governance in the Arab world is being transformed. Two openings hold out particular promise:
• First, adapting U.S. democracy promotion policies to exploit more effectively the openings that upgrading itself produces;
• Second, taking steps to weaken the coalitions on which upgrading depends.
Both will require substantial adjustments in U.S. democracy promotion policies.
(Editorial note: to find out what such adjustments might be, read the paper.)