by Steven Heydemann, United States Institute of Peace
This memo was prepared for ‘The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State’ workshop held at LSE on 10 October 2014 in collaboration with POMEPS.
Emerging patterns in authoritarian governance in the Arab world
Today, the dominant images of the “Arab Spring” are no longer of exuberant crowds gathered in public squares to demand democracy and social justice, but of masked Islamic State gunmen, brutalized victims of torture, and shrouded corpses. The enthusiasm that accompanied the first democratic elections in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia has given way to electoral spectacles that are distressingly familiar to any observer of Middle East politics. In May, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who engineered the ouster of his Islamist predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president of Egypt amidst low voter turnout, high public apathy, and accusations of systemic electoral abuse. The following month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a breathtaking display of cynicism, convened elections amidst the carnage and destruction of a brutal civil war that has displaced half of Syria’s population. Nonetheless, according to official figures, some 73 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. To no one’s surprise, Assad was “re-elected” for a third seven-year term.
Widely greeted with enthusiasm in 2011, the resurgence of mass politics in the Arab world is now viewed in much darker terms. Writing in mid-2013, Egyptian filmmaker and blogger Omar Robert Hamilton captured the turn from optimism to despair for those who had celebrated the Arab uprisings as a moment of political transformation and social renewal. “We thought we could change the world,” Hamilton wrote on his blog, Mada Masr. “We know now that that feeling was not unique to us, that every revolutionary moment courses with the pulse of a manifest destiny. How different things feel today. I will not bury our convictions, but that feeling — youthful optimism? naiveté? idealism? foolishness? — is now truly and irrevocably dead.”
This shift in mood has been widely echoed, not only among democratic forces across the Middle East, but in the media, among policy elites, and among scholars of Arab politics. Initial responses to the resurgence of mass politics in 2011 were largely positive, even as the fall of seemingly entrenched Arab autocrats provoked considerable soul searching among experts, including this author, who had characterized authoritarian regimes in the Arab world as exceptional in their resilience and their capacity to absorb and blunt demands for democratic reform.
Other available memos in the series
‘The Authoritarian Impulse vs. the Democratic Imperative: Political Learning as a Precondition for Sustainable Development in the Maghreb’, John P. Entelis, Fordham University
‘Elite Fragmentation and Securitization in Bahrain’, by Toby Matthiesen, University of Cambridge
‘Militaries, Civilians and the Crisis of the Arab State’, by Yezid Sayigh, Carnegie Middle East Center
‘Arab Transitions and the Old Elite’, by Ellis Goldberg, University of Washington
‘Explaining Democratic Divergence: Why Tunisia has Succeeded and Egypt has Failed’, Eva Bellin, Brandeis University
‘Is Libya a Proxy War?’, Frederic Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
‘Fiscal Politics of Enduring Authoritarianism’, Pete W. Moore, Case Western Reserve University
‘The Role of Militaries in the Arab Thermidor’, Robert Springborg, Sciences Po
‘Security Dilemmas and the ‘Security State’ Question in Jordan’, Curtis R. Ryan, Appalachian State University
‘Authoritarian Populism and the Rise of the Security State in Iran’, Ali Ansari, University of St Andrews
‘A Historical Sociology Approach to Authoritarian Resilience in Post-Arab Uprising MENA’, Raymond Hinnebusch, University of St Andrews
‘The Arab Thermidor’, Marc Lynch, George Washington University