The uprisings of 2011 were unprecedented in recent Arab history, as civilians took to the streets in massive numbers not to protest rising prices or condemn foreign governments but rather to demand the downfall of their own leaders. Arab countries have long ranked among the least free in the world, and the uprisings suggested that perhaps the region was about to come in from the autocratic cold. In four recently edited volumes, experts try to make sense of the uprisings and the subsequent regime changes, as well as the reversals and bloody stalemates that followed. Together, they shed some light on the basic question now facing the region: Is autocracy back for good, or did the protests signal the start of an irreversible march toward greater democracy that is merely stalled at the moment? In considering the origins of the uprisings, these volumes tend not to emphasize structural factors, such as the region’s high level of youth unemployment or its “youth bulge.” One might assume that, for example, a sevenfold increase in the number of unemployed educated people—which Tunisia experienced between 1994 and 2011—would be a major contributor to civil unrest. But the expert analyses collected by these four books tend to see other kinds of issues as more important in explaining why the uprisings occurred.
Of these volumes, Diwan’s includes the most commentary on the structural factors behind the uprisings, and a credible hypothesis emerges from some of its essays: in recent decades, neoliberal reforms enacted by Arab states combined with corrupt privatization schemes and crony capitalism to undermine the economic base of the middle class, driving a portion of the middle class to ally with the lower-middle class and the poor. Some contributors to Diwan’s book also make use of “transitology” scholarship that looked into the democratic transitions in Latin America and eastern Europe in the 1990s. This research suggests that transitions to democracy involve deals made among four distinct groups. On the one side is civil society, which is divided into moderates and radicals; on the other side are autocratic regimes, which are themselves divided into reformers and hard-liners. If civil society moderates and regime reformers hold sway and can arrive at an understanding, then a transition to democracy is possible. But if radicals and hard-liners dominate, their intransigence makes a transition virtually impossible.
In the past four years, Egypt has produced both of those outcomes. In 2011, elements of the Mubarak regime that were open to change (including some in the military) made a series of deals with moderate elements of the opposition (especially within the Muslim Brotherhood), leading to modern Egypt’s first freely elected government. Then, in 2013, when the new president, a former Brotherhood leader, revealed his antidemocratic intentions, the military turned hard-line, ousted the president, gunned down his supporters when they rallied in protest, and established a new regime that is even more autocratic than Hosni Mubarak’s was.
Meanwhile, the Arab monarchies proved themselves to be the most resilient autocracies in the region, facing hardly any challenge at all during the upheaval. With the exception of Bahrain, none of the monarchies experienced street protests like the ones that convulsed Arab republics. In an essay in Diamond and Plattner’s book, Sean Yom and F. Gregory Gause explain the monarchs’ stability by emphasizing their oil wealth, their backing by broad coalitions, and the strong support the monarchs enjoy from outside powers, including the United States. Not all monarchs enjoy those assets, however; nor are such advantages exclusive to monarchies. In their contribution to the Diamond and Plattner volume, Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds take a different tack, stressing another important factor: hereditary succession, which, if carried out successfully, demonstrates the loyalty of the military and the intelligence services to the regime.
The example of Kuwait reveals some of the limits of these analyses. The country is a monarchy and also a democracy of sorts, as Mary Ann Tétreault points out in an essay in Khatib and Lust’s book. Moderates within Kuwaiti civil society have confronted and bargained with reformers in the regime since at least 1939, even though the monarchy’s control of the country’s oil wealth should relieve the regime of any sense of accountability, and even though none of the country’s factions—including its civil society moderates—appear committed to genuine democracy.
For leaders across the region, the issue of reform has always posed a challenge, and perhaps never more so than today. On the one hand, even token reform might prove to be a slippery slope that leads inevitably to the undoing of autocracy. On the other hand, perhaps the despots can maintain themselves indefinitely through what the political scientist Steven Heydemann has elsewhere called “recombinant authoritarianism”: the ability to adapt, put in place phony reforms, and burnish democratic symbols without actually allowing for democratic change. Essays in Lynch’s volume and in Diamond and Plattner’s note that recent opinion polls suggest that in the aftermath of the uprisings, Arab publics are now less likely to play along with such shams and will insist that any future reforms be genuine. But the jury is still out. Although autocracies elsewhere have successfully evolved through reform, none has done so in the Arab world.
The role of religion in the post-uprising era also remains unclear. On this topic, Michael Hoffmann and Amaney Jamal make an intriguing observation in their contribution to Lynch’s book: compared with their elders, young Arab Muslims are less religiously observant yet more accepting of political Islam and more sympathetic to the concept of sharia. They are also more likely to protest than to vote. This seems like a combustible combination of attitudes and behaviors. In thinking about the future of the region, it’s important to remember that political transitions are often shaped by external powers. The United States countenanced heavy-handed repression in Bahrain in 2011 and seems unwilling to forcefully confront Egypt’s new regime. And the regional power with the deepest pockets, and hence the greatest influence, is antidemocratic Saudi Arabia. In the Arab world, those who pay the piper are not calling the tune of democracy.