Roots of the Arab Spring: Contested Authority and Political Change in the Middle East

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By: Dafna Hochman Rand

Roots of the Arab Spring: Contested Authority and Political Change in the Middle East. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 171 pp. $47.50. ISBN: 978-0812245301.

Volume: 2 Issue: 1

January 2014

Review by:

G. Doug Davis, PhD

Troy University

Troy, AL

The conventional wisdom that saw Middle Eastern governments as stable prior to 2011 was wrong, as it did not understand the political changes that saw popular frustration build until it exploded following the Tunisian vegetable street trader’s self-immolation. Dafna Hochman Rand offers the Roots of the Arab Spring: Contested Authority and Political Change in the Middle East, a book that presents an important first glance at the events that led to the Arab Spring. According to the author, the 2011 uprisings were not random, but were the long-term outcome of transformations that took place in the region over the previous two decades.

Rand points to three political changes dating from the 1990s to 2000s as the source of the widespread indignation that drove the Arab Spring. First, a desire for free expression, aided by new technology, made it possible to hold public conversations that the state could not prevent or regulate which allowed people to read and openly discuss subjects that were previously forbidden. Second, several Middle Eastern leaders modified the government institutions to de-democratize and restrict personal freedoms. Third, new leaders came to power, around the millennium, who sought to prevent liberal reforms. These factors altered the relationship between the government and the public in a way that saw massive resentment, dissention, and rage grow; and this supported the passionate protests that emerged in 2011. American policy makers failed to recognize these tensions or the possibility for massive collective action against leaders who appeared to have secure control over their societies. Rand offers these three changes as the main factors that led to the Arab Spring and presents three case studies to support her proposal.

The author took several trips to the region before the uprisings in 2011 and was surprised to find authoritarian governments struggling to control their people, and saw the danger of a political miscalculation by rulers. Rand perceived the potential for political instability as the regimes were discredited and new independent journalists and bloggers emerged in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, and Bahrain challenging the limits to free speech. The global governance liberal norms reached a critical level; Arab leaders needed to speak the language of democracy while maintaining authoritarian institutions. Expectations were raised, followed by disappointment, which contributed to the anger against the regimes.

When press censorship weakened and readers could freely encounter and participate in open discussions in subjects that had previously been taboo, Middle Eastern governments did not foresee the long-term consequences. In the 1990s, there was a movement in several Arab states to attempt to slightly liberalize speech and permit an independent media. This opportunity saw debates appearing in newspapers and online addressing previously forbidden topics. Arab societies changed during this time as literacy rates grew and the population with internet access increased, thus giving people a desire for free communication. Local governments failed to see how this openness could produce negative consequences that would weaken their ability to maintain censorship. Technological changes made it difficult, if not impossible, for authorities to control speech and soon people challenged the limits they experienced in their daily lives. Once the public had a desire for open discussion, the governments could not prevent it and leaders were no longer able to impose absolute censorship. Nevertheless, governments tried to target free speech and started to arrest bloggers and journalists. Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan all changed their laws to inhibit discourse. This failed as anonymous bloggers continued to write and did not consent to the restrictions. This weakened the impediments to collective action and contributed to the broad support for protests that emerged in the Arab Spring.

Another approach Middle Eastern regimes used to consolidate dictatorships was to institute constitutional reforms that increased the dictator’s control, but were strategic in that the government could frame the change so that it sounded democratic to outsiders. From 1990 to 2010, there were 16 instances where a regional government made anti-liberal constitutional revisions. The most common form was to create an upper legislative chamber staffed by the leader’s men or to change election laws. While this tactic had the short-term benefit of reinforcing the rulers’ control over society, it also weakened support for gradual democratic reforms as people saw that only a radical change that completely broke from the current government could bring freedom. Governments implementing these changes were spared international criticism, as foreign states fell victim to the rhetoric and misunderstood constitutional revisions. The unintended consequence was the growing dissatisfaction with the regime that would erupt in the intense protests that affected every area government.

The final focus Rand presents is the vulnerability new leaders faced as they emerged to succeed their father or half-brother. This caused them to initially take steps to expand limited freedoms and, after they solidified their control, they would then move to curtail the new liberties. From 1995 to 2006, leadership changes took place in Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The reforms that were initiated were designed to find new patrons that would be used to consolidate the dictatorship. The new rulers introduced reforms to help economic growth and to attract members of the opposition so that it would then be further divided, thus solidifying the ruler’s control. The new rights would also deflect international criticism that would otherwise arise to condemn the handing over of power to a family member, and Rand argues, leaders would also be able to attract foreign aid. The difficulty was that once reforms started, their momentum was difficult to control, and this generated unintended consequences that threatened rulers’ legitimacy. Once leaders saw the dangers and perceived the threat to their interests, the liberalizing policies were reversed and governments moved to reintroduce social restrictions, thereby intensifying popular frustration and anti-authoritarian sentiments.

What were Washington’s policies toward Arab governments in democracy and human rights promotion? The United States has provided minimal support to liberal reform initiatives in the region, but failed to recognize the tensions and vulnerabilities that would confront the region in 2011. The 2003 Iraq War was one path used to promote democracy, but, tragically, this made reforms even less likely in surrounding states. In the mid-2000s, Rand points out that the Bush administration used its “Freedom Agenda” to promote democracy, but this was dismissed in 2006, as Washington saw Islamists come to power through the initiatives it encouraged. When the new Arab leaders undertook reforms that weakened representation and took away rights, the United States consented without protest. Rand points out that the United States also misunderstood the leadership changes in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and Syria, and that its general efforts to promote democracy were inadequate because these policies were based on false assumptions concerning governmental stability and popular support.

What lessons does the Arab Awakening present to evaluate the United States policy to the region? The United States did not understand the domestic consequences leadership changes produced in Middle Eastern states and has only weakly worked to promote democracy in the region. Rand argues that Washington should change its approach to the Middle East and promote democratic reforms, but in a case-by-case basis rather than through a region-wide project. The local demands for freedom of speech should be promoted diplomatically and the institutional reforms that make governments less democratic should be challenged. The regimes supporting continuous gradual reforms should be rewarded and the United States needs to recognize the unique opportunity provided by leadership changes and be present to offer help in bringing about liberal governmental reforms.

This work suffers from one important weakness: selection bias in Rand’s case studies. She presents her theory so that it appears to apply to all Arab states and then goes on to offer examples that are not representative of the entire region. In other words, she illustrates each theoretical proposal with a case the most clearly fits it. This weakens her claims as the subjects she highlights were not present in all the states where she claims they apply. This is a common problem in case study research as scholars tend to focus on areas with which they are familiar rather than on subjects more representative of the population they wish to understand. Nevertheless, Rand’s work presents important ideas that create a compelling narrative recounting the events that led to the massive protests in the countries where the Arab Spring produced the strongest changes.

In some ways, the Arab Spring is like the non-violent revolution of 1989 which was not predicted by the scholars most familiar with the region; after the event, it was possible to piece together the changes that made the iron curtain fall. The same can be said for the Arab Spring; while it is still too early to understand and offer a definitive account, the author contributes a valuable work that offers an initial explanation for the 2011 events that led to uprisings and leadership changes in the Middle East and North Africa. Because of this, her work will benefit policy makers, academics, and field workers.

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