Authoritarianism has retrenched in the Middle East with new strategies to extend control.
By Hicham Alaoui*
The revolutionary wave of mass protests known as the Arab Spring is currently paused. While most of the West remains focused upon conflicts that have exploded in its undertow, including civil wars in Libya and Syria, we should not lose sight of another development in the Middle East – that of retrenched authoritarianism.
The autocratic regimes that escaped the Arab Spring have not lain idle while revolutions upended Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Rather, the survivors have recalibrated their ruling strategies. The result is retrenched authoritarianism, defined as not simply a return to the pre–Arab Spring status quo, but rather the creation of more intransigent and potent means of controlling society on part of incumbent regimes.
Critically, this revitalized desire for authoritarian control is symbiotic with social mobilization: the more a regime perceives society as willing to rebel, the more tenaciously it fights to preserve power. Arab leaders know that the underlying social and economic dynamics of popular uprising still exist. Retrenched authoritarianism thus reflects the desire of regimes to defeat societal forces of opposition once and for all.
The core strategy behind retrenched authoritarianism is crafting alliances with those sectors of Arab societies that grew fatigued from the social mobilization and political crises of the Arab Spring. These include the secular middle classes that see Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to their secular identities and personal freedoms; workers who see social unrest as detrimental to the economic normalcy needed in tourism, retail and construction; and business elites and crony capitalists who wish to restore some degree of legal order, so that they can continue monopolizing key sectors and profit.
In sum, the interests of three sectors of society, hailing from different class structures, have temporarily converged. The fatigue of these social forces constitutes the terrain upon which retrenched authoritarian regimes thrive. However, retrenched authoritarianism also rests upon the passivity of the revolutionary generation, whose demobilization has opened space for regimes to restore their political supremacy.
Beyond this strategy of building new social alliances, four operational tactics of retrenched authoritarianism can be witnessed in republics or monarchies. The first is greater repression, taking varied forms, but with a common purpose – to neutralize any autonomous organization, monitor public spaces and reduce the potential for future insurrections.
In Egypt, for instance, the violent suppression of all opposition including not only the Muslim Brotherhood but independent civil society movements and student groups has reached levels not seen since the Nasserist era. The disappearances and deaths of those in detention have reached in the hundreds. In many countries as well, the judiciaries have tightened anti-terror laws, criminalizing many forms of online speech.
On the other side of the spectrum, more banal forms of coercion can be found in Morocco where after the February 20 protest movement security forces punished many protesters with dubious charges. It restricted the activities of many civil society organizations, such as the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (Association marocaine des droits humains) and the Freedom Now NGO, and likewise restricted the Islamist movement ‘Adl wal-Ihsan. Finally, it also imposed pressure on individuals and groups with sustained smear campaigns.
Such strategies of control have always existed within the Moroccan state’s repertoire of soft authoritarianism, but from the 1990s until the Arab Spring the state preferred to utilize carrots rather than sticks. Today, while the region is intently focused upon the threat of terrorism and ISIS, the state is dismantling what it sees as the infrastructure of social resistance – a strategy of divide-and-conquer. With the threat of repression lurking in the background, the state has sought to buy social peace by negotiating benefits for distinctive social movements. For instance, it delivered progressive laws for feminists, parliamentary visibility for Islamists and wage increases for workers.
The second tactic is the exploitation of fear. The only alternative to autocratic political order, these regimes have argued, is absolute chaos, as embodied by collapsing or failing states like Yemen, Syria and Libya. The choice given to citizens is austere: acceptance of stability enforced by repression or a plunge into darkness as embodied by ISIS and chaos.
The third tactic is the careful redeployment of Islam along puritanical principles, partly to reassure the pious and traditionalists that rulers have their interests in mind, and partly to sideline Islamists.
In Egypt, for instance, citizens who publicly ate and drank during Ramadan were arrested last June for not showing respect for the holy month and Islam. Egyptian women protesters are also taken into custody and subjected to virginity tests. Security forces justify this humiliating practice on grounds of ensuring the moral probity of both the women and the state.
In Jordan, one of the largest new economic development projects in Amman, the Boulevard Arjaan, is one that pointedly does not sell alcohol. The government has also strongly supported the spread of Islamic banking within the larger finance sector and implemented Islamic financial principles within state institutions such as the Postal Savings Fund.
In Morocco, last year the state preemptively banned the controversial film Much Loved, which explored the problem of prostitution from the perspective of four women. Such censorship was justified on grounds of upholding moral order though such an action circumvented the legal standards of newly drafted regulations, which explicitly lay out guidelines for the rating and prohibition of media content.
These expressions of religious identity are selective, so as to not disaffect the secular middle classes, and do not intend to empower Islamists and other religious groups. Because this religious impetus manifests through the discretionary power of the state, it is neither predictable nor consistent. For this reason, it is not available for Islamists to coopt. They are excluded from this puritanical trend.
A fourth tactic of retrenched authoritarianism is increased foreign interventions, justified in the name of fighting against radicalism and containing regional threats, such as Iran. More than ever, Arab regimes frame Iran and its clients, namely Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria, as existential threats. Inversely, Iran is spreading the same sectarian discourse by framing most Arab regimes as a grave danger to Shi‘a Islam.
While initially motivated by a geopolitical logic, over time foreign interventions have allowed the Arab autocracies to support one another while drawing attention away from domestic problems. In Yemen, many Arab countries are immersed in an ongoing intervention that has resulted in numerous civilian casualties with only limited military success. Libya and to a greater degree Syria have also experienced this new wave of interventionism, with both conflicts escalated by the financial and military contributions of other Arab states.
Across the Arab world, autocratic regimes have engaged in these four tactics of retrenched authoritarianism in hopes of foreclosing future revolution. In the short run, these techniques of governance have indeed strengthened state control.
However, at the heart of retrenched authoritarianism rests a long-term gamble: all else being equal, youth activists that comprise the vanguard of opposition movements can be permanently deactivated. This is an untenable premise because the fundamental drive for the Arab Spring protest movements still exists today – the desire for human dignity, expressed through demands for freedom and voice. The Arab autocracies cannot put the revolutionary genie back into the bottle.
*Hicham Alaoui is a D.Phil. candidate at Saint Anthony’s College, University of Oxford, and the director of the non-profit Hicham Alaoui Foundation for Social Science Research.
This essay is adapted from the annual Coca-Cola World Fund at Yale Lecture, delivered by Hicham Alaoui on April 12, 2016.