Beyond ‘geosectarianism’: political systems and international relations in the Middle East

By Ewan Stein, University of Edinburgh 

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

All of the Middle East’s most powerful states now face acute crises over the legitimacy of their political systems. Two years into the ‘Arab Spring’ it seemed that some kind of populist, majoritarian Islamic republicanism would sweep away secular dictatorships and monarchies alike. Today, however, the prospects for this brand of political legitimacy appear dim. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has lost its parliamentary majority, halting what many saw as Turkey’s drift toward Iranian-style religious authoritarianism. Egypt’s first freely elected president Mohamed Morsi faces a death sentence two years after his ouster, with many blaming the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall on its desire to create a single-party Islamic state. Iran’s reform-oriented president endures ongoing tussles with conservative forces over the extent to which the state should intervene in religious, cultural and intellectual life and has been accused of helping to legitimize an authoritarian system. And in Saudi Arabia, the international spotlight shines on a regime that deems 1000 lashes a proportionate response to political dissidence.

These struggles over domestic political legitimacy are the bread and butter of Comparative Politics but rarely of International Relations. Conventional accounts of Middle East international relations tend to prioritize geopolitical drivers, often incorporating sectarian or other identities as intervening variables: Turkey aims to boost its influence in the region through cultivating fraternal links with Sunni Islamist parties; Iran attempts the same but is stymied by the Sunni-Shiite divide and so must fall back on Shiite allies and proxies; Saudi Arabia fights a rear-guard battle to contain Iranian influence by bankrolling “moderate” Sunni dictatorships and jihadist groups.

This geosectarian approach paints, at best, an incomplete picture. A look at the reactions of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to the Arab, particularly Egyptian, uprisings between 2011 and 2013 supports the following, fairly intuitive, hypothesis: foreign policy actors support abroad the same kinds of political structures they enjoy, or would like to enjoy, at home. This occurs primarily for reasons of internal and external legitimation: i.e. “my system looks better if others are also using it.” The tendency toward homogeneity in “the ordering of domestic affairs,” as Fred Halliday noted in his book, Revolution and World Politics: the Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power, represents a central dynamic in the structure of international relations.


The AKP’s pro-Islamist—essentially populist—foreign policy alienated large parts of Turkish political and civil society, and may have contributed to the party’s poor parliamentary election showing in June 2015. Turkey was not pushed into pursuing this foreign policy by any powerful external actors and had been achieving steady success with its “zero problems with neighbors” approach prior to 2011. There is no compelling geostrategic explanation for what turned out to be a reckless gamble on the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a comparable outcome in Syria.

Turkey’s response to the Arab uprisings reflected, rather, the domestic fears and aspirations of the AKP as a party of government. Internally and externally (particularly in the eyes of Washington), Turkey’s prestige could only increase as its model of a majoritarian democracy with an interventionist Islamic cultural agenda spread across the region. With the overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Erdogan saw an opportunity to export the AKP model to the Arab world’s most populous and influential state. Turkey’s commitment to the Muslim Brotherhood amounted to more than words: it invested some $2 billion in the country during Morsi’s tenure.

Turkish support for Morsi as Egypt’s legitimate elected president was no altruistic strategy to democratise the Arab world. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, as Erdogan knew well from its actions while in power, was ambivalent about liberal democracy. The Brotherhood could be expected to behave in the same majoritarian manner that alienated substantial sections of Turkish society from the AKP. The collapse of this model in Egypt would have serious implications for the legitimacy of the socially interventionist and populist system the AKP hoped to perpetuate.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi reactions to the Arab uprisings and their aftermath cannot be fully explained by geosectarian concerns either. Saudi Arabia’s hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood was evidently not related to any actual Egyptian foreign policy realignment: Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement was lukewarm at best and policy toward Israel remained business as usual. Even the United States praised Morsi’s statesmanship in brokering a deal in Palestine.

For a more complete explanation, we must turn once again to the question of the kinds of domestic political systems the Saudis feel most comfortable living among. It is no revelation that Saudi Arabia has an interest in seeing that none of the existing Arab monarchies, particularly those of the GCC, fall. Saudi Arabia is almost always considered a conservative, as opposed to a revisionist, power in that it seeks to preserve monarchies against the onslaught of popular sovereignty. However, this classification misses the arguably more significant transformatory influence Saudi Arabia has had on domestic politics beyond the Gulf, particularly since the 1970s.

Just because Saudi Arabia has not used its economic might to bring back monarchies in Egypt and elsewhere does not mean that it has not exported key elements of its political model. The most salient of which is the functional separation between holders of political power, on the one hand, and holders of cultural (mainly religious) power, on the other. This division of labor has been a defining feature of post-populist republics in the Arab world, at least partially due to Saudi influence. The laboratory, and most important poster child, for Saudi political engineering was Egypt.

Hosni Mubarak has been credited with returning Egypt to the “Arab fold” following its expulsion from the Arab League in the wake of the Camp David Accords. This reintegration involved the progressive strengthening of Egyptian-Saudi military, economic and cultural integration. Mubarak’s brand of sovereignty was coercive and dictatorial, but not—to use Robert Jackson’s term—“totalitarian” in the sense of aspiring to an organic ideological unity between state and society. This was the hallmark of the Nasserist system that also survived under Baath party rule in Iraq and Syria as well as, in an idiosyncratic form, in Ghaddafi’s Libya. Under Mubarak, state-level politics became increasingly managerial, while the ideological and cultural initiative was ceded to a range of (mainly Islamist) actors in society.

The external legitimation function, for Saudi Arabia, of post-populist systems such as Mubarak’s Egypt is captured in the notion of the “moderate state.” Within this rubric, the international community (again, primarily Washington) overlooks domestic coercion and illiberalism when the state’s foreign policy practice is aligned with U.S. interests. Such alignment is harder to guarantee under populist republics. The post-populist system in Egypt survived until the triumph of Mohamed Morsi in the 2012 elections, which placed the Muslim Brotherhood in a position of both political and ideological leadership. Egypt’s drift, at least potentially, toward some kind of majoritarian Islamist democracy, was a change the Saudi regime could not allow.

It is significant to note, however, that President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has not returned Egypt to the status quo ante. In dispensing with the Muslim Brotherhood, and indeed any partners in society, Sissi appears bent on establishing a totalitarian (actually quasi-fascist) state based on the cult of his personality. Although Saudi Arabia whole-heartedly approved of the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood—declaring it a terrorist organization and criminalizing any expression of sympathy for it— there are some indications that the new administration under King Salman may be ready to ease up on punishing the Brothers. Although generally explained in terms of a Saudi desire to strengthen the Sunni front against Iran, this shift more strongly supports the argument that Saudi Arabia prefers a return to post-populism in Egypt.


While Iran’s eagerness to build bridges with post-Mubarak Egypt makes good geopolitical as well as economic sense, its confused reaction to Morsi’s performance and ouster does not. Iran’s position has been ambiguous, partially due to the fragmented, factionalized nature of its political system. The Arab uprisings offered an opportunity for the Iranian regime to gain external legitimation for its Islamic republican political model. As with Saudi Arabia, the fact that Iran it not exporting its version of a state governed by a religious leader (wilayat e-faqih) to the Arab world does not mean its model is not replicable. It embodies the same populist, culturally interventionist model toward which the AKP has been moving. Although this may be a well-worn polemical charge, it contains more than a grain of truth. Significantly, Iran-Turkey relations are currently more functional than either Iran-Egypt or Turkey-Egypt relations, despite the two states being essentially at war in Syria.

When the Islamist political breakthrough of 2012 failed to yield a substantive foreign policy shift in Egypt, internal Iranian discourse became more critical of the Muslim Brotherhood; however, in general, the Islamic Republic adopted an uncharacteristically indulgent attitude toward the reticence of Egypt’s Islamist leaders. It largely refrained form launching the kinds of fiery attacks it employed against Saudi Arabia, for example. Instead, Iran adopted a wait-and-see approach. Unlike Turkey, which invested substantial economic and political capital in backing Morsi’s regime, Iran lacked both the means and, more significantly, the domestic political consensus to follow suit. The AKP considered the spread of the Turkish model vital for its internal and external legitimation and had the executive power to follow through with this policy. Iran, on the other hand, was divided: the totalitarian elements of the political system, led by Khamenei, had no interest in spreading ‘democracy’, whereas the reformist current, represented by Rouhani, balked at legitimizing a majoritarian Brotherhood regime.

Iran ultimately joined Turkey in condemning the coup but in far less vociferous terms. Whereas Erdogan focused his ire on the military, for obvious domestic reasons, Rouhani and Khamenei also blamed the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s ouster triggered a flurry of intellectual analysis in the Iranian (state controlled) media. For conservatives, the Brotherhood failed because it did not follow the Iranian example and purge the political system of counterrevolutionary elements, and because it remained subservient to U.S. and Israeli diktats. Reformists blamed Morsi’s undemocratic practices and the Muslim Brotherhood’s incompetence. The fact that Khamenei himself repeated the democratic legitimacy line, despite his totalitarianism, arguably reflects the Supreme Leader’s acknowledgement of Rouhani’s mandate and Khamenei’s reluctance to provoke domestic protest at a time of regional turmoil. This hypocrisy will have been lost on few Iranians.


Geopolitics and identity remain highly relevant to international affairs, but they do not present the complete picture. In the post-Cold War world, where the battle over economic systems has been largely won, the most salient divisions in the world relate to political systems. The Middle East, as has so often been the case, is a pivotal front in this battle, which rages between regimes and oppositions, as well as between state and non-state actors. At stake is whether totalizing majoritarian Islamic democracy can assert itself as a serious challenge to Wahhabi-style monarchy and its progeny, post-populist dictatorship. Given the setbacks Islamic democracy has suffered in Egypt, and now Turkey, the prospects for monarchy and dictatorship appear rosier. A third alternative, that of a more liberal democracy, may remain elusive in the region for quite some time as it continues to lack any powerful state sponsor.

Ewan Stein is Senior Lecturer in international relations and program director of the MSc in International Relations of the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science.

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