A historical sociology approach to authoritarian resilience in post-Arab Uprising MENA

By Raymond Hinnebusch, University of St Andrews

 * This memo was prepared for “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State” workshop held at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, October 10, 2014. 

What explains the failure of the Arab Uprising to lead, as its protagonists expected, to democratization? Neither democratization theory (DT) or post-democracy (PDT) approaches, such as authoritarian upgrading, got the Arab Uprising right: Several authoritarian rulers were removed but rather than democracy, the dominant outcome has been some variant of civil war or authoritarian restoration. Historical sociology (HS) has key advantages in understanding this outcome. It can subsume the contributions of DT regarding the forces pushing for democratization and the insights of PDT on how these have been managed, while overcoming their tendency to teleology and dichotomization and bringing in depth from history and political economy.

Path dependency over teleology; the historical construction of authority

Instead of teleological assumptions of a universal democratic end point of development, HS sees post-uprising outcomes as products of “path dependency,” – historically “successful” practices and institutions get reproduced and adapted to new conditions. Weber, building on Ibn Khaldun, identified the historically dominant “successful” paths to authority creation in the Middle East and North Africa and certain hybrids of his authority types have been typical of contemporary times, notably the mix of charismatic and bureaucratic authority by which populist authoritarian regimes were founded (with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt the prototype) and the mixes of patrimonial and bureaucratic authority (neo-patrimonialism) toward which they evolved in their “post-populist” phase. Each of these “solutions” were attempts to “fix” flaws in previous regimes, but also generated new vulnerabilities, driving further adaptation.

Variations in these historic state building pathways can be expected to matter for the trajectories of the Arab Uprising. All the republics were neo-patrimonial but the differing balance between their patrimonial and bureaucratic components shaped the short-term outcomes of the Uprising. Where bureaucratic institutions had a degree of autonomy from the leader, as in Tunisia and Egypt, state elites could sacrifice him to save themselves without imperiling the regime and relatively quickly reconstitute their dominance;[1] otherwise, presidents could not be jettisoned without imperiling the ruling coalition and the stability of the state. The balance among the bureaucratic pillars also mattered: Where, as is usual in MENA, the military was the main state pillar, democratization was less likely than a hybrid regime; Tunisia was the exception, where the trade unions, as the main partner of the nationalist independence party in constituting the state, pre-empted the military’s role.

Path dependency also allows us to anticipate the likely medium-term outcomes of the uprising: Weber’s authority practices, the products of learning over long historical periods, will be deployed in efforts to reconstitute regimes – around some combination of charismatic, patrimonial, and bureaucratic authority. None of these proven authority building formulae are democratic, per se, although only patrimonial authority is explicitly non-democratic, while charismatic authority has an element of mass mobilization (with ideological political parties a modern form of charismatic authority) and bureaucracy is built on the principles of merit recruitment, equality before the law, and limits on the legitimate authority of office holders. As these versions of authority constrain patrimonial authority, democratic possibilities increase.

Variations in power distribution: Getting beyond regime dichotomization

In conceptualizing how the distribution of power in regimes may evolve, we need to get beyond the sterile authoritarian-democratic dichotomy and grasp the considerable variety of actually existing regime types in MENA. These are distinguishable by the two separate dimensions of power distribution identified by Robert Dahl,[2] namely elite contestation and mass inclusion, which need not vary together, allowing instead for four rather than two possibilities. Thus, in MENA, the post-independence Arab liberal oligarchies had high levels of elite contestation and low levels of mass inclusion. The populist authoritarian regimes that displaced them starting in the 1950s widened mass inclusion in order to narrow elite contestation; in their “post-populist” period, beginning in the mid-1970s, limited political liberalization widened elite contestation (co-optation) in order to narrow mass inclusion. Rarely has polyarchy, high contestation, and high inclusion been approximated in MENA.[3] The greater inclusion of social forces under populist authoritarianism compared to liberal oligarchy should caution us against fixating on political forms to the neglect of the substance – which social forces are advantaged and disadvantaged.

The limits of political change: Classical political sociology’s “Iron Law of Oligarchy”

What drives changes in these power distribution dimensions? Modernization theory implicitly posits a law of rising politicization whereby socio-economic modernization, in increasing social differentiation and mobilization, creates growing participatory pressures on authoritarian states – to which MENA regimes are by no means “culturally excepted.”[4] However, the Arab states are at levels of modernization in which democracy is possible but not necessary: What then decides? Rather than an inevitable evolution toward increasing democratization, outcomes result from a power struggle. In the Arab Uprising case, the de-legitimation of authoritarian rule via the West’s democracy discourse at a time when the post-populist exclusion of the masses had made the authoritarian republics especially vulnerable, enabled “political entrepreneurs” to mobilize mass protest. However, classical political sociology tells us that this revolutionary mass activism, at best, infuses elites with new blood from below – and not even this if revolutions leave the class structure intact as in MENA.[5] Even if there are competitive elections, elites’ disproportionate command of resources – control of information, bureaucratic levers of command – enables them to defend and recover their domination against the normally divided or inattentive masses. From the point of view of classical political sociology, failures of or limits to democratization, far from being anomalies, are reflections of the “iron law of oligarchy.”[6]

Structure over agency: political economy imperatives

The power struggle is, moreover, conditioned by political economy structures, which only favor democratization under quite specific conditions. HS identifies the deeper structures that determine the political inclusion and exclusion of social forces that give regimes their essential character. Moore showed that where the state joined with the landed oligarchy to repress and exploit the peasantry to serve an agricultural export strategy, the result was conservative authoritarianism, while if the peasants were included in a radical coalition against the landed class, authoritarianism of the left resulted ­– as in the Arab populist republics.[7] He and others also showed that inclusive democratization requires a balance of class power, including some state autonomy of the dominant classes and a bourgeois alliance with the organized working class to extract power sharing from the state.[8]

In MENA, however, political economy is unfavorable to democratization. First, rentier states produce state-dependent bourgeoisies and clientalized citizens (combined with readily expelled expatriate labor in many cases); indeed, states with copious rent have proved most resistant to the uprising.

Second, the pathway of the earlier populist regimes, under which a more inclusive ruling coalition corresponded to social reform and import substitute industrialization, was cut short by some combination of capital accumulation failures, lost wars, and international financial institutions (IFIs) pressures for “structural adjustment.” The neo-liberal “solution” – re-empowering investors and export strategies that required the repression of labor costs – shaped new state-crony capitalist coalitions to exclude labor as well as deepen dependencies on global finance capital.

While the Arab Uprisings were a reaction against this, their outcome, far from reversing neo-liberalism, has made states more vulnerable to the IFIs that promote it. Global neo-liberalism, which excludes the big issues of justice in wealth distribution from the political agendas of all states means that MENA states, whether on not they democratize, are sharply constrained within neo-liberal molds; in fact, enforcing neo-liberalism against its victims (and their leftist or Islamist champions), requires a dose of authoritarian power and mass demobilization. In the world periphery, the current global order is most compatible with electoral authoritarianism or, at best, what Robinson calls “low intensity democracy.”[9] It is, thus, political economy that determines the social forces that are included and excluded from regimes.

Fragmenting the political arena: The inside-outside co-constitution of stalemate

For HS, the domestic and the international co-constitute each other. In uprising states outcomes have been contested by the competitive interference and trans-state ideological contestation, of rival regional and global powers. The Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council powers and Turkey, themselves split over support for rival kinds of Islamists, and Iran, manipulating a “Shiite crescent,” have deployed sectarian polarization against each other. With neither side able to sweep the board, the result has been both the de-stabilization of states and the fragmenting of publics between secularists and varieties of rival Islamists. This works against polyarchy since institutionalized peaceful elite contestation depends on an underlying shared community and since regimes emerging from communal power struggles will likely incorporate some identity communities in order to exclude others. Moreover, both sides have used rent transfers to bolster anti-democratic forces – the non-oil monarchies, the military in Egypt, the Assad regime, Salafis – across the region.

Outcomes: The post-uprising persistence of hybridity

The Arab Uprisings initiated the remobilization of the masses. Far from this inevitably leading to democratic transition, such an outcome requires a quite demanding set of conditions: a unifying national identity; political institutions able to incorporate mass participation; a balance of class forces, and a pact between soft liners in the regime and the opposition to marginalize hard liners on both sides. Unfortunately, in the case of the Arab Spring, only Tunisia enjoyed some of these conditions.

With transition conditions absent, the outcome, has been an intensification of the power struggle in which rival elites and counter-elites use the mobilizing masses against each other, and in which the rules of the political contest are themselves contested, hence “clubs – armed violence – are trump.” However the outcomes have differed considerably. Where presidents were overthrown but the deep state persisted, mass mobilization chiefly meant that the techniques for managing popular demands had to be ”upgraded” – a “man on horseback” emerges promising to restore order. Elites combine elements of their pre-uprising toolboxes such as populist rhetoric, divide and rule, demonization of oppositions, and electoral authoritarianism, resulting in hybrid regimes with limited elite contestation and inclusion.

Where regimes collapsed the breakdown of order stimulated a “security dilemma” in which rival identity groups saw the other as the enemy and a war economy was fueled by rival trans-state funders; a battle of patrimonial regime remnants and charismatic insurgents, via “new wars” in which civilians were not spared, shaping mass inclusion and exclusion on identity grounds. This situation excluded polyarchy.


The historic MENA authority formulas, adapted via path dependency to changing conditions, encountered, with the outbreak of the Arab Uprising, renewed agency – power struggles between counter-elites and elites. The struggle was conditioned by a political economy context and identity wars fragmenting publics that, together, created exclusionary scenarios incompatible with polyarchy. As such, historic non-democratic power formulas were revived to reconstruct authority, albeit varying according to whether the state survived the uprising or failed. However, none of these efforts appears likely to re-stabilize the region anytime soon.

Raymond Hinnebusch is the director of the Centre for Syrian Studies and a professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies at the University of St Andrews.


[1] Stacher, Joshua (2012), Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 93, 158.

[2] Dahl, Robert. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[3] Hinnebusch, Raymond (2010) “Toward a historical sociology of state formation in the Middle East,” Middle East Critique, 19(3), pp. 201–216.

[4] Huntington, Samuel (1968) Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

[5] Mosca, Gaetano. 1935. The Ruling Class. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[6] Michels, Robert (1966) Political Parties: A Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (Free Press).

[7] Moore, Barrington (1966) The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press).

[8] Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Evelyne, Huber Stephens, and John D Stephens. 1992. Capitalist Development and Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[9] Robinson, William I. 1996. Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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