Mass politics and the future of authoritarian governance in the Arab world

By Steven Heydemann, United States Institute of Peace

* 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. 

Emerging patterns in authoritarian governance in the Arab world

Today, the dominant images of the “Arab Spring” are no longer of exuberant crowds gathered in public squares to demand democracy and social justice, but of masked Islamic State gunmen, brutalized victims of torture, and shrouded corpses. The enthusiasm that accompanied the first democratic elections in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia has given way to electoral spectacles that are distressingly familiar to any observer of Middle East politics. In May, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who engineered the ouster of his Islamist predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president of Egypt amidst low voter turnout, high public apathy, and accusations of systemic electoral abuse.[1] The following month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in a breathtaking display of cynicism, convened elections amidst the carnage and destruction of a brutal civil war that has displaced half of Syria’s population. Nonetheless, according to official figures, some 73 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. To no one’s surprise, Assad was “re-elected” for a third seven-year term.

Widely greeted with enthusiasm in 2011, the resurgence of mass politics in the Arab world is now viewed in much darker terms. Writing in mid-2013, Egyptian filmmaker and blogger Omar Robert Hamilton captured the turn from optimism to despair for those who had celebrated the Arab uprisings as a moment of political transformation and social renewal. “We thought we could change the world,” Hamilton wrote on his blog, Mada Masr. “We know now that that feeling was not unique to us, that every revolutionary moment courses with the pulse of a manifest destiny. How different things feel today. I will not bury our convictions, but that feeling — youthful optimism? naiveté? idealism? foolishness? — is now truly and irrevocably dead.”[2]

This shift in mood has been widely echoed, not only among democratic forces across the Middle East, but in the media, among policy elites, and among scholars of Arab politics. Initial responses to the resurgence of mass politics in 2011 were largely positive, even as the fall of seemingly entrenched Arab autocrats provoked considerable soul searching among experts, including this author, who had characterized authoritarian regimes in the Arab world as exceptional in their resilience and their capacity to absorb and blunt demands for democratic reform.[3]

As authoritarian regimes across the region seemed to crack under the weight of long-repressed popular grievances, scholars such as Jack Goldstone and Ian Lustick, who have characterized Arab regimes as brittle, fractured, and ripe for collapse, highlighted the features that left them vulnerable to elite defections and mass protests. According to Goldstone, the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world represent a specific regime type: “Sultanistic dictatorships.” While such regimes “may often appear unshakable, they are actually highly vulnerable, because the very strategies they use to stay in power make them brittle, not resilient.”[4] Echoing these themes, Lustick described the Arab uprisings as a process in which mass politics had exposed the longstanding “decrepitude” of the region’s authoritarian regimes. According to Lustick, the Arab uprisings are an expression of the “the opening of the masses,” that would bring about the collapse of at least the Egyptian regime: “That regime is not going to last . . . [the regime’s] whole raison d’etre, is to prevent [the entry of the masses into the political arena]. They’re trying to keep their finger in the dyke.”[5]

In hindsight, such predictions about the imminent collapse of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world were clearly premature. Mass protests confronted regimes with the most significant challenge they had ever faced. The threat of politics from below was all the more potent because it emerged in systems of rule that were explicitly designed to prevent oppositional forms of collective action and spontaneous political mobilization. As Goldstone and others argued, it seemed in late 2010 and 2011 that the strategies Arab leaders had adopted to keep themselves in power, including strategies of authoritarian upgrading, had indeed left them vulnerable to an uncontrollable surge of mass mobilization. Yet by late 2014, even as Arab regimes struggled to manage the aftershocks of mass protests and, in some cases, respond to sustained popular mobilization that has continued, it is clear that authoritarian regimes in the Arab world not only survived the uprisings but adapted their tactics and practices to address the specific challenges associated with the resurgence of mass politics and sustain their hold on power.

This paper argues, however, that the reassertion of authoritarianism since 2012 did not come about simply because authoritarian elites in the Middle East held fast to established political routines. The events of the past four years are not merely a back to the future moment in authoritarian governance in the Arab world. In responding to the resurgence of mass politics – processes of mobilization that were in large part caused by popular discontent with failures of authoritarian governance – authoritarian elites have been compelled to adapt. In some cases, regime adaptations drew on but modified established practices. In others, adaptations seem to signal more fundamental changes in elite perceptions about the nature of the threats they face and the changes that would be required to ensure regime survival. In these cases, regime elites seem to have made important, and in some cases potentially transformative, changes in their policies and their tactics to control and contain newly mobilized societies.

These observations about continuities and disjunctures in authoritarian governance since 2012 underscore two important features of arguments about resilient or recombinant authoritarianism that are often overlooked. First, theories about resilient authoritarianism, and the adaptive capacity of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, have never taken the position that current systems of rule are permanent or invulnerable. The appropriate metaphor is of earthquake resistant, not earthquake proof regimes. Second, and of more immediate relevance for the argument developed here, theories about recombinant authoritarian regimes, while recognizing the creativity of incumbents in reconfiguring existing practices, do not assume that adaptive processes are always limited and constrained by such practices: Path dependence matters, but at moments of crisis in particular, regime adaptations can and do move governance beyond the boundaries of current practices. I view the post-uprising period of the Arab Thermidor as representing one such period.

What seem to be emerging, therefore, as these adaptations take hold are two distinctive modes of authoritarian governance, both of which have troubling implications for the political future of the Middle East. In one set of cases, including Jordan and Morocco, Algeria, and much of the Arab Gulf, shifts in governance are best defined as the extension and deepening of strategies of authoritarian upgrading, reframed in response to the specific challenges posed by the resurgence of mass politics.[1] In a second set of cases, however, including Syria and Egypt, changes in authoritarian governance appear to be more profound. The regimes that are emerging from the most threatening encounters with mass politics are making a sharp, perhaps decisive break with the populist, inclusionary strategies of contained mobilization through which they governed for many decades. What is emerging instead are narrowly-nationalist and exclusionary-repressive modes of authoritarian governance. In both modes, reconfigured authoritarian practices are consistent with the inability of Arab regimes either to sustain redistribution and guarantees of economic security as the basis of state-society relations and conceptions of citizenship, or to establish viable, market-oriented political economies capable of addressing massive, systemic employment crises and ameliorating chronic conditions of economic insecurity that are especially acute among youth.

The Arab Thermidor: Back to the future or break with the past?

To understand why this most recent cycle of adaptations by authoritarian incumbents marks a decisive shift in governance, and to appreciate its potentially transformative effects, it is useful to assess the broader context in which regime elites are acting today and how it compares to the environment that shaped the systems of rule over which they presided until 2011.

In the era in which most post-colonial Arab states were established, newly empowered elites who inherited weak and sharply contested political and economic institutions drew heavily on contemporary understandings about how best to organize a state, manage a national economy, and structure relations between states and societies. At the time, Arab leaders were encouraged by then nascent international financial institutions such as the newly-established International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to build large, powerful public sectors as a way to compensate for the weakness of private sectors.[6] They embraced import substitution industrialization, the dominant development strategy for developing economies in the post-WWII era, to promote industrialization and the commercialization of agriculture. To exploit but simultaneously manage and channel the high levels of mass mobilization that had emerged in the course of anti-colonial struggles, the first generation of populist-authoritarian leaders – Gamal Abdel Nasser, Adib Shishakli, Habib Bourguiba, Ahmed Ben Bella, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr – embraced pan-Arabism, formed mass-based ruling parties, and promoted state-corporatist frameworks of interest representation. They adopted redistributive social policies, consolidating patterns of state-society relations anchored in “authoritarian bargains” that guaranteed economic security in exchange for political quiescence. For almost 30 years, this formula produced extraordinary improvements in social conditions across the Arab world.

By the mid-1980s, these populist-redistributive systems of rule had become increasingly difficult for regime elites to sustain. Economic crises and the fiscal burden of welfare, subsidy programs, and service provision forced authoritarian incumbents to adapt. Beginning in the 1980s but with growing momentum in the 1990s, incumbents responded – as they had in the 1950s and 1960s – by appropriating, adapting, and applying elements drawn from a global repertoire of models of governance and social policy. Mimicking versions of 1980s-era neo-liberal developmental strategies, in form if rarely in content, they introduced selective strategies of economic and political liberalization that gradually moved Middle East and North Africa political economies toward what the Syrian regime later labeled social market development frameworks.

Precursors of the upgrading strategies of the late-1990s and 2000s, these frameworks combined liberalization of select economic sectors, typically determined on the basis of political, regime maintenance criteria, with weakened systems of redistribution. They were designed to generate the resources required to maintain patronage networks, provide opportunities for predatory rent seeking by increasingly narrow circles of regime insiders, and mitigate the broad social effects of reductions in public expenditure. During these years, the organizational “containers” that had earlier served to manage and channel mass politics decayed. Ruling parties and corporatized associational sectors retained some importance as pathways for patronage, positions, and a declining share of economic privilege, but could no longer provide any meaningful sense of political or economic inclusion. In their place, regimes relied more heavily on the institutions of the mukhabarat, intelligence or secret police, to maintain internal security and repress autonomous forms of political mobilization and oppositional collective action. In effect, the authoritarian bargain of the post-independence era had become an authoritarian compromise, the costs of which were borne by the urban middle class, rural clientalist networks, public sector workers, and residents of peripheral cities, the social groups that provided the backbone of the Arab uprisings.

This potted macro-sociological history of Arab regime formation and reform underscores the importance of the contemporary regional and global context, and its effects on the strategic choices of incumbents in assessing the dynamics of authoritarian reassertion during the so-called Arab Thermidor. Upgrading strategies that served as an effective response to the challenges regimes confronted in the 1990s and 2000s, carried social costs that they could not contain indefinitely. Having confronted these costs during the peak of the Arab uprisings, the principal challenge faced by authoritarian incumbents today is how to manage the enduring, systemic features of what Adam Przeworski, referencing Southern Europe and Latin America, calls “the politics, the economics, and the culture of poor capitalism.” Evoking conditions similar in important respects to those in the contemporary Arab world, Przeworski describes poor capitalism as a dystopian environment defined by:

. . . states weak as organizations; political parties and other associations that are ineffectual in representing and mobilizing; economies that are monopolistic, overprotected, and overregulated; agricultures that cannot feed their own people; public bureaucracies that are overgrown; welfare services that are fragmentary and rudimentary. And [he asks] will you not conclude that such conditions breed governments vulnerable to pressure from large firms, populist movements of doubtful commitment to democratic institutions; armed forces that sit menacingly on the sidelines, church hierarchies torn between authoritarianism and social justice, nationalist sentiments vulnerable to xenophobia?[7]

How can regimes respond to the threat of mass politics under conditions of poor capitalism? With ineffectual economic institutions and deep, systemic employment gaps that regimes are unable to close, how can they prevent persistent high levels of anti-regime mass political mobilization?

To contend with mobilized publics and to preserve the selective benefits associated with social market strategies of economic governance, regime elites today have a very different set of models on which to draw. The statist, inclusionary, and redistributive models of controlled mass mobilization that prevailed in the post-independence era – with all they implied about republicanism, egalitarian conceptions of citizenship, and a moral economy relationship between states and citizens – are simply no longer available as viable options for regime elites. Similarly, with implications that have yet to be fully explored for MENA political economies, the condition that economist Dani Rodrik has recently characterized as
premature deindustrialization further constrains the developmental options available to authoritarian incumbents in the Arab world, and further reduces the strategies they can use to close the massive employment gaps they confront, generate highly-skilled industrial employment, and enjoy the large spill-over benefits for other sectors that accompany industrialization. As Rodrik writes:

On the economic front, it is clear that early deindustrialization impedes growth and delays convergence with the advanced economies. Manufacturing industries are what I have called “escalator industries”: labor productivity in manufacturing has a tendency to converge to the frontier . . . That is why rapid growth historically has always been associated with industrialization . . . Less room for industrialization will almost certainly mean fewer growth miracles in the future. The social and political consequences are less fathomable, but could be equally momentous. Some of the building blocks of durable democracy have been byproducts of sustained industrialization: an organized labor movement, disciplined political parties, and political competition organized around a right-left axis.[8]

To the extent that MENA political economies are defined by premature deindustrialization, the pathways out of poor capitalism will be very hard to find. The likely outcome is a massive semi-permanent class of underemployed and unemployed who the state will view as a persistent threat to stability, necessitating repressive-exclusionary modes of governance.

Even if MENA countries can escape the trap of premature deindustrialization the alternatives to authoritarianism face strong headwinds. Democratization has been discredited by its association with the Morsi presidency in Egypt, as well as the Libyan and Yemeni experiences. It has been further undermined by public disillusionment with Western liberalism, and by the declining leverage of Western democracies over regional actors who no longer depend on the West for foreign investment and foreign assistance. Nor can the transnational ideologies that legitimated (and tested) Arab regimes, including various versions of politicized Islam, serve that purpose any longer.


In contrast, market-oriented models of authoritarian governance are seen as viable alternatives. Reflecting regional trends toward sectarian polarization, regime elites in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya have sought to reframe mechanisms for containing and channeling mass politics – much of which continues to revolve around demands for economic inclusion, voice, and distributive justice – around combinations of exclusionary, xenophobic, ethno-sectarian, and tribal conceptions of state-society relations and citizenship, policed by newly reinvigorated post-uprising internal security agencies.


Thus, even while emergent models of authoritarian governance in the Arab world exhibit a wide range of continuities, they are moving beyond the authoritarian bargains and the authoritarian compromises of earlier eras, toward repressive-exclusionary systems of rule organized in response to the threat of mass politics under conditions of poor capitalism. To be sure, these emergent models will generate stresses that will test their capacity and their resilience. In their current incarnation, however, the trajectories of authoritarian governance in the Arab world seem to offer little basis for optimism among those who have long hoped that prosperity and democracy would find a firm foothold in the Middle East.


Steven Heydemann is the vice president of Applied Research on Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

[1] Democracy International, “Press Release and Preliminary Statement: Disregard for Egyptians’ Rights and Freedoms Prevents Genuine, Democratic Presidential Election.” May 29, 2014.

[2] Omar Robert Hamilton “Mada Masr” Blog, August 17, 2013.

[3] Among the most exuberant responses to the Arab uprisings was Hamid Dabashi’s The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (London: Zed Books, 2012). Also celebratory, if more measured, was Marwan Bishara’s The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions (New York: Nation Books, 2012). An early attempt to account for the failure of academic Middle East specialists to anticipate the Arab uprisings is F. Gregory Gause III’s “The Middle East Academic Community and the ‘Winter of Arab Discontent’: Why Did We Miss It?” in Seismic Shift: Understanding Change in the Middle East, ed. Ellen Laipson (Washington: Stimson Center, 2011), pp. 11-28. On the resilience and adaptability of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world see Heydemann, Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World, op. cite.

[4] Jack A. Goldstone, “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011: Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies,” Foreign Affairs (May-June 2011). As a counterpoint to Goldstone see Jay Ulfelder, “Contentious Collective Action and the Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes,” International Political Science Review Vol 26, No. 3 (2005), pp. 311-334.

[5] See the transcript of a presentation by Lustick, “The Arab Spring is Actually the Arab Century” at Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss: The War of Ideas in the Middle East (October 21, 2013).

[6] Egypt and Iraq were among the first signatories of articles of agreement with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in December 1945, a full year before the first meeting of the IBRD’s board of governors. Syria and Lebanon signed in April 1947. The first World Bank mission to Egypt occurred in March 1949, followed two months later by a mission to Iraq. Jordan joined in 1952. Also in 1952, the Bank created an Area of Operations office for Asia and the Middle East, with a Middle East regional office in Beirut. See World Bank, The Economic Development of Iraq (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1952), and World Bank, The Economic Development of Jordan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1952).

[7] Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 190-191.

[8] Dani Rodrik, “The Perils of Premature Deindustrialization.”–missing-manufacturing.

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