Reconsidering “Theories of Transition”

By Daniel Brumberg, Georgetown University

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Uprisings Explained” workshop, October 2-3, 2014. 

Any discussion of the relevance of the Transitions Paradigm to the Arab world’s political uprisings of 2011 to 2012 raises wider questions about the conceptual approaches that have guided the study of the Middle East. The heady expectations that these revolts would provide the launching pad for bringing Middle East studies fully and permanently into the main stream of comparative political science – an expectation that clearly animated the work of the authors of The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East at the group’s inception – has seemingly been dashed. Far from ushering in democracy, with the exception of Tunisia, the Arab revolts were followed by state collapse, civil war, or intensified ethno-religious or identity conflicts. While I wrote the “Theories of Transition” against the backdrop of these grim developments, I do not argue that the multiple trajectories of the Arab revolts demonstrate the irrelevance of the Transition Model, or that they confirm some grand notion of Arab “exceptionalism.” The problem that bedevils all comparativists is that all political systems are in some way exceptional. Thus our key challenge is to blend or link “rationalist” theories that assume a wider, universal, or exogenous rationality with approaches that speak to economic, social, and identity dynamics or logics deeply embedded in local, national, or regional arenas bounded by time and geography.

In meeting this challenge, we must contend with the fact that the Transitions Paradigm was born of local, regional, and global forces specific to a particular age, namely the Cold War. Fused in the crucible of capitalist-labor struggles, it highlighted the emergence of “Bureaucratic Authoritarian” (BA) regimes whose members were unified not by any common economic interests, but rather by their mutual fear of labor and socio-economic instability. While not using the term, Guillermo O’Donnell described a “protection racket” regime that was riddled with tensions but remained unified so long as its members believed that there was no safe alternative outside the BA’s cold embrace. This is why O’Donnell, Adam Przeworski, and their fellow authors argued that transitions have their origins in the “decline of fear” that many BA regimes experienced, either because they succeeded in their economic missions or they failed. In both cases the original catalyst for forging and sustaining regime unity was undermined. Freed from the terror that had previously glued the regime together, challengers from within and outside regimes embarked on coordination struggles to define a new political formula, one that opened up the political arena sufficiently wide to create a measure of democratic legitimacy, but that nevertheless secured institutional structures and rules whose cumulative effect was to make it hard for labor to politically mobilize and thus pose a significant threat to capitalist restructuring.

Thus conceived, political parties, elections, and even politics itself are tools for structuring social disputes. Democratic pact making provides a universal mechanism of conflict resolution that is animated by an exquisitely rational calculation that a “democracy without democrats” is a second best solution that all key parties and leaders can embrace and create once they tire of endless iterations of violent conflict. This rationalist view is precisely what made the Transitions Paradigm so attractive and seemingly useful. By providing an all-purpose tool that could seemingly be applied to any and all local or national contexts irrespective of cultural, religious, or ideological factors, it set the stage for the field of “Transitology” itself.

My argument was not that these rationalist assumptions are irrelevant to the Middle East, but rather that they must contend with – and must therefore be adjusted – to take into account two other factors specific to national and regional contexts. The first is the presence and effect of ethnic, religious, sectarian, or ideological identity conflicts. Institutionalized and systematically manipulated by ruling elites in a myriad of different Arab autocracies, once these regimes were challenged and or collapsed in whole or in part, the effect of these identity conflicts was to greatly magnify the fears of domination or exclusion that all key actors, particularly those most likely to lose elections, brought to the political arena. These intensifying fears – which were magnified in some cases to a near existential level, as in Syria and Bahrain – greatly complicated efforts at pact making and negotiating.

The second of these factors has to do with the different ways that these conflicts were institutionalized in different kinds of autocratic systems. I argued that these different institutional legacies helped create both the constraints and the opportunities for pact making in different Arab states. To illustrate this point I highlighted the contrasting cases of Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, somewhat paradoxically, a legacy of state managed “liberalized autocracy” under the umbrella of a well institutionalized military/security apparatus encouraged competing groups to negotiate with the military rather than with themselves, whereas in Tunisia, a legacy of full autocracy that lacked a similar military/arbiter created a different kind of dynamic, one in which the contending groups had to either fight or negotiate. The result was failure in Egypt, and relative success in Tunisia, as was subsequently demonstrated by the negotiation of a new constitution.

By in large, I think events have supported my overall assumptions and lines of conceptual argument set out in the original chapter. But several factors merit greater attention and also help to explain the multiple trajectories of the Arab revolts. First is the role of outside regional and global forces, which in all cases played some role in promoting or undermining pact making between regimes and opposition, and within opposition themselves. In Tunisia, these regional and global forces played a positive role; in Egypt, a very negative one. Second, I need to give more attention to national media, and to the role that semi-official television and satellite stations played in fostering the escalating fears of key identity groups. This dynamic was especially important in Egypt, and helped set the stage for the June 2013 mass protesting and subsequent coup. Third, I need to take a wider-angle view of the key role that socio-economic, cultural, and ideological conditions played in fostering or undermining negotiations over a new political order.

As I noted in the original paper, the Transitions Paradigm itself was not oblivious to such structural factors. Despite its apparent focus on leadership, choice, and collective action problems, it highlighted socio-economic, institutional, and even ideological factors and conditions and the ways in which these factors constrained or opened dynamics of pact making and democratic consolidation. For example, the focus on the role of civil society and its “resurrection” was crucial to the paradigm’s gradualist conceptualization of the conditions that pushed forward and widened the dynamics of elite pact making and its capacity to create stable foundations for a more sustained drive to democracy.

When considering the “fight versus talk” scenario that emerged out of the legacy of Tunisia’s full autocracy, it seems quite clear that certain familiar factors – such as the size of the urban middle class and the related issue of state-managed secularization that goes back to the era of former President Habib Bourguiba – set the stage for the election of the Constituent Assembly in which non-Islamist forces were sufficiently represented such that the Islamists had little choice but to negotiate rather than try to impose their preference on their non-Islamist rivals. These deeper structural preconditions seem to loom large. Similarly, while the legacy of a depoliticized military was crucial, that even under the rubric of a much more tightly controlled political system organized labor and its leader managed to maintain a measure of autonomy and credibility helped make it possible for Tunisia’s general labor union, the UGTT, to play an arbitrating role, along with other members of the “Quartet.” The role of the UGTT, along with the Tunisian Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts Union (UTICA) chairwoman, the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) chairman, and the Bar Association, testifies to the importance of a state building process that created, to put it plainly, a relatively robust middle class and business sector. This dynamic limited any hegemonic aspiration of the Ennahda party and especially its base of young followers, many of whom wanted the leadership to pursue a more “Islamist” agenda.

The role of such structural factors not only helped to cushion the potentially negative effects of identity conflict in Tunisia, they also point to the simple lesson that while identity politics must be factored into any wider account of transition dynamics, by itself identity conflict does not determine outcomes. Long-term state building dynamics and preconditions narrow or expand the horizon for pact making, and wise leadership can further take advantage of opportunities while bad leadership can squander openings that are generated by long-term state building dynamics.

Given the multiple factors at work in any national scenario and, as I argued in my original chapter, a more inductive “configurative” approach is far more useful than any effort at squeezing cases into a more deductive model. The Arab political rebellions of 2011 to 2012 have their origin in distinctive national and regional factors, a fact of life which presents scholars of the Middle East with the continuing challenge of placing their region in a wider comparative enterprise. I would rather focus on a small “n” and deploy more historically sensitive qualitative approaches that problematize the issue of causality, than struggle to fit the small number of crucial cases in a bigger “n” study – one that comes up with regressions that can ultimately seem to be digressions.
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Daniel Brumberg is an associate professor in the department of government and co-director of the MA program in democracy and government studies at Georgetown University. He serves as a special advisor for the U.S. Institute of Peace and member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Democracy and Political Science and Politics

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