Uprisings across the Middle East have not led to any significant shifts towards permanent democracy even where they have toppled dictators, a new report warns.
Instead new elites have emerged with clear ties to the old discredited regimes (as in Egypt and Libya) or existing regimes look like surviving, battered but intact (as in Syria and Bahrain), concludes the analysis from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
The report, After the Arab Spring: Power Shift in the Middle East?, looked for evidence of genuine power shifts in the region but found no sign that true revolution has occurred.
It concludes there is: “little evidence to suggest that future historians will rank the events of 2011 with those of 1848 or 1989. Simply too few of the fundamentals of social, economic and political organisation in the Arab world have been successfully contested by the protests.”
Part of the reason for this, suggests Toby Dodge in one of the report’s articles, is that Middle East states have tended to be run on “neo-patrimonial” lines – using networks of favourites and clients to govern. While this form of cronyism is deeply unpopular and can spark uprisings – as it did in the unseating of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali – it is also flexible, so that dictators can create new loyalties by spreading privilege to different groups or interests during times of upheaval.
And there are signs that these systems of patronage have survived the overthrow of dictators. In Tunisia for example, Fatima El-Issawi writes that the success of organising elections has not secured a democratic future: “Tunisia needs to bring about a radical change of practice that will prevent the development of new client networks serving new rulers but serving the corrupt model of Ben Ali’s regime. That system is deeply entrenched in Tunisian public administration, where a culture of privilege still flourishes. There are few signs that the new ruling elite is departing from these practices.”
In Libya, where the rebels who overthrew the Gaddafi regime were a disparate alliance of factions, there is the same risk that patronage and favouritism will prevail, believes Ranj Alaaldin. The National Transitional Council has little centralized authority over the country while Islamist groups hold considerable sway. Elections due in June: “could essentially transplant the existing circles of power and influence, in particular those of the Islamists.”
In countries where unpopular regimes have clung to power the report suggests they are unlikely to be dislodged soon. Christopher Phillips’ analysis of Syria, for example, finds that a combination of elite support for the Assad regime, foreign nervousness about intervention and a lack of mass demonstrations of the kind seen in Tunisia is likely to lead only to bloody stalemate. Other authors examining Iran and Bahrain are similarly pessimistic about the prospects for revolutionary change.
Indeed George Lawson argues that so far the Arab uprisings have not been revolutions in the historic sense at all since people have been demanding a voice in government rather than complete social change. He writes: “The meaning and character of revolution itself has changed, becoming increasingly oriented around political representation rather than the reordering of society. As such, revolutions have become deliberately self-limiting, seeking to restrain revolutionary excess within constitutional limits.”
The full report, After the Arab Spring – Power Shift in the Middle East?, is published by LSE IDEAS, the centre for diplomacy, international affairs and strategy at LSE.
The report includes articles by academics and researchers from not only LSE but also Queen Mary and the University of Edinburgh.
For more information about the report contact its editor Dr Nicholas Kitchen firstname.lastname@example.org or LSE press office on +44 (0)207 955 7060 email@example.com
1 May 2012