The Reasons Authoritarianism Has Survived Despite the Arab Spring

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The Arab world has always been the core subject of heated debates; the most crucial determinant for these debates is democratization. The main challenge faced by many researchers studying the field of political science is that when analysing the reasons and factors that inhibit democratisation in this particular region, they have failed to incorporate regional and international factors along with local factors within each Arab country. It is unsurprising that when local factors are addressed within a country in the Middle East, the focus is immediately placed on the Arab culture in general. Inevitably, the Arab states are subjected to a distorted lens where they are “described as being immune to democratic transition and transformation” (El Harathi, 2016). As a consequence, the Arab uprisings that began in 2011 can be seen as the fuel to the ongoing fire in the Arab world as the Arab people proved that they have the power to overthrow undemocratic rule. However, this fuel was not enough to democratize the region or have a somewhat democratic rule as they are now confronted with even more authoritarian regimes. The aim of this essay is to explain how and why, despite the Arab Spring in 2011, authoritarianism has survived largely. To explain this, I will be exploring the relationship between the factors that explain its survival which is not solely local, but regional and international factors. The focus in this essay will be placed on oil wealth in these regions, patrimonialism, international support including foreign aid and the effect of powerful states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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Oil Wealth

Firstly, the Arab uprisings in 2011 are described as “a loosely related group of protests that ultimately resulted in regime changes in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya” (Editor, 2019). What led to these protests is questionable as there are many underlying factors that cannot be observed nor measured. However, it is true to say that when the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, this served as an incentive for the Arab people in other countries within the region to protest against their own authoritarian governments. Unfortunately, they were faced with high levels of aggression and suppression. This “authoritarian clampdown on protestors and media highlighted the misuse of power, widespread corruption, lack of transparency and ineffective regulatory mechanisms for the protection of natural resources and public procurements; all of which contributed to making people aware of their relative alienation and deprivation at the hands of repressive regimes” (Mohiddin, 2016). As a result, the Arab world stood united against these repressive regimes. Nevertheless, this is not the first time in which these governments have suppressed their people as ‘Arab regimes faced serious popular uprisings and upheavals in the period between 1970 and 2010 and relied on their militaries and security services to put them down’ (Gause, 2011, p.11). As witnessed in 2011, many leaders tried to use the same methods that had been previously used in the past to repress their own people and in some cases, this was successful, especially in Syria and Bahrain. However, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are among the countries where the authoritarian governments failed and the people had won as the leaders had stepped down. But, what is surprising is the end result at present; these repressive and aggressive governments are back and this time they are even more oppressive and authoritarian than before.

As aforementioned, although the Arab uprisings can be seen as successful at the time in some countries, what we see now is a completely different image where the governments currently are even more unstable, repressive and authoritarian. Egypt, for example, is more “repressive and violent, less institutionalized, more economically challenged and internally dependent under the rule of Abdel Fatah al- Sissi” (Lynch, 2016). To understand why this has occurred it is important to evaluate firstly the foundational base of these problems which derive from local factors within each country. Many attention regarding authoritarian persistence in the Middle East even after the Arab Spring has focused solely on local factors within each country. One of these local factors outlined is oil and its wealth. As known already, oil is wealthy within the Middle East and for that reason, many authoritarian leaders have used this to their advantage. As Brownless et al argues “oil wealth endows the ruler with the means to ward off or contain challenges” (p.32). These challenges are warded off either by buying the quiescence of the citizens or, in the event of a failure, to employ a well-financed security apparatus (Brownless et al). This is particularly true in the case of Egypt. In Egypt’s latest election which is set to give Fattah El-Sisi even more power until 2030 highlights that Sisi’s allies offered working-class voters payments of 50 Egyptian pounds or cartons of basic foodstuffs like oil and rice in return for a Yes vote (Sanchez, 2019). Furthermore, Egypt has the largest refinery capacity in Africa at a nominal 840,000 barrels per day and have recently signed contracts with 12 new exploration and production concessions with Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP and others in which estimates an investment of around $800 million (Export.Gov, 2019). This substantial evidence highlights the oil wealth occupied by Egypt. Therefore, it is true that “oil rent becomes a factor perpetuating authoritarian governments” (Luciani, 2013, p.). Essentially, oil wealth when used by authoritarian leaders can strengthen the survival and longevity of authoritarianism in these particular regions.


Another local factor that can be addressed as the reason for authoritarian survival and persistence is as Bellin, 2004 states ‘a robust coercive apparatus in these states’. What has caused the robust authoritarianism is not the absence of prerequisites of democratization but “the coercive apparatus in many states in the Middle East that has been able and willing to crush reform initiatives from below” (Bellin, 2004, p.144 ). When the coercive apparatus weakens, democracy will smoothly enter the region. However, the problem lies in the factors that are sustaining the robustness of the coercive apparatus. One is patrimonialism and a state’s patrimonial organisation. This is where “a coercive apparatus organized along patrimonial lines staffing decisions are ruled by cronyism” (Bellin, 2004, p.145). This is the case with most Arab countries before and after the Arab spring. Surprisingly, it is evident that patrimonialism is contributing to the continuation of authoritarian regimes. This is because they ‘demobilize the opposition and build a loyal base through selective favouritism and patronage’ Bellin, 2004, p.145). For example, when we look at Syria, we see that the entire branches of the military and security forces are family affairs (Yassini, 1985). As to illustrate, an air force commander was appointed not because he was a pilot but because he was a trusted friend of Hafez al- Assad (Zisser, 2002). This indicates the importance of family and ethnic ties which can grant privilege. Another example is Egypt and its authoritarian leader Sisi who has made amendments to the constitution after his victory in the recent election. These amendments have granted Sisi with new powers to directly appoint judges and the country’s top prosecutor (Sanchez, 2019). Furthermore, another reason causing the robustness of the coercive apparatus is the successful maintenance of international support networks. Bellin argues that the “withdrawal of international backing triggers both an existential and financial crisis for the regime that often devastates both its will and capacity to carry on” (Bellin, 2004, p. 144). This clearly demonstrates how the help of any financial, moral or physical support can have a significant effect on the state’s coercive apparatus which in turn shapes the country as a whole. For example, when Sisi was hosted by Donald Trump at the White House several weeks before the referendum in Egypt, this was seen as a sign of tacit American approval for his constitutional overhaul (Sanchez, 2019). As such, this highlights that local factors such as the state’s coercive apparatus can be shaped and maintained by international support networks outside of the region.

International Support

As mentioned above, local factors such as a state’s coercive apparatus are shaped and maintained by an international factor. This indicates that these factors cannot be seen or studied as separate entities as both work hand in hand to explain why the region is currently authoritarian and perhaps might still be in the future. An international factor that is of uttermost importance when talking about the Middle East is foreign aid from Europe and the USA. It is found that “in Jordan and Egypt, foreign aid has had virtually the same effect as oil, flowing into the central coffers of the state and allowed cooption and repression” (Leipziger, 2015, p.4). With Egypt receiving substantially ‘two billion dollars annually from the United States’, it becomes simple to facilitate cooption and repression (Bellin, 2004, p.148). Interestingly, it is argued that “authoritarian regimes in the Middle East such as Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have received western support because of the belief among western policymakers that these regimes would be most likely to deliver on western security concerns by assuring regular oil and gas supplies to the West” (Bellin, 2004, p.149). Essentially these countries have sold off state assets to those with access and wealth in order to receive more money from the World Bank and IMF. However, this is a problem for the future authoritarian leaders as the Washington consensus policies which was implemented on Egypt and Tunisia in order to receive funds from the IMF before 2011 in fact destabilized autocratic regimes as they ‘exacerbated inequality, creating a politically connected privileged class that excites the hatred of the majority of the population and increases public cynicism about government’ (Gause, 2011, p.17). In order to avoid a similar situation from arising as the uprisings in 2011, the governments currently are increasing state salaries, postponing subsidy cuts and promising more state jobs (Gause, 2011, p.17).

Powerful Neighbors

Moreover, one regional factor that inhibits democratisation and strengthens authoritarian rule is the existence of powerful neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Even during the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia had played an important role within the region and especially in Egypt. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar during the Arab uprisings led to a division in Egypt. This is because Qatar had supported Morsi while Saudi Arabia supported the Sisi administration after the 2013 coup which they backed and in fact provided financial aid (Aras, 2015). It is clear that the division between Qatar and Saudi Arabia during the Arab spring was a significant factor as if Saudi Arabia did not view the Muslim brotherhood as being under the protection of Qatar then a coup would have been avoidable (Aras, 2015). Looking at the situation now, Iran has entered the playing field with Saudi Arabia and has enabled authoritarianism to stay tight within the region. The way both these powerful countries aim to secure authoritarianism is through expending more energy and resources than others in order to ensure the survival of their respective authoritarian regimes (Aras, 2015). After 2011, Iran applied military force to protect its longstanding ally, the Syrian regime, viewing its loss as a possible prelude to its own encirclement (Crisis, 2018). In addition, when the Assad regime came under threat, jeopardising Iran’s supply line to its other ally Hizbollah in Lebanon, they instantly increased its military footprint in Syria and applied its forward-defence model in Yemen as a low-cost way of keeping Saudi Arabia tied down (Crisis, 2018). This demonstrates that the ongoing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran did have a significant effect within the region during the Arab spring and still has today as authoritarianism is protected at every cost by these two countries.

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