North Africa, West Asia

Arab autocracy & revolution

Maged Mandour

Until now, the struggle between autocrats and revolutionaries has been confined within national boundaries. But as the trend shifts towards a pooling of autocratic regimes’ resources, any future confrontation must be regional. 

Maged Mandour
10 April 2015
Sisi removes Morsi in 'response to the will of the people', 2013.

Sisi removes Morsi in 'response to the will of the people', 2013. Demotix/Sharron Ward. All rights reserved. Arab autocrats have been very canny about remaining in power. From Egypt and Syria to Iraq and Bahrain, they have all been able swiftly and, at times, decisively to overcome the protest movements that have been rocking their world for four years.

On the surface, the trick appears to have been the use of overwhelming force alongside sectarian policies; all in an attempt to suppress the revolution and radicalize it under the rubric of “Fighting terrorism”. This all takes place, of course, while they build support for their ailing regimes.

However, in the Arab World there are much deeper structural issues that have allowed these autocrats not only to rule the region for decades, but to sidestep the Arab revolt.

The missing power: capital

The weakness in capitalist development alone merits special attention, as this is where ground is fertile for 'crony' capitalism to flourish.

Barrington Moore, in his classic study, “The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy” argues that capitalist development, and the development of a bourgeois class, is necessary for the development of a liberal democratic system.

Charles Tilly in his study of the development of European States also argues that the separation between the wielders of coercion and the wielders of capital, and the negotiation process that ensues between both parties, is the basis for the development of a democratic system.

If we combine these two views and have a look at the levels of capitalist development in the Arab World, one can see that there is no separation between the wielders of coercion and capital, which in the end inhibits the development of truly independent bourgeoisies.

Egypt is the most vivid example. The military has a massive economic empire that some experts estimate at 40% of the economy. They are heavily involved in major infrastructure projects, with an endless supply of cheap labour due to compulsory military service. And through their political connections and economic resources, they have built a network of loyalists in the private sector. This, in effect, inhibits the development of a strong bourgeois class. The same applies to Syria, which partly explains the attachment of the Syrian urban Sunni elites to the Baathist regime.

Thus, one could argue that weak capitalist development is one the pillars of autocracy in the Arab World.

The autocratic alliance

The second pillar of this regional autocratic system is the dynamic between these autocrats and their support for one another during these moments of revolutionary crisis. Thus, any potential protest movements have to face both their domestic governments as well as their regional supporters, leaving the success of the Arab revolt dependent on multiple uprisings taking place simultaneously.

The signs of this alliance are the recent intervention in Yemen and the Emirati airstrikes that were carried out in Libya against Islamist forces. What is interesting is that these airstrikes were carried out from Egyptian air bases, which shows that there was some kind of an agreement on the need for military intervention in Libya on behalf of the Tabrouk government.

Another and earlier, and clearer example of this trend is Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain using the GCC’s joint force to support the Bahraini regime against a genuinely popular uprising – even though it did have sectarian undertones, it received widespread support from the people of the Sunni Arab World. 

This alliance appears now to have solidified, as the Egyptian President Sisi has recently called for the creation of a joint Arab force, then endorsed by the Arab League, which will be used as a tool of suppression across the Arab World.

The role of international capital

The third pillar of autocracy is the curious position of the Arab World in the international capitalist system.

Even though the Arab World is considered to be in the peripheral zone, it maintains the unique position of being populated by rentier states. This includes states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who use resource rent not only to suppress internal dissent, but also to fund counter revolutionary movements across the region. This includes states like Egypt and Bahrain, who use their strategic position to extract rent from their regional allies and international supporters to suppress dissent.

Since there is almost no tax base, this model of relying on external flows of capital allows local autocrats to disregard the demands of their local populations. The state can afford to use suppression with impunity. As such, there is no separation between the wielders of capital and coercion.   

A narrow conception of class interest

The fourth pillar of Arab autocracy is the shortsightedness of Arab ruling classes with regard to their class interests. This makes them prone to use extreme violence to stay in power, even if their long term ability to rule is at risk. In other words, the Arab ruling classes are willing to push their countries to a state of collapse rather than make concessions to protest movements, in order to continue accumulating wealth. They seem to hold the belief that the smallest concessions will result in the undoing of the entire system.

The clearest examples are the cases of Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the ruling elites clung to the notion that Assad should remain in power to such an extent that they sacrificed their autonomy almost completely to foreign powers, and undermined the ability of their class to extract wealth from the country. The viability of the Syrian state is now in question. Even if the civil war is won, the amount of destruction is immense and the Syrian regime will not be able to survive without Russian and Iranian support, to which it is becoming heavily indebted.

This fate could have been avoided, had the regime forced Assad out and reached a political compromise with the opposition. The same scenario is repeated in the case of Iraq, where the heavy involvement of Iran in the battle of Tikrit displayed the power Iran had over Iraq. The Iraqi regime, rather than reform, has opted for dependence on a foreign power.

Orientalism and oppression

The fifth and the final pillar of the Arab autocratic system, is the ideological base of oppression, namely, orientalism in the Arab World and the middle class fear of a possible social revolution.

Arab autocrats’ ideological base is national security and fighting “Islamic extremism”. They also hold a racist view of the masses and question their ability to practice their democratic rights. This notion is widespread among the urban middle classes in Arab cities, as they fear the possible takeover of the rural underclass. The most vivid example of this occurred in Egypt, where the electoral win of the Muslim Brotherhood with its traditional support base in the rural south, turned the urban middle class into a bastion of support for the Egyptian military regime.

Thus, in conclusion, one could argue that the origins of Arab autocracy lie in the social structures of Arab societies, which makes the success of a liberal democratic system very difficult.

What should be kept in mind is the need to develop an indigenous form of democracy that is based on the decentralization of economic and social power, rather than attempting to copy western models, which evolved out of uniquely European historical experiences. Power should not only stem from an elected parliamentary body, but from smaller organs of self-rule that could allow the ordinary citizens control over their own lives.

Until now, the struggle between autocrats and revolutionaries has been confined within national boundaries. However, seeing that the trend is now shifting towards the pooling of autocratic regimes’ resources, any conflict of this kind is going to be regional.

This will create a severe dilemma for the protest movements that represent the aspiration of certain classes within societies, as their appeal will then be limited to their respective nations, in essence, limiting their ability to pool their resources.

In other words, it is important for the Egyptians to understand that their struggle for freedom is not separate from the struggle of the people of Bahrain, and vice versa. Framing the struggle in purely national terms is a critical mistake at this juncture in time. The struggle for freedom in the Arab World cannot be limited in scope, it needs to be seen as a regional struggle between autocracy and revolution.

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