North Africa, West Asia

On power in the Arab World

Maged Mandour

Arab autocrats’ power depends on more than physical coercion or the rise of Islamist extremism: it has deeper roots in the role of civil society, orientalism, and identity politics.

Maged Mandour
12 May 2015

Adham Khorshed/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Considering the current state of Arab political order—ravaged by years of civil war, revolution, and political unrest—the ability of the current elites to remain in power seems to be counterintuitive.

The use of overwhelming physical force, along with the rhetoric of the “war on terror” and the rise of Islamist extremist groups, seem to be the main tactics used by Arab autocrats to regain their grip on power. The rise of these groups has provided them with the ideological justification for repression as well as a solid support base, particularly among urban middle classes and minority groups.

This partially explains the anatomy of power in the Arab World, but ignores its nature. Civil society, orientalism and identity politics have been playing a significant role in the foundations of Arab autocracy long before these revolutions kicked off.

Civil society

Civil society here is defined in the broadest sense of the word, and includes schools, trade unions, even the family as an extension of the state. In other words, there is no distinction between civil and political society; there is no space for ideologically driven oppositional movements to appear and develop within the confines of civil society.

Dissent, in all its forms, is severely repressed by one or more of these civil society groups, without the need for intervention by the state. As such, repression is decentralized. This was a major factor contributing to the fragmentation of Arab revolutionary movements and their inability to form cohesive fronts against the autocrats. The state’s suffocation of civil society has effectively inhibited the development of sophisticated oppositional movements capable of challenging the regime.

The development of a social class’ self-consciousness, as a distinct group that has class interests that are opposed to the interests of the ruling elites, has been inhibited. This is why there was no ideological clarity when the revolts kicked off. This made revolutionary movements rejectionist in nature, and allowed the elites to easily outmaneuver them.

Additionally, this lack of ideological clarity reduced the ability of revolutionary movements to attract followers from the masses, and from those who were politically apathetic prior to the revolt. In this new era of mass politics, lack of an ideological message proved to be the Achilles heel of revolutionary movements.

The suffocation of civil society combined with the weakness of civil resistance movements, can partially explain the rise of armed extremist groups across the Arab world.

When the state seals off the realm of civil society, there is no alternative but for the opposition to take up arms. The starkest example is that of Libya, where civil society groups were completely swallowed up by the state. In Tunisia, on the other hand, trade unions remained independent and outside state control. This is why they are now playing an effective role in Tunisia’s transition to democracy.


The inferiority Arabs feel creates a sense of alienation from one’s self, culture and identity. The Arab does not only feel inferior, he/she also feels trapped in an inferior world that cannot be escaped, which also contributes to the antidemocratic tendency among the urban middle classes and their support for autocracy.

Ragnar Weilandt/Flickr. All rights reserved.

Ragnar Weilandt/Flickr. All rights reserved.

The post-colonial Arab elites seem to have adopted the same ideological justification for the repression of the masses as their previous colonial masters: the supposed inferiority of the “oriental”, and the need to educate and reform them. This racism is not only confined to the upper strata of society, it cuts across classes and ideologies. It can even be seen among Islamist groups, to devastating effect.

In the context of colonial history, the center of life for the Europeans was the colonial capital, and there is astonishing continuity in the post-colonial epoch in terms of the views held by the rural poor towards the urban center, which is culturally associated with the urban middle classes.

There is a genuine widespread belief in the superiority of elites, especially the urban middle class. These views seep into everyday language. In Egypt, for example, the rural poor call Cairo “Masr”, which means Egypt. This shows the inherent belief in the superiority of the urban center by the rural periphery, and the association of the center with civilization and the periphery with backwardness and barbarism.

In essence, the rural poor view themselves as inferior to the urban center, justifying and reinforcing the view held by the urban elites. It was only a few days ago that an Egyptian justice minister claimed that the son of a garbage man could never be a judge, because of his social class.     

This orientalism not only acts as justification for repression by the elites, but also acts as a hindrance to the intellectual development of Arab political movements. The inferiority that Arab intellectuals feel results in the stunting of the development of ideologies, which could potentially offer indigenous solutions to the current problems of the Arab world. This sense of inferiority has intensified with the failure of the Arab revolt.

Identity politics

The politics of identity have steadily been shifting away from inclusive towards more exclusive identities, allowing Arab elites to play  different social groups against each other in order to consolidate their grip on power.

This process can be traced back to the gradual decay of Arab identity, which allowed the different regimes to compete with each other for leadership of the Arab world. This process of fragmentation mirrors the decay of the political order, caused by the declining support base of Arab elites.

As this base decreased, so did the ability and desire of these elites to project their power beyond their borders, focusing instead on domestic consolidation. This led to the emergence of subnational identities, allowing the regime to consolidate its position by representing one of these groups.

Identity politics include not only sectarian identities, but also class identities, which cross the urban/rural divide. This play on identity politics interacts with the prevalent orientalism in Arab societies, where an unjustified sense of superiority is abound amongst the elites, especially the urban middle classes, giving the autocrats the opportunity to play on the division between the urban rich and poor to remain in power; soliciting the support of one social group against the other.

Recent revolutionary movements have failed to grasp the role of identity politics in these struggles. Unlike the Iranian revolutionary movement, which claimed to represent the “mostazafin” or the downtrodden, and were committed to including the traditional merchant class and the urban poor, the Arab revolutionary movements made no such claim.

Since these groups did not develop a “revolutionary consciousness”, they failed to represent any specific social group, talking to everyone and no one. The aim of these movements should have been to create a solid base of support among specific social groups. Instead they tried to appeal to everyone.

Thus, one could argue that Arab autocrats’ power does not solely depend on the rise of Islamist extremism or on physical coercion. It has deeper roots in the nature of political order: the role of civil society, orientalism, and identity politics.

The future of the Arab revolt depends on the intellectual development of revolutionary movements. Their ability to critically examine their societies, offer indigenous solutions, and take the struggle against the regime to the realm of civil society, armed with a strong political message in an ideologically attractive package.

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