North Africa, West Asia

State and revolution

Maged Mandour

The Arab world, after analyzing the nature of states in the Middle East, needs to find its own indigenous path to democracy, based on its own unique historical, and societal conditions.

Maged Mandour
12 February 2014

The title is borrowed from the great Russian revolutionary and founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. Lenin argued that in order for the revolution to succeed, revolutionaries have to take over the state and use it to reshape society. Many observers have evaluated the causes, effects, and future prospects of Arab revolutions. However, there is little analysis of the nature of the state in the Middle East as one of the main reasons behind the failures of the Arab Revolutions, and the ability of the current order to survive, in spite of facing tidal waves of popular protest and armed resistance lasting for the better part of three years. But the developing role of the state in the Middle East can go a long way towards explaining the failures of the Arab revolutions, and more widely, the seeming inability of the region to democratize.

Charles Tilly, in his study on the development of the European state system, argues that the modern state system was developed in a bargaining process between the wielders of coercion and the wielders of capital. This occurred due to the pressure exerted by an anarchic international system. As the wielders of coercion were preparing for war they had two options; they either had to extract the means of war by force, which led to severe resistance from the governed; or through a process of bargaining with the wielders of capital, which caused the state to become more inclusive. This process of bargaining depends on the level of commercialization of the economy: the more an economy was commercialized, the easier it was to tax the economy - relying on taxation rather than outright force to extract the means of war.

When one looks at the nature of Middle Eastern states, one can see that there are two main types of “rentier states”. The first is a state dominated by the military, which depends on strategic rents as a main source of income. In this case, the strategic rents refer to aid, loans and other external flows. A prime example is Egypt. In this type of state, the wielders of coercion do not need to bargain with the wielders of capital, as they simply rely on external sources of income to build up and maintain their means of coercion. Also, in certain cases, there is no clear distinction between the wielders of coercion and the wielders of capital, where the military dominates the economy, blurring the distinction. These conditions act as insulation; protecting the state from pressure to become more inclusive. This also creates a situation where there is no elite support for the demands for democracy, since there is no distinction between economic and coercive elites, a precondition for the success of a revolutionary push, as discussed by Theda Skcopol in States and Social Revolutions.

The other archetype that preponderates in the Middle East is a state that depends on rents taken from the sale of commodities, namely oil. The archetype for this state is the Saudi state, which relies on the sale of oil as a main source of income, allowing it to maintain one of the most conservative and backward regimes in the world, an absolutist state. This setup allows the Saudi state to bribe the local population with the windfalls of oil revenues and outmanoeuver any pressures for reform. The wielders of coercion do not need to bargain with the wielders of capital, and in this case, as in the case of Egypt, the distinction between the wielders of coercion and capital is almost non-existent.

The other part of the argument examines the role of international systems in shaping the nature of the state. Tilly argues that continuous threats of war exert pressure on the state to field armies and means of violence. This pressure causes a state to attempt to bargain with the wielders of capital so that it can extract sufficient funds to raise armies and navies. When one looks at the Middle East, one can argue that the intervention of great powers has directly and indirectly subsidized wars in the Middle East, by providing military aid and massive weaponry to different Arab states. This has alleviated the pressures on different Middle Eastern states to attempt to bargain with local stakeholders. Also, one can argue, that in the Middle East, the weapons of the different armies are directed inwards, rather than outwards. The threat of insurgency and rebellion is the main threat to Arab states, rather than external enemies. This, combined with foreign subsidization of the means of violence, allows Arab states to wield coercion with impunity. This lack of external pressure allows the Arab state to avoid bargaining with their citizens, and instead rely on external support to crush resistance.           

The discipline of Fiscal Sociology also examines the relationship between taxation, the flow of capital on one hand, and the nature of the state on the other. This entails the argument that the development of the extractive capabilities of the state are necessary for the development of a genuinely democratic system, following the slogan of the American War of Independence “No Taxation without Representation”. Based on this one can safely argue that the rentier states of the Middle East did not have to develop extractive capabilities due to their reliance on strategic or commercial rents. This is another barrier towards the development of a genuinely democratic system in the Middle East. The financial independence of the state allows elites to wield coercion without any fear of reprisal.

The international dimension plays a significant role in insulating the Arab states from pressure to become more inclusive. International involvement takes different forms. In the case of rentier states, external support props up regimes that act as pillars of support in the region, in exchange for financial as well as political support. A prime example of this is American support for the Egyptian military in spite of unprecedented repression after the coup against Morsi. Rentier states that depend on commercial rent are integrated into the international market, and the states are allowed to repress and coerce their populations with impunity. This integration within the international market is not simply limited to the sale of oil; it rather involves the investment of the oil windfall in western financial centres. In this case, international financial interests become intertwined with political interests, and those kinds of states receive almost unconditional international support, regardless of their repressive tactics. One only needs to look at the position of Saudi Arabia within the international system, and its relationship with the United States and the west at large. 

Does this mean that there is no hope for democratization in the Arab World? I would argue that this is not the case. However, it does mean that the path for democratization and state building will differ from the path followed by European states and societies. The Arab world needs to find its own indigenous path to democracy, based on its own unique historical, and societal conditions. A solution that is organic, rather than one that is imported. One needs to keep in mind this quote by Karl Marx, “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation”.                           

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