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Transformations in the Arab World: Elements for an Assessment

Transformations in the Arab World: Elements for an Assessment

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This brief outlines the broad similarities of the uprisings in the Arab world.
This brief outlines the broad similarities of the uprisings in the Arab world.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Oct 27, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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This year willundoubtedly be marked as awatershed year in the history of  the Arab world. Yet, neither thecharacter nor the implicationsof the events unfolding in theregion are clearly delineated.This brief outlines the broadsimilarities of the uprisings in the Arab world.
Foreign Policy Program
Policy Brief 
 Transformations in the Arab World:Elements for an Assessment 
by Hassan Mneimneh
1744 R Street NWWashington, DC 20009T 1 202 745 3950F 1 202 265 1662E info@gmfus.org
October 2011
With the capture and apparentassassination o Muammar Gadda,the despotic regime in Libya hascome to its eective end. Tis yearhas thus witnessed the all o threeautocratic governments in the Arabworld — unisia, Egypt, and Libya.Te prospects or another two, Yemenand Syria, are virtually sealed, withregime change being the most plau-sible end-result o on-going uprisings.Tis means more than 40 percent o the population o the Arab world hasbeen aected by deep transorma-tions in their political systems, withanother 30+ percent experiencingmajor protests that induced consider-able change in the established order.Te remaining raction, in its quasi-totality, has not been immune toprotests, albeit o a less dramatic char-acter. While still not over, 2011 willundoubtedly be marked as a water-shed year in the history o the region.Yet, neither the character nor theimplications o the events unoldingin the Arab world are clearly delin-eated. Indeed, local, regional, andinternational variables display exces-sive volatility, thus yielding strikingly divergent readings o the current situ-ation and its expected evolution. Still,a number o acts and actors are wellanchored to allow an interim evalua-tion and weigh on the useulness andnecessity o actions by outside agen-cies.
A Crash Course in Arab PoliticsPrior to January 2011
For an appreciation o the dramaticcharacter o the events unolding inthe Arab region, an understanding o the nature o the Arab state prior totheir advent would be useul. Natu-rally, the 20+ states that convention-ally constitute the “Arab world” arediverse entities with dierent histor-ical paths and socio-cultural compo-sitions. Furthermore, the schematicdescription that is to ollow is notunique to the Arab world, and mucho its components, in some variant,can be detected in virtually every political community. Still, the relativesimilarities and the concentration o the values o the parameters o theArab states along the dierent axeso assessment suggest that the notiono an “Arab state,” while admittedly reductionist, does carry some analyt-ical value.With virtually no exception, the“Arab state” was a patriarchal entity ruled by 
, rather than by theinormed consent o the citizenry.Te accepted model o the state in theArab world was that o the “amily,”with the head o state representing the“ather.” Gravitas (
in Arabic),
Foreign Policy Program
Policy Brief 
The Arab Street had to contendwith a political culture that hada track record of failed grandnarratives, with only Islamism leftstanding.
is a combination o components that add up to dictate theattitude o the citizen vis-à-vis the state: 1) legitimacy, 2)the level o implication and complicity o the citizen inthe state institutions, 3) the ability to mete punishment,and 4) the ability to bestow rewards. Legitimacy, in turn,is derived rom dynastic, revolutionary, and charismaticsources.Te actual dosage o each o these components varies romone Arab state to another. Te Egyptian leader Gamal ‘Abdal-Nasir remains the archetype o the Arab charismaticleader, with many others, rom Iraq’s Saddam Hussein toLibya’s Gadda, having striven to emulate him. With theexception o Jordan, all the monarchies o the Arab worldrely on a dynastic legacy that pre-dates the emergence o the nation-state system, with established social mecha-nisms to reiy legitimacy. Te Arab republics, on the otherhand, base their legitimacy on the “revolutions,” in reality the military coups, which swept away many o the weakermonarchies o the region that were perceived as ailingto represent the aspirations o the nation, starting withthe 1952 Egyptian Free Ocers action. Jordan borrowedits legitimacy rom the deunct Shariate o Mecca, andwas thus able to leverage both the genealogical link to theProphet, and the role o the last Shari o Mecca (Shari Husayn) as instigator and leader o the Arab revolt againstthe Ottomans in 1916, to acquire dynastic legitimacy whilepartially immunizing itsel against the “republican” conta-gion.Irrespective o the distribution o the components, theArab state, when not weak and ragmented, is essentially an autocracy. Te autocratic grip was achieved through alayering o the population into three tiers:1. Te inner circle o the ruling amily or clan: kleptocratswith a lot to gain rom the existence o the regimeand a lot to lose rom its departure (the nominal “1percent”).2. Te regime base: implicated in and complicit with theregime, with little to gain rom the regime and a lot tolose rom its departure (the nominal “10 percent”).3. Te rest: the majority o the population with little togain rom the regime, and little to lose rom its depar-ture (the nominal “Arab Street”).Te Arab Street had to contend with a political culture thathad a track record o ailed grand narratives, with only Islamism le standing. Te three grand narratives that havepopulated the 20
century prior to the rise to dominanceo Islamism, were all elitists, based on the notion o a smallgroup leading the nation to salvation: liberalism, nation-alism, socialism. All three, together with the Islamism thatsucceeds them as the ourth grand narrative, were rich inhigh concepts (civilizational concerns, colonialism, impe-rialism, Zionism as a conspiracy to undermine Arab unity,modernity as an assault on authenticity, and clash o civi-lizations) while being poor in concrete concerns (develop-ment, demography, governance, inrastructure, ood andenergy security, the environment). Islamism displayed thesame characteristics o elitism, high concepts, sloganeering,with a dearth o actual programmatic approach.Yet, the choices or the citizen o the Arab state werelimited: either 1) submitting to the autocrats and acceptingcomplicity with the control apparatus o the state, 2) joining the theocrats in dissent, through the identicationwith and/or participation in the Islamist opposition, oralternatively 3) seeking escapism through a popular culturethat promotes consumerism, the realization o whichwas oen rustrated and unachievable due to the lack o economic means.Islamism as a grand narrative came in two main versions:accommodationist and radical. Te ormer acceptedelements o the existing order while seeking its reorm,while the latter rejected the existing order in its totality. Inact, Islamism was more o a wide continuum than distinctcamps, with the progression o militancy moving invariably rom the accommodationist to the radical.
The Transformations and Their Implications:A Preliminary Consideration
Te three tables on the ollowing pages provide a summary description o the state o the transormations in the Arab
Foreign Policy Program
Policy Brief 
world. able I details the population and type o govern-ment o the Arab states as o January 2011; able II liststhe type o protest witnessed by each state since January 2011; and able III aggregates the percentage o the totalpopulation and number o states aected by type o protest.It is evident that dramatic events (alls o regimes, upris-ings, and major protests) are shaping the historical courseo the region. Te transormations in the Arab world arean ongoing revolutionary process. Evidently, it is not a1989 type event. Societies across the region lack the civilsociety readiness or an Eastern and Central Europe-liketransormation. It is also not a 1979 type event. Despite(wishul or earul) claims to the contrary, the driving seto values expressed by the protests does not mirror theIranian Islamic revolution. It may be tempting to view itas similar to the 1848 European revolutions, with values
StatePopulationPopulation NotesPercentageType of Government (January 2011)
Mauritania4.01.16%Electoral; autocratic; military hegemonyMorocco33.0Including 0.5 millionWestern Saharans9.54%Dynastic; autocratic; parliamentary roleAlgeria36.010.40%Nominal electoral; autocratic; military hegemonyTunisia10.53.03%Nominal electoral; autocratic; limited parliamentary roleLibya6.51.88%Nominal revolutionary; despoticEgypt80.023.12%Nominal electoral; autocratic; limited parliamentary roleSudan36.0Excluding 9 millionSouth Sudanese10.40%Nominal electoral; autocratic; limited parliamentary rolePalestinianTerritories3.51.01%Transitional; Electoral; fragmented (West Bank); auto-cratic (Gaza Strip)Lebanon4.51.30%Electoral; fragmented; parliamentary roleSyria22.56.50%Nominal electoral, dynastic; despoticJordan6.51.88%Dynastic; autocratic; parliamentary roleIraq32.0Including 5 millionIraqi Kurdistanis9.25%Electoral; fragmented; parliamentary roleKuwait4.01.16%Dynastic; autocratic; parliamentary roleBahrain1.50.43%Dynastic; autocratic; limited parliamentary roleQatar2.00.58%Dynastic; autocraticUnited ArabEmirates8.52.46%Dynastic; autocraticSaudi Arabia28.08.09%Dynastic; autocraticOman3.00.87%Dynastic; autocratic Yemen24.06.94%Nominal electoral; autocratic; parliamentary role
Total346.0Resident population;excluding diasporas
Table I: Population and Type of Government (January 2011)Key to Table
On the basis of the criterion of Modern Standard Arabic as the primary language of ofcial communication,Somalia,
Djibouti, and the Comoros, which are members of the League of Arab States, are herein excluded; Other contiguous states withconsiderable Arabic-speaking communities, such as Iran, Israel, and Chad, are also excluded.
Indicative 2011 estimates, in millions.
of “Arab World” total. The Arab Word is dened as the 19 states herein listed, with the noted exclusions and inclu
Type of Government (January 2011):
First characterization refers to the source of legitimacy of the head of state; the second to
 the nature of his authority; the third to qualiers on it, if any.

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