Foreign Policy Program

October 2011

Policy Brief
Transformations in the Arab World: Elements for an Assessment
by Hassan Mneimneh
With the capture and apparent assassination of Muammar Gaddafi, the despotic regime in Libya has come to its effective end. This year has thus witnessed the fall of three autocratic governments in the Arab world — Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The prospects for another two, Yemen and Syria, are virtually sealed, with regime change being the most plausible end-result of on-going uprisings. This means more than 40 percent of the population of the Arab world has been affected by deep transformations in their political systems, with another 30+ percent experiencing major protests that induced considerable change in the established order. The remaining fraction, in its quasitotality, has not been immune to protests, albeit of a less dramatic character. While still not over, 2011 will undoubtedly be marked as a watershed year in the history of the region. Yet, neither the character nor the implications of the events unfolding in the Arab world are clearly delineated. Indeed, local, regional, and international variables display excessive volatility, thus yielding strikingly divergent readings of the current situation and its expected evolution. Still, a number of facts and factors are well anchored to allow an interim evaluation and weigh on the usefulness and necessity of actions by outside agencies. A Crash Course in Arab Politics Prior to January 2011 For an appreciation of the dramatic character of the events unfolding in the Arab region, an understanding of the nature of the Arab state prior to their advent would be useful. Naturally, the 20+ states that conventionally constitute the “Arab world” are diverse entities with different historical paths and socio-cultural compositions. Furthermore, the schematic description that is to follow is not unique to the Arab world, and much of its components, in some variant, can be detected in virtually every political community. Still, the relative similarities and the concentration of the values of the parameters of the Arab states along the different axes of assessment suggest that the notion of an “Arab state,” while admittedly reductionist, does carry some analytical value. With virtually no exception, the “Arab state” was a patriarchal entity ruled by gravitas, rather than by the informed consent of the citizenry. The accepted model of the state in the Arab world was that of the “family,” with the head of state representing the “father.” Gravitas (haybah in Arabic),

Summary: This year will undoubtedly be marked as a watershed year in the history of the Arab world. Yet, neither the character nor the implications of the events unfolding in the region are clearly delineated. This brief outlines the broad similarities of the uprisings in the Arab world.

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is a combination of components that add up to dictate the attitude of the citizen vis-à-vis the state: 1) legitimacy, 2) the level of implication and complicity of the citizen in the state institutions, 3) the ability to mete punishment, and 4) the ability to bestow rewards. Legitimacy, in turn, is derived from dynastic, revolutionary, and charismatic sources. The actual dosage of each of these components varies from one Arab state to another. The Egyptian leader Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir remains the archetype of the Arab charismatic leader, with many others, from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to Libya’s Gaddafi, having striven to emulate him. With the exception of Jordan, all the monarchies of the Arab world rely on a dynastic legacy that pre-dates the emergence of the nation-state system, with established social mechanisms to reify legitimacy. The Arab republics, on the other hand, base their legitimacy on the “revolutions,” in reality the military coups, which swept away many of the weaker monarchies of the region that were perceived as failing to represent the aspirations of the nation, starting with the 1952 Egyptian Free Officers action. Jordan borrowed its legitimacy from the defunct Sharifate of Mecca, and was thus able to leverage both the genealogical link to the Prophet, and the role of the last Sharif of Mecca (Sharif Husayn) as instigator and leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in 1916, to acquire dynastic legitimacy while partially immunizing itself against the “republican” contagion. Irrespective of the distribution of the components, the Arab state, when not weak and fragmented, is essentially an autocracy. The autocratic grip was achieved through a layering of the population into three tiers: 1. The inner circle of the ruling family or clan: kleptocrats with a lot to gain from the existence of the regime and a lot to lose from its departure (the nominal “1 percent”). 2. The regime base: implicated in and complicit with the regime, with little to gain from the regime and a lot to lose from its departure (the nominal “10 percent”). 3. The rest: the majority of the population with little to gain from the regime, and little to lose from its departure (the nominal “Arab Street”). The Arab Street had to contend with a political culture that had a track record of failed grand narratives, with only
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The Arab Street had to contend with a political culture that had a track record of failed grand narratives, with only Islamism left standing.
Islamism left standing. The three grand narratives that have populated the 20th century prior to the rise to dominance of Islamism, were all elitists, based on the notion of a small group leading the nation to salvation: liberalism, nationalism, socialism. All three, together with the Islamism that succeeds them as the fourth grand narrative, were rich in high concepts (civilizational concerns, colonialism, imperialism, Zionism as a conspiracy to undermine Arab unity, modernity as an assault on authenticity, and clash of civilizations) while being poor in concrete concerns (development, demography, governance, infrastructure, food and energy security, the environment). Islamism displayed the same characteristics of elitism, high concepts, sloganeering, with a dearth of actual programmatic approach. Yet, the choices for the citizen of the Arab state were limited: either 1) submitting to the autocrats and accepting complicity with the control apparatus of the state, 2) joining the theocrats in dissent, through the identification with and/or participation in the Islamist opposition, or alternatively 3) seeking escapism through a popular culture that promotes consumerism, the realization of which was often frustrated and unachievable due to the lack of economic means. Islamism as a grand narrative came in two main versions: accommodationist and radical. The former accepted elements of the existing order while seeking its reform, while the latter rejected the existing order in its totality. In fact, Islamism was more of a wide continuum than distinct camps, with the progression of militancy moving invariably from the accommodationist to the radical. The Transformations and Their Implications: A Preliminary Consideration The three tables on the following pages provide a summary description of the state of the transformations in the Arab

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Table I: Population and Type of Government (January 2011)
State Mauritania Morocco Algeria Tunisia Libya Egypt Sudan Palestinian Territories Lebanon Syria Jordan Iraq Kuwait Bahrain Qatar United Arab Emirates Saudi Arabia Oman Yemen Total Population 4.0 33.0 36.0 10.5 6.5 80.0 36.0 3.5 4.5 22.5 6.5 32.0 4.0 1.5 2.0 8.5 28.0 3.0 24.0 346.0 Resident population; excluding diasporas Including 5 million Iraqi Kurdistanis Excluding 9 million South Sudanese Population Notes Including 0.5 million Western Saharans Percentage Type of Government (January 2011) 1.16% Electoral; autocratic; military hegemony 9.54% 10.40% 3.03% 1.88% 23.12% 10.40% 1.01% 1.30% 6.50% 1.88% 9.25% 1.16% 0.43% 0.58% 2.46% 8.09% 0.87% 6.94% Dynastic; autocratic; parliamentary role Nominal electoral; autocratic; military hegemony Nominal electoral; autocratic; limited parliamentary role Nominal revolutionary; despotic Nominal electoral; autocratic; limited parliamentary role Nominal electoral; autocratic; limited parliamentary role Transitional; Electoral; fragmented (West Bank); autocratic (Gaza Strip) Electoral; fragmented; parliamentary role Nominal electoral, dynastic; despotic Dynastic; autocratic; parliamentary role Electoral; fragmented; parliamentary role Dynastic; autocratic; parliamentary role Dynastic; autocratic; limited parliamentary role Dynastic; autocratic Dynastic; autocratic Dynastic; autocratic Dynastic; autocratic Nominal electoral; autocratic; parliamentary role

Key to Table

State: On the basis of the criterion of Modern Standard Arabic as the primary language of official communication,Somalia, Djibouti, and the Comoros, which are members of the League of Arab States, are herein excluded; Other contiguous states with considerable Arabic-speaking communities, such as Iran, Israel, and Chad, are also excluded. Population: Indicative 2011 estimates, in millions. Percentage: of “Arab World” total. The Arab Word is defined as the 19 states herein listed, with the noted exclusions and inclusions. 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 qualifiers on it, if any.

world. Table I details the population and type of government of the Arab states as of January 2011; Table II lists the type of protest witnessed by each state since January 2011; and Table III aggregates the percentage of the total population and number of states affected by type of protest. It is evident that dramatic events (falls of regimes, uprisings, and major protests) are shaping the historical course of the region. The transformations in the Arab world are
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an ongoing revolutionary process. Evidently, it is not a 1989 type event. Societies across the region lack the civil society readiness for an Eastern and Central Europe-like transformation. It is also not a 1979 type event. Despite (wishful or fearful) claims to the contrary, the driving set of values expressed by the protests does not mirror the Iranian Islamic revolution. It may be tempting to view it as similar to the 1848 European revolutions, with values

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Table II: Type of Protest since January 2011 per State
State Mauritania Morocco Algeria Tunisia Libya Egypt Sudan Palestinian Territories and Israel Lebanon Syria Jordan Iraq Kuwait Bahrain Qatar United Arab Emirates Saudi Arabia Oman Yemen Type of Protest Since January 2011 Minor Protest Significant Protest Significant Protest Regime Overthrow Uprising / Regime Overthrow Regime Overthrow Minor Protest Minor Protest Minor Protest Uprising Significant Protest Significant Protest Minor Protest Uprising None None Minor Protest Significant Protest Uprising

Arab history. The uprising and protests highlight the existence and importance of complex strata of society in which elements of youth, education, urbanization, globalization, middle-class aspirations, and economic marginalization intersect and interact. Beyond the three previously available options (autocracy, theocracy, consumerism), the protests constitute an embraceable fourth option, offering a sense of empowerment if not purpose. While the articulation remains hesitant, the protests have shown a clear tendency to avoid high concepts while introducing concrete concerns into the political foreground. 3. The political discourse of the transformations, while often uneven and vague, is clearly informed by “positive” (liberal, democratic, secular, progressive) notions. Depending on locale, these remain largely underdeveloped and often merely emblematic, often also co-existing with contradictory assertions derived from Islamist rhetoric. They do, however, point to an orientation that has been almost dismissed by conceding to Islamists (on the part of many in the West) what is in fact an ideological end-game for Islamism: the claim that Islam, as a religion and world-view, is the native and near-exclusive foundation of political and social consciousness in the Muslim world. Islam, as demonstrated in the unfolding transformations in the various Arab states, does provide a substantial component of the elements of political behavior (communal Friday prayers as a primary means of mass mobilization; chanted ritual slogans as expression of defiance). The core expressed slogans propagating across protests and uprisings — freedom, dignity, and empowerment — are however derived from universal values as defined and articulated over the course of the last two centuries. An important result of the events has thus been a Table III: Population and State Affected by Type of Protests
Type of Protest Regime Overthrow Uprising Significant Protest Minor Protest None 4 Number of States Affected 3 3 5 6 3 Percentage of Arab World Population Affected 28.03% 13.87% 31.94% 23.12% 3.03%

being introduced into the public consciousness laying the foundations for further evolution of institutions and systems. More appropriately, it is a phenomenon of its own right, displaying characteristics that are common across the region but distinct from the other historical episodes. 1. The transformations in the Arab world have exposed that the discursive dominance of Islamism was not reflective of a rooted reality. The protests were not initiated or led by Islamists. Islamist formations, from soft accommodationist to hard radical, were caught by surprise and have engaged in deliberate efforts to understand, appropriate, and claim the developments. With their established networking infrastructure and considerable resources, Islamists are poised to achieve some success in these efforts. In more than one setting, Syria in particular, the regime has tried to instigate the Islamist dominance of the protests to improve its ability to crackdown. 2. The transformations in the Arab world provide the first example of a bottom-up movement in modern

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redefinition of the demarcation lines in Arab political culture, away from the overwhelming dominance of Islamism, to a bipolar order with positive propositions, albeit often ill-defined, confronting a changed Islamist scene. 4. Even in locales where the old orders succumbed rapidly — Tunisia and Egypt — the confrontations and on-going tensions underline the schisms that are ingrained in Arab societies. Instead of the previously assumed demarcation line between autocrats and theocrats, new lines divide Arab societies between autocracy-prone segments (in which the old autocrats and theocrats co-exist) and liberal-leaning segments with wide appeal. Freedom may be the battle cry of the protests, but autocracy is not incidental to these societies. It is instead a reflection of native factors that enabled the formation and formalization of systems of control. It may indeed be the case that such systems have benefitted from the extrinsic circumstances to entrench themselves (importation of European models of state control against the backdrop of the absence of European-style civil society safeguards, the Cold War, the emergence of rentier states monopolizing revenue from natural resources). The potential for autocratic recidivism cannot, however, be neglected. Salafism, may even net an increase in the radical propositions in circulation in political culture. It does, however, expose multiple previously-submerged fracture lines within Islamism. The recovery of Islamism from the loss of a leadership role may be likely in the short term, but is not a certainty. The redefinition of the political demarcation lines and the alteration of the composition of the Islamist camp has created a new configuration of primary ideological conglomerations: 1) positive propositions, 2) referential progressive Islamists, 3) conservative accommodationist Islamists, and 4) political Salafists. 6. While some critics in the Arab world and beyond, noting sectarian in-fighting and communitarian overtones in many statements, have highlighted factional aspects in much of the transformations — even reducing the events in their analysis to “tribal warfare” — a less skeptical assessment of the events would note that they have confirmed the primacy of the nationstate as a unit of identity in virtually all of the protests. Even when the state, through its revolutionary claims and totalitarian aspirations, has subsumed the nation (in particular in Libya and Syria), the opposition frame of reference is to the pre-revolutionary independence era — not to any pre-nation-state order or an ideological para-nation-state goal. The nation-state system, established in the region less than a century ago, is thus asserted as perennial. 7. The sum total of the events has amounted to a severe disruption of the regional political order. The expected introversion of a reconstituting Egypt, and its resulting retreat as a regional power, even if temporary, has serious implications. It is evident that it affects the strategic outlook of Israel; it may also have contributed to the takeover of Lebanon by the Iranian proxy militia Hizballah. It also heralds the expansion of the SaudiIranian rivalry to North Africa. The events have also introduced new regional players (Qatar and UAE), the actions of which may be dictated by necessity rather than choice. They have furthermore constituted a temptation for Turkey to assume a posture of leadership on the basis of the (contestable) relevance of the political choices of its ruling AKP to the emerging order in the aftermath of the revolutions. Collectively, these seven elements underline the precarious nature of the transformations. They also constitute a call
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Freedom may be the battle cry of the protests, but autocracy is not incidental to these societies.
5. The transformations in the Arab states have already reversed the vector of evolution of militancy in Islamism. While the previously established constant was that accommodationist Islamism may serve as an incubator and a transit station towards increasingly more radical expressions, with virtually no movement in the opposite direction (from more to less radical), the current situation displays considerable movements in the previously nonexistent direction, with the emergence of the previously unarticulated political Salafism, and with a distinct decline in Jihadism. This reversal of the vector of migration within Islamism may be temporary, and, with Jihadist Islamists espousing political

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for action: the variance of parameters negate the possibility not just of a prediction of the course of the evolution of the so-called Arab Spring, but also of all claims of inevitability for its potential outcomes. The Arab Spring may turn into a fall, and even a deep winter. It may, however, also blossom, and definitively turn the page on Arab autocracy. This battle is one to be fought and won in the Arab world itself. Its outcome, however, will extend beyond the Mediterranean, and beyond the Atlantic. Prior to these dramatic events, Western approaches in engaging the region often sought to identify the “moderate” Muslims or to play on the contradiction of the extremists. The transformations in the Arab world dictate a substantively different approach, one that distances itself from implicitly accepting the primordiality of Islamism and which starts with the evident need to engage the new governments and civil societies in general, through the need to help diffuse the grand narrative uses of high concept issues, and to help strengthen the focus on the concrete concerns, while supporting the serious proponents of the positive propositions, and coordinating with regional partners (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Turkey) to avoid risky choices in their support actions for political forces, as well as to contain the Iranian expansion of influence.
About the Author
Hassan Mneimneh a Senior Transatlantic Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Islamic World. He was most recently a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he led a multi-year project focused on strengthening civil society resistance to radicalization in the Muslim world.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has six offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

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