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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 29, 2014

Arab Spring and Democracy: Reinventing the Debate

Wednesday 2 April 2014, by Jajati K Pattnaik


Arab Spring1 and democracy are the catch-phrases in the contemporary intellectual discourse to define the trajectory of democratic transformation in the Arab world envisaging political participation, rule of law, increasing human capabilities, and development. Moreover, the wave of mass protests and demonstrations that rocked in the Arab world was largely attributed to repressive regimes, misuse of human rights, corruption, unemployment, and failure of the economic structure to afford welfare services and sustain popular legitimacy. Reinventing the debate would provide further impetus to understand Arab spring and democracy in the region.

 Arab Economic Structures and Legitimacy

The Arab economic structures were dominated by Rentierism.2 They were engaged in capital accumulation gaining legitimacy from the people. Accumulation and legitimisation were not always tantamount; rather they were incongruous to each other.3 They sought to adopt a model that included both the elements. James O’ Conner says: “The state needs to devise a fiscal regime which allows it to pursue either of the objectives because a state that openly uses its coercive force to help one class accumulate capital at the expense of other class loses its legitimacy and hence undermines support. A state that ignores the necessity of assisting the process of capital accumulation risks drying up the source of its own power, the economic surplus production capacity and taxes drawn from the surplus.”4 State finance plays a dominant role in a rentier economy. The rent constitutes the main source of revenue. The relationship between the state and society become very much distinctive in the rentier economy. The policy of the state is governed by certain primary motives. These are: rendering welfare services; setting up new private sectors; and bureaucracy reliant on state support and power. When the rentier state performs these functions, it voluntarily concedes legitimacy to the regime. In the Arab world, the state-sponsored welfare activities created a different type of politicaled environment wherein the state authority assumed supremacy over social distribution.5 Consequently, the Arab states faced fiscal challenges. The volume of expenditure exceeded the total revenue. The reduction of expenditure led to the contraction of the economy. Its rationalisation gave rise to substantial reduction of welfare services, patronage and streamlining the security sector.6 The rentier mechanism led to the misery of many at the cost of the ruling minority.

The demographic milieu showed that the youth comprised near-about three quarters of the population in the Arab region. The mismatched skill and socio-economic problems remained a formidable challenge for the ruling cliques. The Arab states not only experienced the dilemma of unemployment, but also understood that they were unemployable. On the other hand, their external windfalls constituted the major portion of the total revenues. Even the oil-scant economy of Egypt earned two-thirds of its earnings from oil, aid and revenue from the Suez Canal. The state-led development models did not create productive employment for such a large youth brigade.7 [Malik Adeel, The Economics of Arab Spring]

The private sectors were neither private nor innovative. They were largely controlled by members of the ruling class or influential members of the Arab societies.8 Moreover, the policy reforms were governed by patriarchal capitalism and kleptocratic principles.9 “The private sector is usually a mirror image of the state: inefficient, controlled by a tiny clique of elite families tied to ruling regimes, and part of an extensive network of patronage. Its profits depend less on entrepreneurial abilities, more on access to power. Exploiting new economic opportunities therefore became a game of insiders. With a few exceptions, major business fortunes in the region were accumulated through privilege and patronage. There are familiar echoes of this in the Arab Spring—be it the Trabelsi family of Tunisia, Ahmed Ezz of Egypt or Rami Makhlouf of Syria.”10 The patronage-based private sector reforms did not provide space to the large section of the Arabs for industrial enterprises or bidding contracts. The policies of the state promoted the interests of the regime and hampered the interests of the majority.

The fluctuations in windfall revenues also brought changes in the economy. Food prices shot up and essential public services got reduced. The increasing hunger, unemployment and lack of basic services alienated the people. The social media filled the vacuum providing public space to the disgruntled people for revolutionary changes.11 The repressive state machinery could not control the passion of the people that swept across West Asia and North Africa.

The Arab states could not claim legitimacy, and as a consequence, some of the Arab regimes were brought down. Notwithstanding, the economic resources are still concentrated in the hands of a few political and economic elites and the mases are deprived of their basic rights. The situation does not portray a rosy future. Thus, the current developments require restructuring of the rentier economy and necessary structural reforms to meet the popular aspirations. It is to be seen how far the Arab states would be successful in meeting the economic challenges and draw a balance between economic growth, diversification and development in future.

Arab Political Structures and Governance 

The Arab political structures were marked by authoritarianism and poor institutional mecha-nisms. The ruling elites governed through repression, symbolic reforms and co-optation of elites. The “managed reform” was induced to avoid systemic stress. To discuss a few, ‘political competition and pluralism’ were allowed in Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Egypt through ‘tribal lineage and personal ties’ without any empowerment.12 The structures of governance were limited and the political system did not provide adequate space for the Opposition.

A cursory glance of the Arab Human Development Reports (ADHR) also illustrated the dismal story of the Arab political systems. The ADHR (2002) discerned that the Arabs were confronted with challenges of ‘knowledge deficit, democratic deficit and gender deficit’ and derived that knowledge attainment, democratic freedom and gender equality were key to human develop-ment.13 The study deduced: “Although Arab countries have made significant strides in more than one area of human development in the last three decades—the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply-rooted shortcomings in Arab institutional structure (which) are an obstacle to building human development.”14

Likewise, the ADHR (2004) recognised freedom as the key to good governance encom-passing civil and political freedom as well as freedom from oppression, hunger, disease, ignorance, poverty and fear to attain develop-ment. It suggested safeguarding freedom through a set of structures and processes such as broad-ening people’s choices, successful popular participation and representation, institutional reforms through separation of powers, free and fair election through regular or periodic mode, accountability to the people and independent judicial system to protect the rule of law.15 The ADHR (2009) examined the challenges of human security and defined it as “the liberation of human beings from those intense, extensive, prolonged, and comprehensive threats to which their lives and freedom are vulnerable.”16 [“Arab Human Development Report 2009”,]

It noted that the danger was to be restrained to attain human security whereas capability was to be expanded to achieve human develop-ment. The Arab Development Challenges Report (2011) noted that the Arab world was confronted with a crucial period impelled by several forces for systemic transformations. It viewed that the Arab regions ought to end the rentier mech-anisms and shift towards a developmental state committed to freedom, justice and human dignity. Moreover, they are to focus upon a new development paradigm based on ‘democratic governance, social justice and decent employ-ment’.17 It ‘will have to put the human being at the centre of development debate and find ways to use the abundant natural wealth of the region to assure freedom from want and fear’.18

An honest intellectual introspection would entail that Arab revolts were the outcome of bad governance, political repression, and prolonged threats to human lives. The uprisings led to overthrow of the ruling cliques in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. The Middle East watchers drew conjectures whether the spring could be a ‘fourth wave of democracy’ or simply an ‘ebbing tide’.19 Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, observed: ‘These successful uprisings had occurred in the Arab Middle East, the one region of the world that had been untouched by the Third Wave20 of democratisation, raised the obvious question of whether they might signal the start of a new wave of democratisation—a Fourth Wave—after the democratic setbacks and autocratic assertiveness that had occurred during the previous five years, a period that some had called a democratic recession. The picture does not look as bright now.’21

The overthrow of the elected Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, by the military due to massive anti-government protests in the recent past was a case in point. The Gulf monarchies used repressive measures and managed the fallouts of the Arab Spring through ‘swap’ or huge public spending to contain the political turmoil.22 The Freedom House Report, 2014 does not indicate any major change towards democratisation. However, the freedom index observes progressive trends in Libya in the field of political rights and civil liberties but it finds regressive trends in Egypt in the domain of political rights.23 Conversely, the index does not imply any imminent change towards democratisation in the Arab world. The para-meters in no way reflect transition of the Arab world towards democracy.

Freedom Index of the Arab world

Country Position PR CL
Algeria Not Free 6 5
Bahrain Not Free 6 6
Egypt Not Free 6 5
Iraq Not Free 5 6
Jordan Not Free 6 5
Kuwait Partly Free 5 5
Lebanon Partly Free 5 4
Libya Partly Free 4 5
Morocco PartlyFree 5 4
Oman Not Free 6 5
Qatar Not Free 6 5
Saudi Arabia Not Free 7 7
Syria Not Free 7 7
Tunisia Partly Free 3 3
UAE Not Free 6 6
Yemen Not Free 6 6

Note: PR refers to Political Rights

 CL refers to Civil Liberties

 1 denotes Most Free

 7 denotes Least Free

Source: “Freedom House Report 2014”, Accessed on February 18, 2014.

The present Arab political dispensations suffer from structural inadequacies that need a new social contract between the Arab citizens and the ruling cliques for democratisation guaranteeing rule of law, equity, justice and popular political participation. Thus, civil society institutions are to sustain public deliberation on critical issues confronting the Arab societies and address the democratic deficit securing transparency and accountability in the Arab political systems. Conclusively, this is not the end of this debate on Arab spring and democracy. The thrust for investigation is an endless endeavour. Hence, there is need for incessant scholarly introspection as well as serious analysis of this debate to deduce more theoretical inputs or parameters to dissect the intricacies of the subject. 

Notes and References

1. Arab Spring refers to ‘a series of anti-government uprisings in various countries in North Africa and Middle East which began in Tunisia in December 2010’, See, Definition of Arab Spring,, Accessed on February 22, 2014.

2. Rentierism is the economic matrix of rentier state. Rent is defined as ‘the income derived from the gift of nature’ and ‘is understood as income accrued from the export of natural resources, especially oil and gas’. See, Hazem Beblawi, “The Rentier State in the Arab World.” in Giacomo Luciani (ed.), The Arab State (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 85-98 and Rolf Schwarz, “State Formation Processes in Rentier States: The Middle Eastern Case”, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, %20—%20Weeks%201-5/The%20Rentier% 20State% 20in%20the%20Middle%20East.pdf Accessed on February 22, 2014.

3. Girijesh Pant, The Arab Gulf Economies: From Crisis to Reform (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1996), pp. 91-92. See, Jajati K. Pattnaik, “Neoliberalism and Development Debates: Contextualising in Saudi Arabia” in Anwar Alam (ed.), Contemporary West Asia: Politics and Development (New Delhi: New Century Publications, 2010), pp. 1-26.

4. Ibid, pp. 97-98.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Accessed on February 3, 2012.

8. Ibid.

9. “The Economics of Arab Spring: Open for Business?” Accessed on February 5, 2012.

10. No. 7.

11. Ibid.

12. Larry Diamond, “The Arab Democracy Deficit”, Accessed on February 6, 2012.

13. “Arab Human Development Report 2002", dr 2002 e.pdf Accessed on February 6, 2012.

14. Ibid.

15. “Arab Human Development Report 2004”, Accessed on October 25, 2012. Accessed on October 25, 2012.

17. Arab Development Challenges: “Towards the Develop-mental State in the Arab Region 2011”, Accessed on February 23, 2014.

18. Ibid.

19. Carl Gershman, “The Arab Revolts: A Fourth wave or an Ebbing Tide?” Lecture delivered at The John B. Hurford Memorial, New York University Law School, May 9, 2012, Accessed on February 20, 2014.

20. Huntington defines a ‘wave of democratisation’ simply as “a group of transitions from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specified period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite direction during that period”. The first wave of democratisation started in 1820 with the extension of franchise to a wider segment of male population in the USA and continued till 1926 initiating democracy in twentynine countries. The first reverse wave began in 1922 with the emergence of authoritarian regimes such as Mussolini in Italy and the number of democracies declined to twelve by 1942. The second wave of democratisation gained momentum in the post-Second World War period and prolonged till 1962 bringing democracy in thirtysix countries. The second reverse wave started in 1960 and persisted till 1975 due to the burgeoning authoritarian regimes as fallout of the decolonisation in Africa declining democracy to thirty. The third wave occurred in 1974 and many authoritarian regimes were replaced by democratic regimes further deepened by the collapse of Communism. The trends of democratisation were marked in Albania, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Nepal, Romania and Yugoslavia in 1990, while the Opposition during this period demanded political reforms in some of the Arab and African countries. For example, in 1990, the “upheaval in Eastern Europe” had “fuelled demands for change in the Arab world” and propelled the leaders in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia “to open up more political space for the expression of discontent“. See, Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy’s Third wave”, Journal of Democracy. Accessed on 4 January 2014; Samuel P. Huntington, Third Wave: Democratisa-tion in the Late Twentieth Century, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) and Larry Diamond, “Is the Third wave of Democratisation over? An Empirical Analysis”, Working Paper, no. 236, March 1997, Kellogg Institute, The Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Accessed on January 2, 2014.

21. No. 19.

22. Dan Perry, “Three years After Arab Spring, Demo-cracy’s Future in Middle East Uncertain”, Accessed on February 18, 2014. Accessed on February 18, 2014.

23. “Freedom House Report 2014", Accessed on February 18, 2014.

Dr Jajati K. Pattnaik is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Indira Gandhi Government College, Tezu (Arunachal Pradesh).

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