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The Trap of Liberalized Autocracy

From: Journal of Democracy
Volume 13, Number 4, October 2002
pp. 56-68 | 10.1353/jod.2002.0064

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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 56-68

Democratization in the Arab World?


Over the past two decades, the Middle East has witnessed a "transition" away from—and then back toward—authoritarianism. This dynamic began with tactical political openings whose goal was to sustain rather than transform autocracies. Enticed by the prospect of change, an amalgam of political forces—Islamists, leftists, secular liberals, NGO activists, women's organizations, and others—sought to imbue the political process with new meanings and opportunities, hoping that the "inherently unstable" equilibrium of dictablandas would give way to a new equilibrium of competitive democracy.

It is now clear, both within and far beyond the Middle East, that liberalized autocracy has proven far more durable than once imagined. The trademark mixture of guided pluralism, controlled elections, and selective repression in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Kuwait is not just a "survival strategy" adopted by authoritarian regimes, but rather a type of political system whose institutions, rules, and logic defy any linear model of democratization. And while several of the authors who write about the Middle East in this issue of the Journal of Democracy argue that political liberalization is moving forward, Jillian Schwedler's essay on Yemen and Jason Brownlee's article on Egypt—as well as the recent experience of Jordan—suggest that in fact deliberalization may be underway.

Perhaps these states will join the ranks of Bashar Assad's Syria, where the door was opened a crack and then quickly closed, and countries such as Iraq, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia, where the rulers have never risked even the most controlled liberalization. Certainly, the outrageous August 2002 decision of Egypt's Supreme Court to uphold the conviction of Saad Eddin Ibrahim and his young colleagues appears to support the notion that Middle East regimes are becoming less rather than more autocratic. Yet what we are witnessing is probably not a return to full authoritarianism, but rather the latest turn in a protracted cycle in which rulers widen or narrow the boundaries of participation and expression in response to what they see as the social, economic, political, and geostrategic challenges facing their regimes. Such political eclecticism has benefits that Arab rulers are unlikely to forgo. Indeed, over the next few years Bahrain and Qatar may swell the ranks of Arab regimes dwelling in the "gray zone" of liberalized autocracy.

In the Arab world, a set of interdependent institutional, economic, ideological, social, and geostrategic factors has created an adaptable ecology of repression, control, and partial openness. The weblike quality of this political ecosystem both helps partial autocracies to survive and makes their rulers unwilling to give up final control over any strand of the whole. But there is more to the story than wily rulers and impersonal "factors," for the governments of Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and even Egypt receive a degree of acquiescence and sometimes even support from both secular and some Islamist opposition groups. Such ententes can take the form of arrangements that give oppositionists a voice in parliament or even the cabinet, and may also involve a process of "Islamization" by which the state cedes some ideological and institutional control to Islamists.

This ironic outcome reminds us that while liberalized autocracies can achieve a measure of stability, over time their very survival exacts greater and greater costs. Because they have failed to create a robust political society in which non-Islamists can secure the kind of organized popular support that Islamists command, these hybrid regimes have created circumstances under which free elections could well make illiberal Islamists the dominant opposition voice, leaving democrats (whether secularist or Islamist) caught between ruling autocrats and Islamist would-be autocrats. Hence the great dilemma in which substantive democratization and genuine pluralism become at once more urgently needed and more gravely risky.

While the solution to this dilemma may lie in gradualism, any reforms worthy of the name must address the weakness or even absence of political society in the Arab world. This will mean promoting independent judiciaries; effective political parties; competitive, internationally observed elections; and legislatures that represent majorities rather than rubber-stamp the edicts of rulers. Such changes will demand bold initiatives from Arab rulers, as...

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