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  • An Arab Path to Democracy?
  • Daniel Brumberg (bio)
Unruly Corporatism: Associational Life in Twentieth-Century Egypt by Robert Bianchi. Oxford University Press, 1989. 268 pp.

The democratic revolution that has swept through Latin America and Eastern Europe has begun to shake the edifice of authoritarianism in the Arab world. Opposition forces have made gains in recent parliamentary elections in Jordan and in municipal and provincial elections in Algeria. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, unlike his predecessor, is building a consensus on domestic and foreign policy by consulting the opposition parties, professional syndicates, labor unions, and business associations. And in Tunisia, opposition parties have called on the regime to accelerate the process of democratic reform.

The willingness of Arab leaders to tolerate and, in some cases, promote democracy is partly due to the Arab intelligentsia's disenchantment with the very idea of authoritarianism. Emboldened by the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe, Arab intellectuals are now calling for perestroika and democratic reform.

Yet this change cannot be attributed solely to growing respect for liberal democratic principles, or to the "demonstration effect" of change in Eastern Europe. It has also issued from the collapse of the "ruling bargain" that had held sway since the 1960s, under which the populace gave up its rights to independent political activity in return for the state's provision of social welfare. In the 1980s, the economic conditions that financed this arrangement began to disintegrate. State-run industry and agriculture ran out of steam. Revenues from oil and foreign remittances dwindled with the oil glut. And foreign debt soared with the fall in revenue and the breakdown of state socialism.

No longer able to buy political passivity, Arab reformers have proposed a new "ruling bargain." In return for popular acquiescence to painful economic reforms, they have offered a measure of political pluralism and democracy. They hope that a revival of the "political market" will facilitate movement toward a market economy.

For students of Soviet and East European politics, this story should have a familiar ring. In Warsaw, Prague, and Moscow, the failure of Marxism also has spawned a new, more democratic "bargain." While its success is not preordained, this new arrangement has been facilitated by the resiliency of civil society in these countries. Associations of professionals and intellectuals have played a particularly important role in creating the institutional preconditions for market reforms and democratic change in Eastern Europe.

Many scholars doubt that the institutions that make up Arab civil [End Page 120] society are capable of sustaining a more democratic bargain. The problem, they argue, is not so much the absence of civil society as its inchoate nature. Its jumble of clubs, mosques, associations, and unions is so disorganized and so penetrated by patron-client ties as to be incapable of aggregating the interests of society vis-à-vis the state.

The "unincorporated" nature of Arab civil society, it is further argued, has had paradoxical consequences. It has enabled many authoritarian regimes to rule without using high levels of systematic repression and institutional hegemony. Yet it has also thwarted the mobilization, by democratic or authoritarian means, of the resources required for a socialist or capitalist economic transformation. Thus the Arab world exists in a developmental limbo, unable to break through to political and socioeconomic modernity.

The chief merit of Robert Bianchi's study of associational life in modern Egypt is that he has turned this traditional view of Arab politics on its head. What many consider the underlying weakness of Arab associational politics—its organizationally eclectic or "unruly" nature—Bianchi views as a potential strength, which under certain conditions might foster political liberalization, market reforms, and a minimal level of social welfare.

Bianchi does not proffer this thesis to extol the advantages of a supposed Egyptian "exceptionalism." While he argues that Egypt's flexible system of interest politics has been shaped partly by the country's cultural and religious heritage, he finds in Egypt's experience a wider lesson for the Third World. At the same time, he avoids jumping on the "dependent development" bandwagon. As he puts it, he uses the Egyptian case to "reformulate" rather than "recycle" existing theory. The result is a model of "unruly" interest...


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