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The Middle East in 2016 (part 2): The old order will continue to decay

The Middle East in 2016 (part 2): The old order will continue to decay
Published 15 Mar 2016 

Part 1 of this seven-part series is here.

One of the enduring myths of the Arab uprisings is that it was primarily a brave, noble but ultimately vain attempt by young liberals to overthrow the old authoritarian order in the Middle East. Many observers now dismiss the uprisings as a passing episode; a failed experiment with democracy that has mostly resulted in violence and disorder, and seen a return to repression.

Like all myths this one contains a kernel of truth. Young liberals and others deserve credit for the role they played in overthrowing long-time authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. But a closer diagnosis of the uprisings finds that these regimes were less overthrown than collapsed as a result of their internal frailties.

In this regard, the Arab uprisings did not precipitate the current regional disorder. The uprisings were instead one significant consequence of the gradual but terminal decay of the old political order in the Middle East. The Syrian civil war and the emergence of Islamic State have been other consequences. Most importantly, we need to understand that the decay of the old political order throughout the region is far from over.

One of the interesting things about the Arab Middle East in the modern era (post de-colonisation) is that all states, whether republican or monarchical, came to be run in more or less the same way. Strong, one-man, one-party or one-family regimes ruled through a combination of co-option and coercion. The state provided public goods in return for public loyalty, and when this did not work, the state used its security forces to preempt or discipline dissenters.

In the decades leading up to the uprisings, the ability of all Arab Middle Eastern states to co-opt their citizens deteriorated (to differing degrees, and with a few exceptions). Among other things, populations got bigger, economic rents declined and regimes atrophied. Moreover, new generations of citizens raised new demands for material improvements or political and social freedoms that the old order was incapable of accommodating. [fold]

The failure of the Arab state was anticipated in a series of Arab Human Development Reports published by the UN between 2002 and 2009. What wasn't predicted in these reports was when the moment of crisis would come. The fact that the trigger was provided by an isolated, desperate act of protest by an unassuming Tunisian street vendor underlines just how frail the old political order in many Arab states had become.

But the uprisings didn't just expose the old order's inability to co-opt, it exposed its inability even to coerce. We often forget this, but in every successful Arab uprising the military abandoned the long-time ruler. In cases where the military stuck with the ruler, as in Bahrain and Syria, the regime survived. This lesson has not been lost on other rulers in the region.

But coercion alone is not going to save the old order. Syria is the best illustration of this. Assad has had to destroy his country to save his regime, but it is still far from guaranteed that he will remain in power in the longer term. This is also true of Egypt.

Egypt's faltering autocracy

Ironically, the collapse of the old political order in the Middle East also partly explains the failure of the Arab uprisings, particularly in Egypt.

The standard narrative of the Egyptian revolt privileges the role played by media-savvy, twitter-wielding liberal activists. The truth is that the protests that precipitated the downfall of the Mubarak regime temporarily brought together a broad cross-section of Egyptian society that had lost confidence in the old order: liberals and young idealists seeking democracy; young thugs seeking confrontation; Islamists seeking an Islamic state; the poor and the aspirational middle class seeking material change; and of course the political opportunists.

Against this background it is hardly surprising that Egypt's transitional period proved to be tumultuous and violent. Egypt's post-uprising rulers and pretenders struggled to either meet or manage the diverse and often unrealistic expectations most Egyptians had for change. It was at this point that the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, launched a coup against then-President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then won popular endorsement in what was effectively a one-horse election.

Sisi capitalised on public exhaustion, a desire for stability, and well-founded fears about the Muslim Brotherhood's competence and commitment to democracy. In fact, Sisi seems to remain genuinely popular, although it is difficult to tell by how much and with whom.

But this is unlikely to last. Rather than trying to build a new, more durable, political order, Sisi, the Army and other elements of the old regime, such as the police and the judiciary, are trying to renovate the old one. They are trying to do this by cracking down on dissent and building up the economy. Neither approach is likely to work.

In the 12 months after the coup against Morsi, some 41,000 Egyptians were imprisoned, according to the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social rights, or 'just' 22,000 if you believe Egyptian Ministry of the Interior. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned and its leaders imprisoned. Non-Islamist political movements, such as the April 6 movement, suffered a similar fate. A previously relatively vibrant media and civil society are today harangued, arrested and largely domesticated.

But if Egypt is now more authoritarian than it was in Mubarak's time, and indeed even in Morsi's time, it is also less stable. There is a major jihadist insurgency in Sinai, a growing jihadist threat in the rest of the country and there are still regular strikes and small-scale protests.

Sisi's efforts to revive the economy have delivered paltry results. There have been modest economic reforms, the launching of grandiose national projects such as the building of a new capital, and lots of money has flowed in from the Gulf. But tourism, a major source of income, remains stagnant because of terrorism. Economic reforms don't go nearly far enough, partly because they threaten the economic interests of the old Mubarak-era business cronies who are once again backing the regime. And as they did in the Mubarak era, mega-projects will fail either because of the incompetence of a still sclerotic bureaucracy or the corruption of business elites.

One effect of the current round of repression is the hollowing out of Egypt's moderate middle. Political activists who had drawn a line at violence have either withdrawn from politics or, as seems to be the case with the younger cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood, are turning to violence. 

There is a view that another uprising in Egypt is unlikely in the short term. This may be true. Egyptians may be growing less supportive of Sisi's promises but they are probably still wary of any return to revolutionary tumult. Nevertheless, we will probably see growing violent tensions between state and society this year. Indeed, one of the consequences of the regime's hyper-repression is that the fuse to violent confrontation is now much shorter than it used to be. And there is a lot of tinder lying around. The spark might be one of the regular protests or strikes, if it is repressed particularly harshly by the security forces; or it might be the rough treatment of an activist that becomes a cause celebre. But this time, rather than igniting the largely peaceful protest that Egypt witnessed in 2011, something far more ugly and violent could erupt.

Photo by Flickr user Dan H.

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