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New Texts Out Now: Raymond Hinnebusch, From Arab Spring to Arab Winter: Explaining the Limits of Post-Uprising Democratization

[Cover of [Cover of "Democratization" 22.2 (2015)]

Raymond Hinnebusch, editor, From Arab Spring to Arab Winter: Explaining the Limits of Post-Uprising Democratization, special issue of Democratization 22.2 (2015).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put this special issue together?

Raymond Hinnebusch (RH): We felt that the debate over who had been vindicated by the uprising between democratization theorists and post-democratization/authoritarian resilience advocates had been exhausted. The main initial problematic of the Arab Uprising was how to translate mass protest into democratization and ultimately democratic consolidation; yet, despite the fact that democracy was the main shared demand of the protestors who spearheaded the uprisings, there was, four years later, limited evidence of it. On the other hand, authoritarian regimes had not simply been restored; rather, they were reconstructing themselves in various ways, some much more coercive than before. Overall, it became apparent that different states were following such different trajectories that this needed to be systematically conceptualized and that a start, at least, had to be made at explaining these differences.

Finally, while some authors had already advanced arguments that the structure of the regime at the time of the uprising had pushed states along different pathways, we felt that agency was also important—that is the balance of power between rival social forces inside each state in the post-uprising period; as such, a number of the articles in the issue look at key actors and the consequences of their roles for differences in trajectories among states.

J: What particular topics does the issue address?

RH: The introduction, “Understanding the Consequences of the Arab Uprisings—Starting Points and Divergent Trajectories," by Raymond Hinnebusch, explores how far different starting points—the features of the regime and of the uprising—help explain different pathways. Specifically, the varying levels of anti-regime mobilization, the ability of regime and opposition soft-liners to reach a transition pact, and the capacity of the authoritarian regime to resist are seen to shape outcomes.

In "Reflections on Self-Reflections—On Framing the Analytical Implications of the Arab Uprisings for the Study of Arab Politics," Morten Valbjørn surveys the theoretical debates over democratization in the Middle East, considers the consequences of the Arab uprisings for the credibility of rival democratization and post-democratization paradigms, and asks how re-conceptualizations can throw light on the actually existing politics in the post-uprising Arab world. Vincent Durac then examines anti-regime movements in the light of social movement theory, assessing how it enables us to understand their relative efficacy in challenging regimes but also their inability to steer a democratic transition, in “Social Movements, Protest Movements, and Cross-Ideological Coalitions—The Arab Uprisings Re-Appraised.” Joshua Stacher, in his article, “Fragmenting States, New Regimes: Militarized State Violence and Transition in the Middle East,” examines the increased violence deployed by regimes to prevent such a transition, arguing that the outcome, the remaking of more coercive authoritarian regimes, denotes neither transition nor restoration to the pre-uprising period.

Next, in "Islamism and the State After the Arab Uprisings: Between People Power and State Power," Frederic Volpi and Ewan Stein examine the third major category of players, variegated Islamists, assessing consequences of the relative balance between them for post-uprising politics. James Allison then examines the positive effect of a class balance, notably the relative efficacy and autonomy of workers’ movements, on democratic potentials, in his article, “Class Forces, Transition, and the Arab Uprisings: A Comparison of Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria.” On the other hand, in “Back to the Future: The Arab Uprisings and State (Re)formation in the Arab World,” Adham Saouli assesses the opposite, negative scenario, the mobilization of communal identities by ruling elites and counter-elites. Raymond Hinnebusch, in "Globalization, Democratization, and the Arab Uprising: The International Factor in MENA's Failed Democratization," then focuses on the negative impact on democratization of competitive external interference inside the uprising states.

In Hinnebusch’s conclusion, "Agency, Context, and Emergent Post-Uprising Regimes," the combined effects of the agency of these forces and the political, cultural, and economic contexts in which they operate are summarized to understand three main divergent trajectories taken by the post-uprising states in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia.

J: How does this special issue connect to or depart from your previous work?

RH: Many of us have been doing comparative work on authoritarian resilience and on democratization prospects in the region for many years. Hinnebusch worked in particular on Syria and Egypt. Most recently, Stacher also published an important comparison of authoritarian upgrading in Egypt and Syria. Volpi and Stein are experts on political Islam and democratization in North Africa and Durac on civil society under authoritarian rule. Saouli published a recent book on Arab state formation and Allinson has done work on the Egyptian uprising and the role of workers in it.

As regards the place of the issue in the main debates over Arab politics, it can be seen as a continuation of those pre-2011 discussions on the study of Middle East politics on whether it was time to get beyond “the authoritarianism/ democratization paradogma.” Examples would be the special issues of Democratization on democratization in the Middle East (13.3, 2006) and that of Middle East Critique on authoritarian resilience (19.3, 2010). More directly, the special issue relates to the last four years of debate on the causes and consequences of the Arab uprisings. Here, it can be seen as the second or maybe even third wave of reflections focusing on how to account for the different trajectories in various Middle Eastern countries and seeking to identify dimensions of continuity and change, such as the special issue of British Journal of Middle East Studies (42.1, 2015); it is also reflective of work interested in politics beyond the narrow scope of democracy/authoritarianism debates.

J: Who do you hope will read this special issue, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

The special issue would be of interest to scholars of the Middle East politics, and particularly students of the Arab Uprisings’ impacts on politics in the region. But it also speaks to the general non-Middle East-specific literature on transitions, regime breakdowns and what they are replaced by, and the role of social forces in contestations over transitions. The influence here goes both ways: on the one hand, a number of contributions to the special issue show how existing general theories and approaches can be useful to understand the specific trajectories of the uprisings in various countries. On the other hand, the Arab uprisings also highlight the limits of some of these approaches and point to the need for various forms of “upgrading” or revisions, which non-Middle East specialists should also pay attention to.

In this way, the special issue hopefully will also contribute to a general trend following the Arab Uprisings, where the Middle East has received much more interest than it used to get within the general comparative politics debate and in this way contribute to the (re)integration of the Middle East into mainstream comparative politics (not only as a site for testing general theories, but also as a place for generating new theories of broader scope). Against this background, this special issue should be of interest to a larger audience with an interest in political transformations and comparative politics.

J: What other projects are you working on now?       

We want to stress that the generalizations drawn from our studies are preliminary and tentative. While the empirical micro- and meso-level work is solidly grounded in research, at the macro-level more general conclusions are best taken as informed hypotheses. As such, this work is only a starting point for further research on trajectories that would potentially confirm the hypotheses or lead to alterations of them. This will take more in-depth studies, both intimate case studies and systematic comparative work.

J: How does this special issue differ from other recent accounts of the Arab Uprisings and their aftermath?

In most ways, our thinking is building on and running parallel to that of other scholars, but perhaps we assemble here the most comprehensive picture, bringing together many different variables treated separately by others into a more comprehensive multivariate explanatory framework. Additionally, we are not aware of any similar systematic comparison of three key countries—Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia—reflective of quite different trajectories, using the same master explanatory variables.

Excerpts from From Arab Spring to Arab Winter: Explaining the Limits of Post-Uprising Democratization

From “Introduction: Understanding the Consequences of the Arab Uprisings—Starting Points and Divergent Trajectories," by Raymond Hinnebusch

Alternative Post-Uprising Trajectories

The quite various outcomes or trajectories of the Arab uprisings appear best conceptualized in terms of movement along two separate continuums, level of state consolidation and regime type. Moreover variations in the states’ starting points on these dimensions at the time of the Uprising will arguably affect trajectories.

As regards state consolidation, if the Uprising leads to democratization this ought to strengthen states in that it would accord them greater popular consent, hence capacity to carry out their functions. However, the initial impact of the Uprising was state weakening, with the extreme being state collapse or near collapse (Libya, Syria, Yemen), where democratization prospects appear to be foreclosed for the immediate future. Yet, even amidst such state failure, new efforts at state remaking can be discerned. Such competitive state making in MENA was first conceptualized by the North African “father” of historical sociology, Ibn Khaldun and adopted by Max Weber, who identified the “successful” pathways to authority building dominant in MENA, notably the charismatic movement which tended to be institutionalized in patrimonial rule, perhaps mixed with bureaucratic authority. Ibn Khaldoun’s “cycles” of rise and decline in state building also appear better suited to MENA than the idea of a progressive increase in state consolidation; indeed, the history of state making in MENA has described a bell-shaped curve of rise and decline (Hinnebusch 2014), with the current state failure merely a nadir in this decline.

As for regime type, if one measures variations in regimes along Dahl’s two separate dimensions by which power is distributed, level of elite contestation and level of mass inclusion (Sorenson 1998), a greater variety of regime types is possible than the simple authoritarian-democratic dichotomy, and this variation may explain both vulnerabilities to the Uprising and likely outcomes. Patrimonial regimes low in contestation and inclusion proved quite viable in the face of the Uprising, as demonstrated by the persistence of absolute monarchy in the tribal oil-rich Arab Gulf. Polyarchy, high on elite contestation and mass inclusion, has been rare; given that the Uprising initially precipitated both increased elite contestation and mass inclusion, movement toward polyarchy was possible, but only Tunisia currently appears to approximate it. The region has, however, experienced various “hybrids” in which some social forces were included in regimes in order to exclude others: thus, the populist authoritarian regimes of the 1960s expanding popular inclusion within single party/corporatist systems, in order to exclude the oligarchies against which they had revolted; when populism was exhausted in the 1980s, they turned “post-populist,” marginally increased elite contestation (e.g. by co-opting new elements into the regime and allowing some party pluralism and electoral competition) in order to co-opt the support needed to exclude the masses. In the post-Uprising period, rather than linear “progress” toward increased contestation and inclusion the region is experiencing different combinations of opening and closing at elite (contestation) and mass (inclusion) levels.

Figure one adumbrates the alternative trajectories the uprising has so far taken. Where the state fails, the outcome is an authority vacuum, with extreme levels of elite contestation propelling mass mobilization along identity lines, with rivals competing violently to reconstruct state authority, often pitting the most coercive remnants of state establishments with charismatic Islamist insurgencies (Syria, Libya, Yemen). The rival regimes are likely to be hybrids constructed around patrimonial or charismatic leadership and remnants of bureaucratic state institutions, with very limited elite contestation within such regimes-in-formation and with identity groups mobilized around included victors, with the losers coercively excluded.           

Where the state does not collapse, two outcomes are possible: the establishment persists and restores its authority or it is subordinated to new democratic leadership. In the first case, the new post-Uprising regimes are likely to be hybrids, mixing elements of co-optation, coercion, and pluralism—electoral authoritarianism--with middle levels of inclusion. Equally, the state establishment may take advantages of widening identity cleavages within society, such as that between secularists and Islamists, to divide and rule, including one segment in order to exclude the other, as in Egypt. Only Tunisia approximates the second case of democratic transition.

[Figure One: Pathways of Post-Uprisings States]


From "Conclusion: Agency, Context, and Emergent Post-Uprising Regimes," by Raymond Hinnebusch

Diverging Pathways: The Determinants of Three Prototypical Cases

Multiple variables shaped the different trajectories followed by Uprising states. These are summarized in table one and are here brought together to explain the three prototypical cases: Syria, where transition failed; Egypt, where it was reversed; and Tunisia, where it was relatively successful.

Syria: Failed Transition, Failed State

Conditions for democratic transition were not favorable in Syria: identity fragmentation and the lack of a class balance weakened society, while a robust combination of both patrimonial authority and bureaucratic institutions gave the regime exceptional resilience. Owing to the cross cutting of class inequalities by urban-rural and sectarian cleavages, the narrow opportunity structure (weak civil society) and the willingness of the loyal military to use violence against protestors, mobilization was insufficient to overthrow the regime but enough to deprive it of control over wide parts of the country. The soft-liners were marginalized on both sides by the regime’s use of violence, the maximalist demands of the opposition, and the identity cleavages between regime security forces and the protestors. Defections from the military were sufficient, together with high levels of external intervention, to militarize the conflict, resulting in protracted civil war and a failed state. This diverted the country away from democratization and along other pathways. Anti-democratic agents—the military, jihadists—were empowered, while democratic forces—the protesting youth, the trade unions—were marginalized. The Uprising greatly sharpened cultural cleavages along both sectarian and secular-Islamist lines. No cross-class democratic coalition was conceivable, as the destruction to the political economy infrastructure debilitated capitalist production relations and generated a parasitic war economy that locked Syria into a much-deepened crisis for at least the immediate future.

Egypt: Reversed Transition

In Egypt, an anti-regime cross-class coalition and a favorable opportunity structure—manifest in considerable civil society experience and internet penetration—enabled a massive bandwagoning against the ruler; the relative autonomy of the military, which prioritized its own interests, enabled an insider-outsider coalition to engineer presidential departure. In spite of a relatively peaceful transition from Mubarak’s rule, the post-Uprising power struggle between secular revolutionaries, the military, and Islamists was unconstrained by agreement on rules of the game. The lack of a strong organized pro-democracy movement and autonomous trade unions, compared to the over-sized politicized military, and the split between secularists and divided Islamists, allowed a substantial “restoration” of the old regime. This reflected the lack of a balance of class power able to check a rent-funded state. Post-Uprising authoritarian upgrading depended on sophisticated versions of divide and rule, as exemplified by military’s cooptation of the Muslim Brotherhood to demobilize street protests followed by its co-optation of the “Tamarod” movement to destroy the Brotherhood’s President Morsi. No democracy that excludes one of the most important socio-political forces in Egypt can be consolidated and only a hybrid regime, retaining extra-constitutional powers for the security forces, can cope with the violent spillover of Islamist resistance. Saudi Arabia played a crucial role in encouraging and supporting the counter-revolution, both in funding the al-Sisi regime and in encouraging its Salafist clients to break with the Brotherhood and support the military. A populist-xenophobic intolerance of dissent more repressive than under Mubarak emerged combined with electoral authoritarianism manifested in Sisi’s election and the prospect of parliamentary elections amidst the exclusion of the Brotherhood.

Tunisia: Transition and Partial Consolidation

As in Egypt, cross-class grievances and a favorable opportunity structure—civil society experience—enabled bandwagoning mobilization that, given the refusal of an autonomous military to protect the president, enabled an insider-outsider democratic coalition. Yet Tunisia’s transition was not similarly stalled. Political culture inheritances—Tunisia’s secular tradition, relative homogeneity, and long history of statehood, consolidated the political community needed to underpin contestation over other issues. Its historically more moderate Islamist movement enabled compromise between Islamists and secularists. What made the big difference from Egypt was Tunisia’s larger middle class, greater mass literacy, and small un-politicized army. The Islamist en-Nahda party won a plurality in the first post Uprising elections, but unlike the Egyptian Brotherhood, shared power with two secular parties, and a secularist politician became president alongside an Islamist prime minister. Moderate democratic Islamists were much stronger than Salafists and, contrary to the case in Egypt, entered a coalition with secularists rather than the Salafists. Nevertheless, before long the secularist-Islamist cleavage threatened to destabilize the country: militant salafists’ attempts to restrict cultural expression they considered anti-Islamic seemed tolerated by the government and the murders of secular political leaders critical of the en-Nahda government plunged the country into a crisis in 2013 similar to what was, in parallel, happening in Egypt. However, by contrast Egypt, there was no “man on horseback” in Tunisia’s small politically unambitious military that rival political forces could call upon to “rescue” the country from the other; hence they had to compromise their differences through dialogue. The constituent assembly was more inclusive than in Egypt and was able to reach a compromise constitutional formula. Crucially, the balance of agency favored democratic forces. The limited role of the military in public life and the exceptional role of the trade union movement in brokering a consensus had its origins in the fact that the independence movement had combined a powerful political party, the Destour, and an equally powerful union movement, pre-empting the role of national vanguard assumed elsewhere in MENA, including Egypt, by the army.

[Table One: Variables Shaping Divergent Tangents]

As a result, Tunisia experienced the most thorough democratization. Still, the revolution remained purely political: only the top political elite was renewed, with the ouster of the ruling family and some ruling party elites while the bourgeoisie and the military establishment survived. Indeed, Tunisia experienced a mild restoration as a result of the October 2014 elections in which a “Bourguibist” party dominated by old regime elites was voted into power at the expense of the post-Ben Ali currents, both the secular democratic movements and an-Nahda; the elections reflected both cultural cleavages and nostalgia for order and economic stability. Ultimately, the better prognosis for democratic transition in Tunisia than elsewhere was rooted in the success of the Uprising in ameliorating (rather than aggregating) the pre-Uprising crisis.


Immediate post-Uprising outcomes varied significantly in line with differing combinations of the factors indicated in Table One. While in Egypt and Tunisia bandwagoning mobilization against the regime and military autonomy combined to produce presidential removal and regime survival, initiating a relatively peaceful transition from authoritarian rule, in Syria the dilution of mobilization by cross cutting cleavages and presidential control of the military precluded such a peaceful transition.

Differing political economy and political cultural contexts drove further divergence among the cases. Homogeneous cultures in Tunisia and Egypt kept the state together compared to the state failure resulting from cultural fragmentation in Syria. However, the greater cultural of compromise in Tunisia allowed agreement on rules of the game, while contests over the rules split Egypt. While Tunisia came closest to a class balance, given the relative strength of industrialization and organized labor, external rent in Egypt and a rent-fuelled war economy in Syria weakened or precluded such a balance. In Tunisia the balance of agency—a combination of a weak military, moderate Islamists, and strong trade unions—facilitated democratic transition; in Egypt the domination of the political arena by the strong politicized military reversed this transition; while the combination of strong military and radical Islamists in Syria led to militarized conflict and the division of state territory. Finally, external intervention in Tunisia was too limited to disrupt democratization; medium intervention facilitated democratic reversal in Egypt; and intense competitive interference in Syria fuelled civil war and blocked any resolution of it.

[Excerpted from From Arab Spring to Arab Winter: Explaining the Limits of Post-Uprising Democratization, special issue of Democratization 22.2 (2015), edited by Raymond Hinnebusch, by permission of the editor. © 2015 Informa UK Limited, an Informa Group Company. For more information, or to access the complete issue, click here.]

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