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The Political Economy of the Arab Uprisings pdf

The Political Economy of the Arab Uprisings
  • Book Title:
 The Political Economy Of The Arab Uprisings
  • Book Author:
Ishac Diwan, Melani Cammett
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Since the last edition of this book was published, revolutionary movements have swept across the Middle East. The “Arab Spring” began on December 17, 2010, in Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire to protest mistreatment by local police and government authorities.

Bouazizi’s act incited a wave of protests, beginning in rural areas and later spreading to urban coastal areas, which encompassed a diverse array of participants ranging from informal-sector workers, like Bouazizi himself, to unemployed graduates, workers, lawyers, and cyber-connected youth.

Ultimately, these mass protests led to the ouster of Zine al-Abdine Ben ‘Ali, who had ruled Tunisia in an increasingly repressive manner for over two decades. Protesters demanded justice and accountability from their government and refused to step down, even in the face of brutal repression and government promises to create new jobs and to expand civil and political liberties.

The revolutionary movement then spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak, who had held power for almost thirty years, was ousted after several weeks of protests in Cairo and other cities. In Egypt, too, protesters remained steadfast in the face of a harsh crackdown, calling for Mubarak and his key henchmen to step down.

In February 2011, Mubarak resigned and later faced trial for complicity in the murder of protesters. From Tunisia and Egypt, protests spread across the region to Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia. More sporadic and, in some cases, short-lived protests took place in Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Revolutions and rebellions are complex phenomena. Likewise, the motivations for the Arab uprisings are multifaceted. Political concerns, such as outrage over dictatorial rule, repression, and restrictions on basic liberties were undoubtedly important.

For many people, however, economic issues were equally if not more salient. A 2005 poll conducted by Zogby International found that expanding employment opportunities, improving the health care and educational systems, and ending corruption were the most important priorities of citizens across the region. Democracy and civic and political rights, though also cited, were ranked lower than socioeconomic concerns (Zogby International 2005).

Similarly, the 2010 Arab Youth Survey found that the greatest perceived challenge and concern of Arab youth was the cost of living, fol-lowed by unemployment and then human rights. The largest change relative to the previous survey, which was conducted one year earlier, was the increased perception of income inequality (ASDA’A/Burson-Marsteller 2010).

More fundamentally, it is difficult to extricate the economic and political motivations for the uprisings given the evolution of Arab political economies over the past few decades. The rise of crony capitalism, which we discuss later in the chapter, underscores the ways in which politics and, more specifically, political connections have shaped economic opportunities in the region.

As implied by the slogan “Bread, freedom, and social justice,” which protesters chanted on Avenue Bourguiba and in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the region, inequality of opportunity was a central concern. Thus, a political economy approach has much to contribute to interpretations of the initial motivations for the uprisings and of the dynamics of ongoing political and economic transitions.

Despite momentous political changes in the region, many insights from the third edition of this book, which was published over two years before Bouazizi set himself on fire, remain relevant. Some of the core economic and political challenges de-scribed in the book were important factors that either directly or indirectly contributed to the uprisings. Richards and Waterbury pointed to insufficient job creation, labor market pressures exacerbated by the youth bulge, the mismatch between educational systems and labor market needs, the declining quantity of water and rising dependency on food imports, the continuing decay of the public sector, the mixed record of economic liberalization, a growing housing crisis in urban areas, and the rise of political Islam across the region.

The Arab Spring also created new developments that cannot be fully appreciated without new analytical tools that were not in earlier editions of this book.

With ousted leaders and struggles over the construction of new political institutions in some countries, the classification of regime types in the region must be revised. Even in countries where incumbent rulers remain entrenched, the nature of the political game has changed.

Across the region, “street politics” is an increasingly important form of political expression and citizens are making more forceful and more frequent demands on their leaders. At this juncture, the context of policymaking is altered: New political regimes are emerging, and with the rise of claim-making, rulers are compelled to respond more effectively to citizen demands. Evolving political systems as well as economic developments demand new perspectives on the political economies of the region.

The Arab uprisings also highlight issues that require more in-depth analysis than prior editions of this book emphasized. In particular, the perceived increase in inequalities, discontent with public services, the political economy of cronyism, the narrowing composition of authoritarian coalitions, and succession issues in Arab re-publics have proven to be important developments across the Arab world.

What explains the origins and dynamics of the Arab uprisings? We believe that a political economy approach has much to offer in addressing this question. Neither purely political concerns, such as the desire of populations for democracy, nor simple economic trends can explain the decisions of protesters to call for the downfall of autocratic rulers.

Rather, the interaction of political factors and real and perceived economic developments brought about the uprisings. As we argue later, narrowing authoritarian coalitions in the context of crony capitalism, the rollback of the state, and declining welfare regimes alienated formal-sector workers and tenuous middle classes. In the context of unequal life chances and rising insecurity, growing portions of Arab societies perceived that the inequality of opportunities was on the rise.

Thus, neither growth rates nor absolute levels of income inequality can account for popular movements to overthrow incumbent dictators. Rather, perceptions of socioeconomic trends in the context of evolving political economies were at the root of mass protests.

In this epilogue, we develop these claims in more detail. First, we sketch out a picture of regional variation in the uprisings, pointing to a variety of factors that differentiate the countries of the region and help to explain their distinct trajectories thus far during this period of momentous change. The following section develops a framework for understanding the uprisings.

The final part focuses on the dynamics of the transitions across the Middle East, analyzing the ways in which political and economic factors are interacting to shape the construction of new political institutions and economic reform programs.


The outcomes of the uprisings thus far have varied across the Arab world. In some countries, such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, rulers have been deposed and political actors are engaged in struggles over the creation of new institutional rules. In Yemen, regime change occurred through a more “pacted” transfer of power negotiated by elites, although mass mobilization initially precipitated the ouster of former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih.

In February 2012, voters endorsed a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, approving a two-year transitional presidency for Salih’s vice president of eighteen years, ‘Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

In other countries, regimes have pushed back decisively against protesters. In Syria, the regime’s harsh crackdown on initial protests sparked a bloody conflict that continues unabated as of this writing. In Bahrain, too, the ruling al-Khalifa family has harshly repressed protesters who are calling for regime change, although far less blood has been spilled than in Syria.

 The international community has responded in divergent ways to the crises in Syria and Bahrain. Direct intervention from neighbor-ing Saudi Arabia and limited condemnation from the United States, which has a strategic alliance with Bahrain, have bolstered the ruling family’s control.

The United States and other countries have hesitated to intervene directly in Syria, in part because of Russian opposition to international involvement and in part because of stated concerns about the fragmentation of the opposition and the role of Islamist extremists in the armed opposition to the As’ad regime.

Not all uprisings in the Arab world have culminated in or even called for the dis-missal of authoritarian rulers. In some countries, sustained protests were met with concessions by rulers. In Jordan, protesters by and large have not demanded an end to the monarchy but rather have issued demands for increased economic opportunities and greater freedoms under the current system. In response, King Abdullah replaced the prime minister multiple times and called early elections, although these moves have failed to appease the opposition.

In Morocco, King Muhammad VI pledged to introduce greater political freedoms and held a referendum on constitutional reforms that ostensibly reduced the power of the monarch but, in practice, brought about little substantive change in the system (Benchemsi 2012). At this juncture, protests have abated in Morocco, but if the king’s alleged commitment to gradual reform does not bring about significant change, they could reignite. Protests of varying scales and durations have also erupted in Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon, compelling rulers to make some real and some rhetorical concessions.

 The fragmentation of political systems and exhaustion after prolonged conflicts in these countries, however, have hampered the ability of opposition movements to gain traction and bring about meaningful reform.

Opposition groups have even staged protests in the wealthy Arab Gulf monarchies. In Kuwait, which has a comparatively long history of political contestation, the parliament was dissolved and the prime minister was replaced. In general, how-ever, protests have been more limited and short-lived across the Gulf.

In most cases, incumbent rulers have taken advantage of high oil prices to quell protests through economic incentives.

Several basic economic and political factors differentiate the countries of the re-gion, explaining some of the variation in the trajectories of the Arab uprisings. Oil wealth is the most obvious distinction among Arab countries.

In the oil-rich countries with low populations, the autocratic bargain—material benefits in exchange for political quiescence—can still function owing to high oil rents. To be sure, oil is not determinative and cannot explain all politics in the Gulf, as the case of Kuwait demonstrates. At a minimum, high per capita oil wealth enables rulers to postpone serious challenges to their authority and may even prevent the emergence or spread of opposition groups in the first place.

The extent of ethnoreligious diversity and, most importantly, politicized identity-based cleavages also accounts for some variation in the dynamics of the up risings across the Arab countries. Particularly in the Levant, notably Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and, to a lesser degree, Jordan, ethnoreligious politics has shaped the demands of op-position groups and the course of the protests. Autocratic coalitions have historically favored some groups over others, a strategy of political control that dates back to the colonial period and continued after independence.

 In some of these countries, rulers incorporated minorities, who fear the tyranny of majorities. For example, in Syria, the majority Sunni population has been less privileged than Alawis and other minority groups, although Sunni elites have prospered under the As’ad family’s rule as well.

The Hashemite monarchy in Jordan has historically favored East Bank “Transjor-danian” tribes and families, rewarding them with positions in the civil service and military that come with job security and benefits, while Jordanians of Palestinian origin tend to dominate the private sector and the informal economy.

The uprisings have undermined or destabilized core political settlements and have sometimes resulted in violence. The struggle in Syria is increasingly described in sectarian terms, with an opposition that is overwhelmingly Sunni pitted against a minority Alawi regime. The dynamics of protest in Bahrain are also depicted as sec-tarian: the ruling al-Khalifa family, a Sunni monarchy ruling over a majority Shi’a

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