CDDRL’s Program on Arab Reform and Democracy held its annual conference at Stanford University on October 11 and 12, titled “The Struggle for Political Change in the Arab World.” The conference is an outgrowth of ARD’s efforts to support new research on the dynamics of political change in the countries of the Arab world. Scholars from across different disciplines sought to understand how social, economic, and political dynamics at the national level, as well as international and regional conflict and power rivalries, impact struggles for political and social change in the region.
Overview of Panels and Speakers
Following opening remarks by FSI Senior Fellow Larry Diamond, the first panel titled “The Boundaries of Authoritarianism post-Arab Uprisings” featured CDDRL Senior Research Scholar Amr Hamzawy. His paper examined how the regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has employed discursive strategies to discredit calls for democratic change in the country. Sean Yom, Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University, outlined how the protest strategies of Jordanian youth have limited their effectiveness in advancing meaningful political change. University of California, Davis Scholar Samia Errazzouki discussed the failure of state-led political and economic reform in Morocco.
Chaired by Harvard University Fellow Hicham Alaoui, the second panel was titled “Popular Uprisings and Uncertain Transitions.” University of California, Santa Cruz Political Scientist Thomas Serres provided an overview of the economic disruptions that contributed to Algeria’s uprising. Lindsay Benstead, who is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Portland State University, analyzed the electoral successes of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party. Khalid Medani, Professor of Political Science at McGill University, explained how Sudanese protesters leveraged new strategies of contention to force Omar Al-Bashir out of power.
The third panel, titled “Politics, Succession and Sectarianism in the GCC States,” included Oxford University Fellow Toby Matthiesen, who discussed how Saudi Arabia and the GCC states have increasingly sought to protect their regimes by actively molding the politics of their autocratic patrons in the region, and by using new technologies to upgrade the effectiveness of their surveillance states. Georgia State University Political Scientist Michael Herb explained how the aging of the Saudi line of succession contributed to the political ascendancy of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and the decay of family rule in the country. Cal Poly Historian Farah Al-Nakib described how Kuwait’s royal family has used its sponsorship of large-scale development projects to sidestep the country’s political polarization, undermine the power of the parliament, and weaken public access to spaces of political contestation.
The fourth panel focused on “Social Strife and Proxy Conflict in the Middle East.” Chatham House Scholar Lina Khatib described Syria’s transformation during the civil war from a highly centralized security state to a transactional state in which the regime depends heavily on local powerbrokers. Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, discussed differences in how local communities in Yemen have been affected by the country’s conflict. David Patel, who serves as Associate Director for Research at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, argued that Iraq’s democratic institutions have been impressively robust to a series of existential challenges, but he also highlighted a widespread feeling among the Iraqi public that its parliamentary system is failing to deliver.
Finally, the fifth panel examined the topic of “International Forces in the Arab Political Arena.” Stanford University Political Scientist Lisa Blaydes suggested that China’s efforts to involve itself in the regional economy may improve its reputation among economically-frustrated Arab citizens, but that such efforts also spell trouble for democracy and human rights in the Middle East. Hamid & Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University Abbas Milani argued that Iran’s ideological commitment to exporting the Islamic Revolution has been remarkably consistent for several decades. Colin Kahl, Co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at FSI, reviewed the strategies of US administrations toward the Middle East, and posited that President Trump’s approach of pursuing maximalist objectives with minimal commitments is particularly likely to heighten instability in the region. FSI Scholar Ayca Alemdaroglu emphasized that Turkey’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy has failed to achieve its objectives in the face of mounting regional upheaval.
Common Themes of Political Change and Continuity
Several themes emerged from conference presentations. First, across the panels, scholars discussed the lessons learned by autocrats and activists alike in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and the ways in which these lessons have transformed regional politics. Hamzawy emphasized that the Sisi regime in Egypt has increasingly relied on intensive repression over cooptation to maintain stability, while at the same time refusing to grant even limited political openings as existed under Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. In part, this change appears to be rooted in the regime’s belief that relaxing the state’s authoritarian posture had contributed to the revolutionary upheaval of 2011. Likewise, Matthiesen suggested that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council States have learned to become more aggressive in strengthening their surveillance apparatus and policing popular discourse transnationally. By contrast, Serres discussed how the Algerian military and bureaucracy have responded to mass protests not by intensifying repression, but instead by attempting to coopt anti-corruption initiatives and democratic reforms to limit political and economic change. Similarly, regarding Kuwait, Al-Nakib illustrated how the restructuring of urban spaces has proved itself a subtle but successful strategy for the royal family to rehabilitate its reputation while limiting geographic focal points for popular politics.
Activists have also learned their own lessons from the aftermath of the Arab Spring. According to Yom, Jordanian activists continue to look to the leaderless revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt as a model to be emulated. As a result, they prioritize agility and horizontality in their protests, and they forgo the organization of formal political movements. This approach has succeeded in acquiring short-term concessions from the regime but has failed to generate broader structural changes. On the other hand, activists in Sudan appear to have been more successful at using lessons from the Arab Spring to push for systematic transformations of their political system. According to Medani, Sudanese protesters developed novel tactics to avoid the repression of the coercive apparatus, and they were effective at gradually forging a counterhegemonic discourse that clearly exposed the regime’s failures to the public. Following the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir, activists in Sudan have also insisted on dismantling the political and economic might of the deep state to avoid following Egypt’s path.
Second, the conference discussion indicated widespread dissatisfaction with formal political institutions across the region. For instance, Hamzawy suggested that Sisi’s regime has been relatively successful at discrediting civilian political institutions, including the legislature and civilian-led ministries. Errazzouki highlighted widespread dissatisfaction in Morocco with existing political institutions. Likewise, Yom’s discussion of activists in Jordan emphasized their lack of interest in entering formal politics. In Kuwait, the royal court has found an opening to pursue urban development projects outside of normal institutions in part because of the public’s frustration with gridlock in the legislature. Patel speculated that frustration with the parliament and muhasasa system in Iraq may finally prompt major changes to the country’s political process.
Third, despite this disillusionment with formal politics, these political institutions have proved remarkably durable in countries across the region. For example, though current frustrations may finally prompt change in Iraq, Patel also highlighted the resilience of the parliamentary system in the face of a sectarian civil war, US troop withdrawal, the rise of ISIS, and a number of other major challenges. For both Algeria and Sudan, Serres and Medani stressed that militaries continue to exercise significant influence despite the popular uprisings. Meanwhile, for Egypt, Hamzawy noted the firm grip of the current military regime on power, and for Morocco, Errazzouki described the lack of systematic changes to the country’s ruling monarchy, even after years of popular pressure.
Fourth, this durability has not precluded a number of important shifts within existing political institutions. Regarding Syria, for instance, Khatib explained how the survival of Bashar al-Asad’s presidency has depended on moving state institutions away from a centralized security state to a transactional state reliant on local actors with a degree of independence from the regime. Herb described how the consensus-based family rule of the Saudi monarchy fell victim to deaths among the aging senior princes, which opened up opportunities for the king to appoint more officials in a manner that heightened his direct influence. Herb suggested that Mohammad Bin Salman recognized this change and knew that he would likely lose relevance upon his father’s death; as a result, he was motivated to gamble on consolidating his control while his father still held the power to issue royal decrees. In Algeria, the influence of the military and bureaucracy may remain paramount for now, but Serres also pointed out that protesters have succeeded in stripping away the civilian intermediaries who used to protect these institutions. Regarding the durability of local institutions, Yadav noted how pre-conflict and even pre-unification institutions in Yemen have continued to operate effectively in a number of local communities around the country.
Fifth, foreign interventions will continue to destabilize the region and impede prospects for democratization or post-conflict reconstructions in the coming years. Khatib noted that Russia has positioned itself as the agenda setter who can bring the Syrian state back to its feet, but also that Russia and Iran are competing to profit off the country’s reconstruction. For Yemen, Yadav argued that fragmentation at the local level has important implications for best practices in the international community’s reconstruction efforts, but that current actors are not well positioned to understand these trends. Kahl predicted that the Middle East strategy of the Trump administration would likely contribute to further destabilization of the region because of its emphasis on empowering allies to do what they want and go after Iran while the United States maintains its distance. Meanwhile, Blaydes’ presentation on China’s regional involvement, Milani’s discussion of Iran’s efforts to export the Islamic Revolution, and Matthiesen’s observations about the GCC States’ authoritarian coordination all illustrated how intervening states are reducing prospects for democratic political change.
Sixth, even as interventionist countries have contributed to the destabilization of the region, they have also confronted major obstacles themselves – and in some cases have failed outright to achieve their primary objectives. Khatib noted that Iran has faced backlash in Syria, while Abbas Milani and David Patel pointed to backlash against Iran in Iraq. Kahl emphasized that the Trump administration’s Middle East policy was unlikely to achieve its goals. Blaydes observed that China has not acquired greater salience in the Middle East despite its more active economic involvement, and individuals in many of the region’s countries – particularly those that are more developed – do not see China’s growth as a positive force. She also stressed the reputational risks China is taking in pursuing potentially unpopular investments through the Belt and Road Initiative. The GCC States are attempting to prop up strongmen in both Libya and Sudan, but this strategy has struggled in the face of local political dynamics; furthermore, the intervention in Yemen has been a disaster for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Finally, Alemdaroglu stressed that Turkey’s ambitious “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy, which reflects a desire to revive Turkish influence in areas ruled by the Ottoman Empire, has largely failed. In particular, the architect of the policy, former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, lost his job; the country miscalculated badly in how it handled the aftermath of the Arab Spring; and Turkey’s relations with many of its neighbors have soured.