Inaugural seminar: Exploring the missing link between liberalization and democratization in the Middle East


On February 17, 2010 the Program on Good Governance and Political Reform in the Arab World at CDDRL held its inaugural seminar with Prof. Philippe C. Schmitter, Professor Emeritus, European University Institute, Florence and Visiting Scholar at CDDRL and Dr. Sean Yom, Hewlett Postdoctoral Fellow at CDDRL.

The seminar was titled Exploring the missing link between liberalization and democratization in the Middle East. The seminar aimed to start a public discussion on one of the routine assumptions of students of democratization, which is that there is a close, causal relationship between liberalization and democratization. The former is said to drive those who concede it toward convoking credible elections and, eventually, tolerating ruler accountability to citizens. The link between those processes of regime transformation is alleged to be the mobilization of civil society. It has been argued that the weakness or absence of this linkage is one (among many) of the conditions which make the polities of the Middle East and North Africa resistant to democratization.

In his response to this argument, Philippe Schmitter began by saying that in the work that he started on Southern Europe and Latin America, there was a distinction between democratization and liberalization. Once an autocratic regime enters a process of liberalization, it faces unexpected consequences. Thus, the most vulnerable time for a regime is when it starts to reform itself. Some of the consequences of this process are the resurrection of civil society, more freedom of expression and movement, the release of political prisoners and the freer operation of political parties. Such consequences are what liberalization means.

Schmitter argued that all autocratic regimes have tried this process, and that this process is normally triggered by divisions within the regimes or succession struggles, where regimes feel the need to open up. The kind of liberalization that takes place depends on the type of autocracy present. But the objective of liberalization, Schmitter said, is to coopt and produce a large social basis for autocracy, for example, through cultivating political parties that agree not to be too oppositional.

Schmitter added that many autocracies are under pressure from external regimes. Most of the countries in the Middle East have some kind of agreement with the EU for example, which carries clauses on issues like the rule of law. Another factor is that liberalization is selective in its inclusion, focusing on the urban middle class. It is thus "voluntary", conceded from above by the regime, and not based on any form of mobilization from below. In other words, Schmitter argued that regimes choose to liberalize and are not forced to do so. Thus, regimes are limited in their scope of liberalization (elections for example are not always genuinely free). He then presented a scale of measures of autocracy liberalization, saying that the most difficult measure in the Middle East is that of releasing political prisoners, while the easiest measure is concessions on the level of human rights.

He presented the hypothesis is that almost all efforts at democratization are preceded by liberalization. This is triggered by the resurrection of civil society, which itself is triggered when the costs of repression increase quite significantly and a regime is faced with the question of is it "better" to repress or tolerate? Often, in this case, regimes choose to tolerate the self organization of groups that are not tolerated otherwise. But mobilization of such groups, like lawyer groups, may lead to mobilization on the street. Schmitter said that although Arab regimes liberalize, this kind of process does not normally happen in the Middle East. Liberalization occurs then declines without the regimes suffering many consequences. He finished by stating that there seems to be something in the Middle East region that encourages liberalization, but that leads this liberalization to decline.

Sean Yom responded by saying that for the last 10 years, scholars of democratization literature have made ethnocentric assumptions about this issue. He argued that it is almost assumed that democracy is easy, but what actually happens at the end stage of liberalization is complex. He said that if we take a historical view of the Middle East, the literature says that regimes are durable. But countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria have all witnessed regime termination. The dictators today in the Arab world are merely the winners of the state-building process.  So why is liberalization not followed by democratization for these survivors?

Yom argued that distinctive regimes have distinctive ways through which they liberalize but not democratize. He related the lack of democratization following on from liberalization to two key questions: Why are there no elite splits in the public arena during times of crisis? And why has the middle class not staked any sacrifice to demand more of a democratic and revolutionary change?

He presented two reasons: the first is that many current regimes have well institutionalized methods of dealing with elite splits before they hit the public domain. Hegemonic ruling provide one such mechanism. The National Democratic Party in Egypt, the Neo-Destur of Tunisia, and the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq for example were able to coopt/isolate softline elites well before their conflict became rebellion.  Yom argued that in monarchical autocracies, incumbents have just as well-institutionalized mechanisms of co-optation that revolve around the palace; such networks were developed shortly after colonial rule, and were designed to effectively enshrine a certain distribution of power.

The second reason, Yom argued, lays in the nature of social opposition.  No dictator liberalizes because they want to give up power.  That is, they do not liberalize to achieve democracy; they liberalize in order to survive in the face of burgeoning social unrest.  The problem is that in the MENA context, the so-called "middle-sector"-labor, professionals, intellectuals, and other urban forces-have not staked out sacrifice to their demands for greater freedom, when push comes to shove.  One reason is that they were incorporated into ruling coalitions early on in the state-building process, and that such early coalitional bargains that traded loyalty for prosperity have proven durable even during economic crises in the 1980s and 1990s.  For instance, large-scale employment in the public sector to certain groups is a common side-payment.  Countries like Jordan and Bahrain exploit population cleavages (the Palestinians and the Shiites, respectively, being the key factors), where the regimes operate an optimal mix of loyalty and oppression/coercion.  In these cases, leaders strategically choose to incorporate different constituents into different networks of patronage.

The presentations were followed by a question and answer sessions where additional factors were discussed and others elaborated on, such as the role of Islamists; authoritarian pacts with the West especially in the cases of "countries that are too important to be politically conditioned" as Schmitter put it, or in the case of illegal Western dealings with Middle East states which makes it difficult for the West to present them with reform conditions; the absence of independent middle classes; and the issue of political prisoners, who are the hardest to coopt by any given regime, and hence tend to be kept inside prisons.