Seminar on the Regional Dimensions of Authoritarianism in the Arab World

On March 30, 2010, Prof. Samer Shehata from Georgetown University gave a research seminar for the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at CDDRL titled The Regional Dimensions of Authoritarianism in the Arab World.  Prof. Shehata’s talk was in response to the research puzzle, as he called it, of the persistence of authoritarian politics at the regional level in the Arab world. He argued that the subject that has received most attention in political science is the question of authoritarianism and absence of democracy. The question of why there are no democracies has offered a number of possible reasons including: the qualities and consequences of oil and rentier politics; absent or weak civil societies in the Arab world; social class-based explanations; the issue of political liberalization instead of democratization; external factors such as US support for authoritarian regimes, which he argued has not decreased since the end of the Cold War; regional conflicts like Palestine/Israel and the Gulf wars; institutions of authoritarianism including how elections, parliaments and single parties work; Islamist politics creating deep divisions among opposition groups; and patronage, clientelism and the (absence of) social contract.

Prof. Shehata then proceeded to say that there has been some positive development in the approach to democracy in the Arab world, but that there remains insufficient attention to the regional dimensions of authoritarianism. He argued that the Arab world is authoritarian not just on the state level, but also on the regional level. As International Relations specialists have spoken about the existence of an Arab regional system, the institutional dimension of this system, such as the Arab League, needs to be studied.

He stated that there are three mechanisms of the reproduction of authoritarianism on the regional level: authoritarian learning, authoritarian cooperation, and regional organizations. Cases of authoritarian learning take both direct and indirect forms where certain regimes “learn” from one another. He gave the example of constitutional amendments that allow elections but that give the illusion of competition, where electoral outcomes are similar. In Tunisia, for example, Ben Ali “learned” from the Algerian experience by not allowing Islamists an electoral opening.

Authoritarian cooperation, he went to argue, occurs mainly regarding security matters. He gave the example of certain activists not being to allowed certain countries in the Arab world (like the Tunisian Moncif Marzouki, who was not allowed into Lebanon). Such “cooperation” widens the scope of authoritarianism beyond the borders of individual states.

Prof. Shehata’s ended with a discussion of the third mechanism, regional organizations. He talked about institutionalized cooperation within the Arab League and the GCC, calling the Arab League a “club for authoritarian regimes” that is not committed to democracy. An example of this in action is the Arab League accords on security and anti-terrorism which have ended up extending authoritarian rules across the Arab world. Another example is the Arab media charter that was put in place in February 2008, and which limits internet and media freedom. Prof. Shehata acknowledged that further research needs to be done on those three mechanisms and the floor was then opened to questions from the audience.