Eberhard Kienle and Nadine Sika, eds. The Arab Uprisings: Transforming and Challenging State Power (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Eberhard Kienle (EK) and Nadine Sika (NS): In spite of many qualities, most academic work published during and after the “Arab Spring” had two drawbacks: it paid insufficient attention to differences among the countries in which people took to the streets and to the specific conditions and history of each of these countries. Sometimes it looked as if – however unintentionally–events and developments were seen through an old-fashioned Arab nationalist lens that obfuscated differences and idiosyncrasies. No doubt the common language and the widely shared experience of colonialism and imperialism helped to ignite the spark in several places at roughly the same time. However, very quickly events took rather different turns which could easily be related to societal, economic, and political conditions which themselves were the product of history–or, to be more precise, of the different histories of the various states. Tunisia, for instance, was a political entity before the French arrived in the nineteenth century and temporarily ruled it; Syria, on the other hand, became a political entity only after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, its borders being delineated by the winners of World War One and its institutions being established by the French.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
EK and NS: Each contribution in its own way seeks to understand why contestation and regime reaction to contestation differed from country to country. There were large-scale protests in some places, less important ones in others; here they were more sustained, there less; some of them took place in smaller towns, others in capital cities; even the protesters themselves were not the same–I mean sociologically speaking. And the same of course is true for regime responses that put more or less emphasis on repression, cooptation, and concessions.
In order to make sense of these differences, the authors draw on debates on state formation, political economy, and political sociology. Collectively, they claim that recent events cannot be disassociated from long-term developments in the countries concerned. There is no study of contemporary politics without the study of history, a conclusion that also applies to the dynamics of social movements and collective action.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
EK and NS: The volume breaks new ground as it discusses an issue that previously has not been much debated in the vast literature dedicated to the Arab Spring, nor indeed by the two co-authors and the other contributors. However, at the same time, it builds on their earlier work on the protests and their consequences and of course on the countries in which they took place; it also reflects the authors’ more general hesitation to accept received wisdoms and to join whatever marks mainstream work.
Thus, Nadine Sika in her previous work focused on the political economy of the region and how it impacted social protests. She also focused on social movements and contentious politics under authoritarian regimes to understand the variances in the outcomes of mass uprisings in the region.
For his part, Eberhard Kienle insisted that economic explanations alone, especially those focusing on poverty, inequality and other forms of “loss” cannot explain the wide-spread popular contestation that unfolded in 2010 and afterwards. In an earlier period, when economic liberalization was celebrated as the harbinger of political liberalization, he showed that in actual fact the opposite could be true: in Egypt, economic liberalization strengthened the authoritarian Mubarak regime until it fell. At the same time, he identified the flaws of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership that neither contributed to much economic development in the Southern Mediterranean countries, nor to their transition to democracy and the respect of human rights.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EK and NS: The volume is of interest to anyone who seeks to understand why the Arab Spring has taken such different turns and why political developments in the various countries, in spite of some similarities, have by no means been identical. Though based on an academic project sponsored by the European University Institute, the volume addresses itself to a broader audience interested in the recent and current transformations affecting the Middle East. The authors and contributors would like to engage with academic colleagues, students, policymakers, professionals and the politically interested public. Ultimately, the contributors hope to convince the reader that current affairs cannot be analyzed without reference to history, even though, obviously, familiarity with history does not allow us to anticipate the present or the future.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EK and NS: Eberhard Kienle continues his earlier work on the political economy of the Middle East. He tries to understand and explain the key features of economic and social policies after the Arab Spring–policies that in various respects resemble those pursued prior to the protests. Though important, international constraints such as the workings of contemporary, “neoliberal” capitalism are not the only reason. He also has a fresh look at so-called failed states; thus, he tries to find out for which reasons some of them have failed to fail thoroughly and why they have not disappeared from the map.
Nadine Sika expands her previous work on contentious politics in the Middle East and North Africa. She tries to understand the extent to which authoritarian regimes influence–and are influenced by–the activities of social movements. Her most recent book is Youth Activism in Egypt: Dynamics of Continuity and Change (2017).
J: What might your book tell us about the future?
EK and NS: We are not quite sure who was the first to say that “it is difficult to make predictions–especially about the future.” Several great names are credited with this saying, which applies even more in a time when predictions and scenarios seem to replace sound analysis, which at best helps to distinguish between more and less likely outcomes.
This being said, the volume helps to understand that the future cannot be easily disassociated from the past. On the basis of what we know of the history of Tunisia and Syria, neither the yet-tentative transition to a more participatory political regime in Tunisia, nor the current war in Syria, are surprising. But once again: hindsight is not prediction. With this caveat in mind, as well as the logics of path dependency that influence events (without necessarily determining them), it seems highly likely that polities, politics, and also policies will continue to vary significantly from one Arab country to another. Even if the war ends, there is, sadly, little hope that in the near future Syria will resemble Tunisia. Conversely, if people take again to the streets in Tunisia, the outcome is very unlikely to be a war like that in Syria. Divergence in the short and medium term does not, though, exclude convergence in the long term. Who in the days of Salazar would have thought that Portugal would one day be an electoral democracy like the United Kingdom? But here, we obviously enter the realm of speculation.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
In spite of numerous similarities, recent forms of contestation in the various Arab countries and their broader political effects display important differences. For instance, incumbents fell quickly in Tunisia and Egypt, while they (have) managed to cling on for a considerable length of time in Libya and Syria. Protests were overwhelmingly peaceful in the former two countries but, as they dragged on, turned increasingly violent in the latter two. In Tunisia and Syria they started in peripheral areas of the state, while in Egypt they began in the capital city, partly reflecting the roles of different social groups and constituencies. In the meantime developments in Tunisia have turned into a democratic transition of sorts, while Egypt may return to a different form of authoritarian rule.
Why were Mubarak and Bin Ali ousted rather peacefully in Egypt and Tunisia, while Qadafi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen fought violent battles against their opponents? Why do political transformations differ in countries that were able to shed their autocratic presidents? And why have other regimes, including Morocco and Saudi Arabia, experienced only limited protests or managed to repress and circumvent them?
This volume analyses the recent popular uprisings commonly referred to as the Arab Spring and their impact on politics and polities in the light of the ‘nature’ of the states concerned. Differences in terms of contestation, regime response, and the ensuing political dynamics seem to reflect the historical processes that have shaped states, societies and political economies. The relatively smooth process of change in Tunisia may reflect the relative success of state and nation-building strategies pursued over centuries by ruling groups that tended by and large to rule over the same territory and the same population. Put differently, Tunisia comes close to the nation state defined as a legally established entity whose boundaries coincide with those of an imagined community that commands the ultimate loyalty of its members. In contrast, Libya, Yemen and Syria are ‘territorial states’ whose boundaries do not coincide with those of an imagined community. Instead, they include a variety of loyalty groups that also frequently extend beyond state borders.
The literature on the recent protests has mostly focused on similarities rather than differences among Arab regimes. For instance, it put considerable emphasis on the crisis of authoritarianism that had developed throughout the region. Similarly, it stressed the importance of economic and social grievances, in particular related to poverty and inequality, and popular mobilization and collective action against the backdrop of social movement theories have been much debated. It largely ignored an older literature that had already related politics to differences at the level of state formation. Analysing recent events in the light of long-term transformations will not only help to contextualize past and current developments, but also allow us to avoid more outlandish guesses about likely developments in the future.
Processes of state formation may indeed account for many of the differences that have marked events and developments since 2010. In many cases, decolonization left
Arab states …formally independent and sovereign, [but] hardly any of them unconditionally accept[ed] the legitimacy of its own statehood. The fact of the matter is that these states have, for a good part of the twentieth century, been caught up in the pull and push of conflicting forces, some coming from domestic centrifugal sources such as ethnic and sectarian divisions and some from the universal forces of pan-Arabism and pan-Islam, both of which draw away from the legitimacy of statehood enjoyed by these countries.
In the Levant and the broader Fertile Crescent, the imperial powers drew the boundaries of the political entities that later were to become independent states in line with the reach of their own power and influence. By implication, they created entities unable to accommodate existing solidarities and patterns of exchange. In some areas like Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, processes of state formation had preceded the arrival of the imperialist powers. However, even in these cases the latter were essential at least in endorsing and consolidating the boundaries of the emerging states. In the Arab parts of the Persian Gulf the British often propped up fragile rulers and again defined the boundaries of the areas they allowed them to administer.
Processes of state formation also had an impact on the types of political regimes (or ‘forms of government’) that came to dominate the entities concerned. Although partly endogenous, the processes of state formation were influenced, and in some cases even initiated, by foreign powers. The Moroccan and the Egyptian monarchies had taken shape before the physical arrival of the French and the British, who nonetheless remodelled them before endorsing them as their local agents. Mutatis mutandis, the same applies to the monarchies in the Gulf and their former counterpart in Tunisia. As to the Hashemite monarchies, they were part and parcel of the demiurgic creation of Iraq and (Trans) Jordan by the British, while the Syrian republic was a product of the French mandate.
However, the impact that the type of political regime had on protests and subsequent developments can analytically be disassociated from their historical origins. On the face of it, monarchies weathered the Arab spring storms better than republics, but in reality matters may be slightly more complex. Most likely the rentier monarchies survived largely unscathed thanks to the rents that they could mobilize to persuade the discontented to renew the old authoritarian bargain. The most contested monarchy has been that of Bahrain, a fading rentier state unable to defend this bargain because of a sectarian divide that heavily affects access to resources. The least contested monarchies have been those of Morocco and (to an extent) Jordan, which had put in place institutions and mechanisms underscoring their – however hollow – claim to reign but not to rule.
Like regime types (or ‘forms of government’), political economies in the sense of the political organization of economic activities are historically related to processes of state formation, but analytically distinct. Their characteristics form the third group of variables that have shaped the dynamics of protests, regime responses and ensuing political dynamics discussed in this volume. Although perhaps most frequently referred to, rents are only one relevant variable alongside many others, including the so-called old (and defunct) social contract, successive economic reforms privileging first the public and later segments of the private sector, related political capitalism or cronyism, politically heavily biased and imperfect markets, and economic and social grievances including inequality cemented by authoritarianism and lack of accountability.