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Reviewed by Nathan Lean, Writer and scholar on the Middle East
Routledge, 2014. 320 pages. $145.00, hardcover.
In the wake of massive demonstrations in 2010 that led to the so-called Arab Spring, scholars from a variety of disciplines have sought to explain the phenomenon of authoritarianism in the Middle East. Some analyses were more cogent than others, but the vast majority of the literature that flew off the presses epitomized the failure of valuing expediency over patient explanation. Fortunately, Noureddine Jebnoun, Mehrdad Kia and Mimi Kirk recognized the need for a volume that focused on the forest, not just the trees. Modern Middle East Authoritarianism: Roots, Ramifications, and Crisis offers a detailed account of the machinations that authoritarian leaders have deployed to prolong their rule. As current events render democratic flag waving in the region premature, this book stands out as a perceptive and reasoned take — one whose chapters are bound by neither rigid realism nor cautious optimism.
Edited volumes present challenges that single-author works do not. Often, the plurality of voices makes it difficult to maintain a cohesive narrative. An important dimension of this volume, though, is its ability to navigate that terrain. Its thematic organization (historical pathways to authoritarian government, the specific coercive mechanisms that characterize them, and the politicization of religion within an authoritarian tinderbox) offers a comprehensive framework that is balanced by a superstar selection of individual contributors, nearly all of them celebrated experts in their fields. Their counterintuitive essays challenge what we know — and what we think we know — about authoritarian governments in the Middle East without regurgitating chunks of the tired-yet-revered arguments of other giants in the field. Michael Hudson, for example, convincingly argues that the study of "political culture" must bypass strict empiricism and reductionism and include a more wholesome methodology that considers the subtle dynamics of subcultures. In a similar vein, Eric Davis argues that it is difficult to understand the trajectory of Islamism on the basis of theory alone; political and social change, he argues, are not theorized, and Islamism (his case studies include Iraq and Egypt) must be understood as ever-changing ideology, the adherents of which may adopt a variety of positions over time.
These discussions comprise, in part, a selection of chapters that exhibit balance in diversity. Geographically, Iran, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq are represented. Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf states are woven in and out of broader discussions, though they are not configured into any particular narrative in an obviously central way. Part of what jerks this edition out of the chaotic immediacy of the "Arab Spring" and into a family of literature with more staying power is its incorporation of chapters by Shireen Hunter, Mehrdad Kia and Ali Ansari, all of whom focus on Iran. That one-quarter of the book veers off in the direction of one specific country feels a bit heavy, but there is little overlap or repetition in the different treatments (historical, political and religious) of the Islamic Republic. Hunter's chapter, "Barriers to Reform in Iran," which paints modernization as a process whereby religion is largely absent, stands out as a passionate defense of secularism amid other nuanced understandings. Ronald Bruce St John's discussion of Libyan institutions that were erected to reinforce the legitimacy of Muammar Gaddafi is notable, too, especially in light of the fact that the country has received less attention in scholarly discourses on authoritarian resilience.
Another valuable component of this volume is its incorporation of primary source material, particularly in the form of interviews and participant observation. While theoretical discussions add a necessary foundation, the details that burst through Joshua Stacher's presentation on the state of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood under the administration of Hosni Mubarak — gleaned from a series of meetings with Freedom and Justice Party officials in Cairo in 2009 — show and tell. Similarly, there are few scholars today whose close connections to their subjects of research yield the intricate knowledge that Noureddine Jebnoun imparts to his readers. His chapter on the authoritarian path of Ben Ali's Tunisia (and its dismal end) is replete with minutiae that stem not only from his years of studying his home country from abroad, but from his experiences under the former regime — including forced exile — and an uncanny ability to tap into its halls of power and dredge information that reveals and clarifies otherwise hidden and nebulous truths (See, for instance, Noureddine Jebnoun, "Tunisia at the Crossroads: An Interview with Sheikh Rachid al-Ghannouchi," ACMCU Occasional Paper Series, April 2014).
Modern Middle East Authoritarianism: Roots, Ramifications, and Crisis is an exceptional addition to the existing body of scholarship on authoritarianism in the Middle East, and in general. It accurately reflects the various dynamics that animate authoritarian governments in the region and offers an astute set of observations about the origins and persistence of this phenomenon. Its relevance and rigor make it a useful tool for students of Middle Eastern politics and history, while its clear assessments of policy render it a necessary resource for policy makers. Many have come close to producing a book of this caliber, but few have patiently labored through analyses of a region swirling in change and delivered a product that may well become a staple of its discipline. The editors and contributors of this volume have done just that.