Ottaway argues that a political paradigm shift has not occurred in the Arab world, borrowing Thomas Kuhn’s insights on scientific revolutions and paradigmatic shifts in scientific inquiry. A paradigmatic shift in political structure and practice, Ottaway writes, requires the “abandoning…of old assumptions about the fundamental organization of the polity, the relation between the government and the citizens, and thus the source, distribution and exercise of political power (p. 7).” This point of departure mirrors the findings and recommendations of recent studies dealing with authoritarian reversals in the Arab world. In particular, research on the authoritarian phenomenon in the Arab world concludes that the post-independence, hegemonic nation-building project, which continues to persevere despite domestic and international challenges, has to be dismantled for political transformation to occur.
Ottaway compellingly translates this finding into a conceptual framework for the evaluation of country-specific reform, one that simultaneously gauges scholarly theories and policy or development initiatives. Yet her assertion that students of democratization continue to follow the dominant three-step transitions paradigm — liberalization, followed by competitive, multiparty elections and completed with democratic consolidation — does not necessarily reflect more recent research on political transitions. This simplistic, process-oriented career model of democratic transitions was initially challenged by Ottaway’s colleague Thomas Carothers, and revised by various scholars even beyond political science. The reversal of the process of democratization despite partial liberalization and the holding of elections has in the last decade unleashed an entire new literature questioning the validity of the transitions paradigm. Ottaway’s central argument is nonetheless clear: political reform in the Arab world is an empty project without a significant redistribution of power.
The contributors to the volume’s individual country studies (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen) each evaluate whether political reforms have been genuine or cosmetic, and whether prospects for a significant redistribution of power are promising. Following Ottaway’s critique of the transitions paradigm, the case studies clearly demonstrate that democratization is not an even process. It is, rather, a unique and complex experience that varies by country and is rooted in distinct historical contexts, different relationships with external actors, varying levels of domestic or regional conflict, and different population distributions as well as ethnic and sectarian divisions, among other disparate elements. Yet, despite such variation and the need for country-focused strategies as stressed by Julia Chaucair-Vizoso in the conclusion, certain regional generalizations can be made. First, a main impediment to the redistribution of power in all Arab countries is the weak political party system and the lack of a viable and strong opposition (whether secular or Islam-based) caused by the centralization of political power in either one-party states (Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Yemen), or monarchical hybrid regimes (Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait), or the conflict-ridden state structures of Palestine and Lebanon. Second, several contributors stress the modernizing rather than democratizing nature of the reform project. As Marina Ottaway and Meredith Riley aptly analyze in their chapter on Morocco, reforms in areas of human rights, personal status revisions and women’s rights have had a modernizing effect but have not been able to constitute alternative centers of political power. The detailed analysis of the ten cases provides the reader with a thorough backdrop that highlights common impediments yet the necessity for different approaches to political reform. For instance, Nathan Brown argues that the Palestinian Reform Movement has failed to a large extent because of its shaky coalition. In both Morocco (Ottaway and Riley) and Egypt (Dunne and Hamzawy), political parties have been co-opted by the regime with the purpose of thwarting the development of opposition parties as well as weakening the possibility of coalition-formation among the existing oppositional groups. Even though the Moroccan and Egyptian states differ structurally, strategies by the regime to consolidate power have been similar. Despite these parallels in regime tactics, the treatment of Islamist groups in these two cases differs significantly. While Morocco allows the state-sponsored Parti de la Justice et Devéloppement (PJD) to contest elections, Egypt has never legalized the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members run as independents and are routinely harassed and imprisoned by the regime. The Islamic Action Front in Jordan (the Muslim Brotherhood’s party in Jordan) has always been tolerated by the Jordanian monarchy and included in the political processes. Unlike the Islah party in Yemen, it has also moderated significantly on some platform issues. The relationship between the Jordanian monarchy and the Islamist opposition, again, differs drastically from the relationship of the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). As Hugh Roberts writes in his chapter on Algeria, the contentious relationship between the FIS and the FLN-dominated state in Algeria during the country’s first electoral experiment in 1991 resulted in a decade-long civil war. The treatment of Islamist parties is a central theme in most chapters, and as Nathan Brown argues in his chapter on Palestine, especially following Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006, the reform process has to engage, if not fully include, Islamists in the electoral game.
The chapters on Saudi Arabia by Amr Hamzawy and Kuwait by Paul Salem are more concerned with the virtual lack of political parties in the oil-rich Gulf states. Reforms since 2002 in the case of Saudi Arabia, Hamzawy argues, have constituted elements of a meaningful political opening, including the introduction of municipal elections, increased deliberation in public space, and the inclusion of reformists to the Shura council and other public posts. In Kuwait, on the other hand, political contestation has been part of the country’s participatory political culture, and the absence of political parties has been replaced with political societies that back various candidates in elections. Yet, the differences in the two cases are significant: while reforms in Saudi Arabia remain highly controversial, especially regarding gender equity and educational reform, Kuwait’s youth have proven politically active and educated with increased exposure to media outlets. Of course, the political openings in both cases do not constitute political paradigm shifts, but Salem is optimistic about Kuwait’s reform process, while Hamzawy stresses that reforms in Saudi Arabia have to remain modest, given politico-cultural sensitivities and the concentration of power in the hands of the royal family.
The discussion of resource-rich states begs the question of dependence on rentier economies and the prospects for political reform. As Sarah Phillips argues in her chapter on Yemen, the reform process is virtually meaningless in light of Yemen’s institutionalized patronage system. Dismantling the patronage system, or the financial dependency of citizens on the state, requires the opening of new financial avenues and sources for Yemenis. In Algeria, the discovery of hydrocarbons has not only rendered Algeria a rentier economy after allowing the country to pay off its external debt, but has also become a central impediment to political liberalization. In cases such as Yemen and Algeria, the reform process and prospects for redistribution of power are further complicated by international defense strategies that focus on fighting terrorism. In the Algerian case, for instance, this has threatened to remilitarize the state, even under President Bouteflika’s civilian rule. The paradox of increased military assistance and reversal of domestic liberalization reforms is a dominant theme in scholarly debates about the region’s reversal to authoritarianism.
Those studying the political economy of transitions have argued that the redistribution of economic power is the chief prerequisite for political liberalization. In the Jordanian case, as presented by Choucair-Vizoso, the greatest potential for political reform is rooted in economic liberalization programs solidified by U.S. and EU agreements that could affect the regime’s support base. Conversely, Ellen-Lust Okar argues that, in the Syrian case, economic liberalization could have the opposite effect. Should the governing Alawites’ economic base erode as a result of neoliberal economic reforms, the outcome could be social conflict rather than increased political liberalization. According to Lust-Okar’s analysis, democratic reform in Syria is unlikely; any reform project has to be gradual to accommodate potential social upheaval.
The question of societal divisions along sectarian lines and political management following a consociational model is examined by Julia Choucair-Vizoso in her chapter on Lebanese political reforms. Even though Lebanon might be the region’s most democratic country, followed closely by Morocco, it lags behind in the reform process on account of a disproportionate system of confessionalism rooted in the country’s 1932 census. For a meaningful redistribution of power, Choucair-Vizoso argues, Lebanon has to transition into a secular, non-confessional system buttressed by economic liberalization. The concentration of political power in single-party states is probably the most blatant strategy used to frustrate the development of alternative power centers. Yet, as the chapters in this book demonstrate, not all single-party states are structured similarly, and understanding their differences is imperative for targeting the most effective reforms. For instance, Algeria’s one-party regime led by the FLN differs from Tunisia’s Neo-Destour (now RCD) as well as the Baathist regimes. Unlike its one-party neighbors, the FLN is not rooted in a specific party or national ideology but rather is defined by carrying out the functions of the state. According to Hugh Roberts, the ruling FLN, similar to the Egyptian case, is more of a façade for the executive branch, which is dominated by the military.
As the individual case studies in this volume exemplify, top-down reforms that have characterized the mode of the reform project in the Arab world are limited and have contributed to a state of modernization rather than democratization. In her conclusion, Choucair-Vizoso aptly summarizes political-reform priorities: reforming oppositional parties, including reinvigorating the secular opposition in cases such as Morocco; supporting coalitions among oppositional groups; and taking Islamists seriously. She also urges policy makers and development practitioners to align international assistance programs with the visions of domestic reformers. An area that deserved more attention in this volume is increased voter apathy, exemplified by abysmal voter turnout in recent elections in Morocco and Algeria. Political-reform projects have to include civic-education campaigns and stress the dissemination of civic norms, especially if bottom-up reforms are sought.
The book ends on a negative tone, noting that no political paradigm shift has occurred in the region despite limited reforms, and that paradigmatic shifts in the future must not necessarily be democratic in nature. While this conclusion echoes the assumptions laid out in the introduction, it does not do justice to the suggested directions of future reforms stressed by the individual contributors. After all, democratization, as the Western European experience has proven, remains a long, contentious, and complex process.