Discussion Paper

Puzzles of political change in the Middle East: political liberalisation, authoritarian resilience and the question of systemic change

Schlumberger, Oliver
Discussion Paper (5/2021)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

ISBN: 978-3-96021-142-6
DOI: https://doi.org/10.23661/dp5.2021
Preis: 6 €

One decade after the Arab uprisings of 2010/11, the present discussion paper revisits processes of political change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) with a focus on the question of systemic change. Core questions in this context are: How, among all possible varieties of political change, do we know when political change is systemic? When do we speak of “democratisation”, and when of “authoritarian upgrading” or “- re-consolidation”? Can we predict such processes? If not, can we at least tell when systemic transition is more or less likely to occur, and what influences its occurrence? The three parts of this discussion paper build on one another in order to address and answer these puzzles.
The introduction is followed by a conceptual second section (Section 2) that establishes the analytical frame of reference by discussing and defining key concepts needed for understanding and analysing change of and change in political regimes. That way, Part I can then review democratisation theories (Section 3) and distil, from these, variables that aim at explaining why sometimes nondemocratic regimes transform into democracies, whereas in other cases they do not (Section 4). Yet, not all political change is democratising in nature; hence Part II complements the picture by investigating theories of authoritarian resilience (Section 5). From that, it extracts (in Section 6) conditions for authoritarian survival. Based on this analytical groundwork, Part III turns towards the experience of the MENA region and, in a comprehensive section (Section 7), attempts at offering an overview and assessment of political change in that world region by looking at both structural conditions and strategic choices actors have made.
In conclusion (Section 8), the view that Tunisia remains the exceptional case of an at least initially successful transition to democracy is supported.
As democratisation is the outcome most feared by those who hold executive power in most MENA countries, autocrats are – in addition to conducive political and economic factors in the international and regional environments – engaged in constant processes of exchange and “authoritarian learning”. They have devised elaborate strategies to avoid just that: democratisation. Among the most important of such strategies is political reform and liberalisation, which enhance the immediate life expectancy of authoritarian regimes, but at the same time may nurture popular frustration in the long run. However, frustration in large segments of society makes systemic change, if and when it occurs, more likely to be violent and occur through rupture rather than to be peaceful and arise from negotiation. This, in turn, does not bode well for democratisation. Today’s processes of political reform and liberalisation hence tend to effectively prevent systemic change in the short and medium term, and they make violent conflict (including possible state breakdown) a more likely outcome than democratisation in the long run.

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