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From Ballots to Bullets: Arab Uprising and the Reoccurrence of Authoritarian Politics

Since the end of the Cold War, much of the turmoil in the Middle East has been caused by the religiopolitical identity of different countries of the region. Since Islam is the dominant religion of the region, almost all of the scholarly work produced about its politics revolves around the theme of political Islam.

From Ballots to Bullets Arab Uprising and the Reoccurrence of

Building the Rule of Law in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt and Beyond

Edited by Eva Bellin and Heidi E. Lane
London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016, 311 pages, $ 72, ISBN: 9781626372788

The Arab World Upended: Revolution and its Aftermath in Tunisia and Egypt

By David B. OttawayBoulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2017, 269 pages, $ 72.00, ISBN: 9781626376205

Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World

By Rex Brynen, Pete W. Moore, Bassel F. Salloukh and Marie-Joelle Zahar
Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012, 349 pages, $ 20.66, ISBN: 9781588268785



Since the end of the Cold War, much of the Middle East has been caused by the religiopolitical identity of different countries of the region. Since Islam is the dominant religion of the region, almost all of the scholarly work produced about its politics revolves around the theme of political Islam. Previously, academics had attempted to theorize the authoritarian sustenance of the region with a disdainful thread of Arab exceptionalism. But the sudden collapse of that authoritarianism in the wake of the Arab Uprisings. The institutional setup of authoritarianism failed to stand against the democratic aspiration.

Before the Uprisings, no Arab country had witnessed free and fair elections to choose their leaders. Electioneering had always been a tool in the hands of powerful military dictators or monarchs to sustain their rule and further their personal interests at the cost of collective suffering. In the absence of any democratic setup, maintaining the rule of law. The states had institutionalized corruption. In the case of an individual's merit.

Religion has always played a significant role in shaping the political identity of citizens in the Arab world. Inversely, religion has also been misused by the regimes to seek legitimacy. However, whenever there have been movements, (especially with religious inspiration) which sought to challenge the existing authority, regimes mostly sought refuge in coercion and military power to suppress the dissenters. During the Arab uprisings, the Islamists used to support them.

Islamists –especially the Muslim Brotherhood– enjoyed greater support in the countries where the Uprisings attempted to bring about a change. When the revolutionary flames subsided and actual reform process began to take place, an unprecedented leadership vacuum came to the fore. There was no suitable person to rally behind. Thus, in the first ever democratically held elections, Islamists emerged triumphant. The Islamist victory, however, was not because of the pragmatic solutions offered by the Islamists.

When the reform process began in Egypt artstarting with the redrafting of the constitution– the Islamists enjoyed a majority in the drafting committee. The influence of the majority of the constitution.

Such a short span of time. But there are two important factors that have played a role in destabilizing the democratically elected government: i. ii). This doubt was misused by the deep state and the liberal opposition which, in the end, was dragging in. The Islamists on their part –especially in Egypt– made certain political miscalculations. This, as a result, became a rallying point for the opposition.

The Uprising, the electoral process that followed, and the subsequent reformation that went through the political institutions.


Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World

In Beyond the Arab Spring: In the Arab World, in the Middle East. Theories of Arab were exceptionalism. The transition period, however, saw the uprising.

This book is an attempt to explain the political uprising through a certain theoretical debate analyzing political culture, economic stability, institutional change, and the emerging discourse about political Islam, especially in the Arab world. The arguments garner a sense of continuity in theoretical understanding regarding the decades of authoritarianism and the post-uprising transition. The authors argue that any debate aimed at deconstructing the current political turmoil of the Arab world ought to comprehensively analyze the preceding decades of authoritarian persistence.

The book begins with a basic anecdotal evaluation of the uprising. It builds the debate by tracing similarities between the Egyptian and Tunisian Uprisings and subsequently comparing them with those of Algeria, Morocco, and Libya. Though all these countries share certain institutional values, the rigid institutional setting and historical legacies prevented any substantial change from occurring. In Egypt, the transition process came with a hope of revolution. Yet soon after the first ever democratically held elections, the counter-revolutionary forces ousted the democratically elected president to restore dictatorship.

In Arab Mashriq, though the monarchies promised institutional reform to enhance the freedom and security of its citizens, no significant institutional changes took place after the uprising subsided. The relationship shared by the regime and military forces, and the complexity of domestic social cleavages made the case of any genuine transformation even more arduous. The Arab Mashriq is mostly divided between the larger identity of its rivaling allies, Iran or Saudi Arabia. It becomes inevitable for these two countries to protect their interests in the region by supporting their own proxies. Arab Mashriq has been a battleground for the global powers too; any engagement, or confrontation, by the regional powers simultaneously involves the ardent role of global powers to secure their interests. Thus any significant political change is unlikely to occur unless it is initiated by the interests of global powers and their regional allies.

The authors turn to the methodological debate to further explain the uprising through a series of essays. They debate the political culture of the region before giving their summary about the significance of political Islam. Islamists in the region do not focus on absolutist rhetoric but rather value practical choices, like the Brotherhood’s decades of grassroot work despite being suppressed and marginalized by the regimes.

The book further looks into the making of institutions within the region, especially in the wake of economic liberalization. It assesses the role played by the Arab media, and the influence of international powers in either the promotion of democracy or the sustenance of authoritarianism in the region. Almost all the media, barring social networking, serve as a tool for the promotion of the interests of the regime. Covert external support to regimes also allows them to ignore any genuine efforts to reform.

As the title suggests, the book intends to provide a certain understanding of the post-uprising politics of the Arab region. But the politics in the region are so volatile, it is almost impossible to offer any concrete analysis about how incidents are likely to unfold in future. Overall, the variety of essays in this compilation provides a good, basic understanding of contemporary Arab politics.

Among other significant debates, the book comprehensively explains how political culture influences the formation of institutions in the Arab political arena. The authors approach the problem from three different academic positions: the essentialist approach, the contextual approach, and the critical approach. The epistemological discussion that follows explains how the overdependence of the Middle Eastern countries on oil revenues and foreign aid subtly promotes authoritarianism.


The Arab World Upended

Among all of the countries where the Arab Uprising sought to bring change, Tunisia and Egypt stand out. Both of these countries hold a significant place in the Arab political arena. Most of the reformist thinkers of Islamic politics in the Arab world have been a part of the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda – the two religiopolitical movements which emerged from Egypt and Tunisia respectively. Because of their political idealism, these movements influenced a dominant sector of society. In both of these countries, the regime has always seen Islamists as a major threat to their survival. To limit their influence in mobilizing public dissent, the authoritarian leaders muzzled any activism aimed at building opposition to these regimes, mostly by imprisoning the members associated with these organizations.

The book offers a comprehensive introduction to the events that unfolded in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The author uses Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution (1938), as the basis to formulate his argument. Ottaway, who was a student of Brinton at Howard, classifies multiple stages of the French, English, Russian, and American revolutions to assess the transition in the Middle East. It began with the collapse of the ancient regime. The stagnation brought by the authoritarian persistence had left little hope for a sudden collapse of the regime. This was followed by a period of “dual sovereignty,” where the moderates and the better organized “extremist revolutionaries,” strove to gain absolute control over the state. By “extremist revolutionaries,” the author hints toward the Islamist opposition whose decades of social work had rendered them better organized and made them favorites in the elections that followed.

Ottaway gradually moves the debate toward the subsequent period of drafting the new constitution where the moderates found themselves losing the revolution due to the dominance of the Islamists in the parliament. This dominance, of course, influenced the way the new constitution was to be drafted. Thus, the period of “dual sovereignty” finished in “thermidorian” counterrevolution. This is the third phase of the process of transition where moderates –with the due support of the deep state and external agents– started the counterrevolution. Another authoritarian figure came to the fore that used the legitimacy of counterrevolution. Ottaway calls this phase the “restoration,” of the old order.

Brinton argues that the ability of a regime to rule effectively is directly linked with its ability to maintain economic stability (p. 11). When a regime fails to act on the demands of the society, the dissent against its rule is more likely to shape collective social perception. The literature produced in haste following the Arab Uprising jumped to conclusions, with some scholars calling the unfolding events a ‘revolution’ and others, an ‘Arab spring.’ In parsing this distinction it is essential to understand what constitutes a revolution. Mere regime change doesn’t make a revolution.

Ottaway evokes Dmitry Ivanov’s assertions about “similarities and regularities” in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. He asserts three major causes for the uprising and the unprecedented collapse of authoritarianism: the “ability of the old elite to govern, loyalty among young people from the lower middle class, and lowering living standards making fast and massive mobilization possible (p. 11). Considering Brinton’s study, Ottaway emphasizes the role played by dissatisfied intellectuals in the outbreak of a revolution.

One of the major strengths of the book is the effort afforded to rationalize the debate about the Islamists’ idea of revolution, which Ottaway attempts to do via personal interviews with Islamist scholars. However, the problem with the book is the author’s preconceived assumption about what constitutes ‘liberal’ and what is ‘radical.’ This is an issue with most of the scholarly work produced on the theme of Islamic politics. Neither is Islamism inherently violent, nor are the anti-religious forces necessarily moderate or liberal.

Ottaway leads the debate towards the question of what constitutes legitimacy –pitting revolutionary legitimacy and constitutional legitimacy against each other. On different occasions, one notion triumphs over the other. Revolutionary legitimacy depends more upon street strength or mass mobilization at a particular point of transition. But once the revolutionary din subsides, the constitutional legitimacy ought to stand taller than the street outcry; a legitimate constitution has to consider the minorities and even the rights of those against whom the revolution occurred.

The book explains various stages of the transition process in Egypt and Tunisia. Both of these countries followed a pretty similar trajectory beginning with the collapse of long-standing dictators and the subsequent victory of Islamists in the first ever democratically held elections. Then came the point of divergence, after the electoral victory of the Islamists, Egypt rose against the democratically elected Islamist government, and against what they called the misappropriation –and consolidation– of power.

During the drafting of the new constitution, a large section of Egyptian society saw the Islamist-dominated drafting committee ignoring the demands of the secularists. Then came the November 22, 2012 decree issued by Mohamed Morsi which aimed at the consolidation of presidential power. This subsequently led to a unified opposition by the secularists, the deep state and the military against the Morsi government. On June 30, 2013, the Egyptian army gave an ultimatum to the ruling government to fix these problems. After the government failed to reach to a settlement with the protesting opposition, the army stepped in on July 3 and launched a soft coup to dethrone the first ever democratically elected government. Army General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the head of the coup, orchestrated unprecedented levels of bloodshed against the Brotherhood supporters. Tunisia, however, dealt with the transition process in a relatively mature way and avoided any possibility of bloodshed.

Ottaway highlights four key differences in the transition processes of Egypt and Tunisia, the most important among them is the nonpolitical role of the military in Tunisia. Though it took time for the political parties to reach to a settlement, the military remained aloof from intervening in any political settlement.

Another significant factor was that the Islamists could not secure a parliamentary majority in Tunisia as they had in Egypt. This ensures that Tunisian secularists and Islamists are at an equal negotiating position. The third crucial variable in Tunisia’s relatively smooth transition was the “unique nature of the Tunisian civil society” (p. 250). Although Tunisian dictators did not allow much freedom for any voices of dissent, the country still had ‘embryonic independent power centers’ which ensured a smooth transition process.

And finally, the role played by the leadership –especially Rached Ghannouchi– helped bring about a peaceful resolution of the disputes between the Islamists and secularists. Ottaway calls Ghannouchi a political leader ‘par excellence.’ Unlike Tunisia, Egypt’s Brotherhood failed to produce a suitable candidate with a clear political vision to deal with post-revolution obstacles.


Building the Rule of Law in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt and Beyond

At a practical level, no reform is possible in the Arab world unless there is a radical reform in the role of the military in Arab politics. The military governs everything –the judiciary, the press, the politics, and, in most cases, even economic institutions. In Tunisia and Egypt as much as in other parts of the Arab world– any reform directed at institutions other than the military will be of little substance.

Building the Rule of Law in the Arab World aims to summarize what constitutes the rule of law as a universally accepted phenomenon and how it can be applied to govern the sociopolitical landscape of the Arab region. The discourse and plot of the book mainly revolve around post-uprising Arab politics. The authors essentially look into the possibilities of how to frame the institutions –judiciary, military, police, and anticorruption institutions– to maintain the rule of law. As such, the readership for this academic debate are reformers who seek to draw the debate into a more practical form to establish a procedure for a democratic political system. Rule of law ensures accountability for all – the rulers and the ruled. The authoritarian system possesses its own notion of rule of law and thus believes that its system of governance is as lawful as any other nonauthoritarian political system. But none of the countries within the Arab world have been able to maintain the rule of law desired by a just political system.

This book –largely cherished as a hopeful way out from the coercive and undemocratic system of governance in the Arab region– has apparently failed to make any real impact on the ground. It was born on a hope of a new dawn. But as time passed by, the hope of any substantial reform vanished as the Arab political spectrum regressed into chaos and dictators reemerged at the helm of affairs.

It is pertinent to understand that in the Arab world, no genuine reform is possible without the sincere efforts of both regional and global leaders. The political divide between Iran and Saudi Arabia –and its influence on their regional allies– reduces the possibilities of independent reform attempted by regional countries. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood-led government initiated some independent reforms after being elected to power. This reform process was not in favor of Saudi Arabia and its global political patrons –a clear violation of Arabian political protocol where any reform ought to comply with the collective benefit of the alliance.

In a system of authoritarian sustenance, such political allegiance is a barrier to genuine reform. Entrenched elites and people responsible to initiate reform do not give up on their interests. The author argues that the “only way to overcome this opposition is to mobilize power against power and interests against interests” (p. 5).

The book demonstrates that the significance of “political will” in the reform process is quintessential. The fact is that Arabs are living under ideological colonialism. So it is imperative that any reform process begin at this level. If the institutions remain entrenched in their beliefs, any reform at the other levels cannot make any substantial impact.

The reform system as a whole; rather, they emphasize how the behavior of political actors at the helm of affairs. The book attempts to explain why there are different institutions in Egypt and Tunisia. As the process of transition in the wake of the Arab uprising continued, some of the institutions and actors at which the reform was directed grew even stronger.

Overall, all these books offer a basic understanding of contemporary politics in the Middle East. They initiate a debate that needs further scholarly attention.

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