Reflections on the endurance of authoritarianism: how should we try to understand it?

What tools are most useful in assessing authoritarianism and change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)? In answering that question, I think it’s best to think back to Anderson 2006, and the analogy of a streetlight. Anderson’s key complaint in 2006 is that scholars of the Middle East often attempt to retrofit modes of analysis designed for other countries onto the MENA context, and furthermore that many observers of events in MENA rely on simplistic analyses of “Islam” or “Arab culture” to explain what comes to pass in the region. Most Western observers look within the boundaries of what they already know to understand the region, and in this they fail to observe the details beyond those boundaries (or not “illuminated” by what they already know). Only through a particular and careful search outside those boundaries can we learn much of anything.

I tend to agree with that perspective. Certainly, if our goal is to develop a regional understanding, or to put the Middle East in context with other parts of the world or other trends in the world, we necessarily have to generalize. As a group we are studying “Authoritarianism and Change in the Middle East and North Africa”, not specifically in Iran or Tunisia or Egypt. For these examples to have any utility in explaining broader trends, they need to illustrate something that can be expanded outwards. We need something to say about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, their particular influence as an increasingly right-wing vanguard in Iranian politics; we need something to say about the Islamist-secular divide in Tunisia; we need something to say about the economic involvement of the Egyptian military, and so on.

What factors are most useful to analyzing in specifics? Historical factors seem to be the most relevant. I’m not sure many other factors really exist. By that, I mean that any other factors must be understood in the context of the historical environment into which they were injected. We’ve spoken a lot about resource endowments, and indeed oil is one of the most cited “explanations” for why the region is the way it is. But oil itself doesn’t bequeath a person or a group or a nation with political power. Someone has to extract it, someone has to sell it, and someone has to create firms to accrue revenue from those sales. At each point along this chain, the context in which that oil was found can be decisive. A nation like Norway can extract substantial amounts of oil and remain a stable, liberal democracy; a nation like Saudi Arabia can extract substantial amounts of oil and thereby sustain one of the world’s more repressive government. Ross’s 2001 oil “Does oil hinder democracy?” attempts to quantify the relationship between oil or oil-like extraction and a nation’s regime type, by mapping out the relationship between a nation’s democracy “score” and the percentage of their economy comprised of oil rents. The problem with such an approach is that most nations whose economies are comprised substantially of oil rents are nations with a shared history, (primarily, that of colonialism, or at the least, foreign economic domination and resulting underdevelopment). The non-democratic governments of many of these nations may be sustained through oil rents, but it is not as though these countries had developed, industrial, liberal democracies that suddenly reverted at the discovery of oil. Many of them had never reached such a state previously. Many of the MENA states currently reliant on oil were either monarchies or under the dominion of colonial governments at the time that oil was discovered. At best, they were very new states.

As such, it seems like a cop-out to say “it’s the oil” to explain the persistence of authoritarianism. For authoritarianism to persist, it must first exist, and resource endowments seem to lack explanatory power for that. To an extent, I think regime-type based analysis can fall victim to similar problems. It may not make sense to start at a given nation’s regime type in the present day and then try to generalize. Without thinking about the history of these regimes, we miss crucial context that may be necessary. That being said, history may be something of an endogenous variable for regime-type based analysis. Current societies exist in the craters and canyons of those which came before them. That there is a monarchy in Morocco necessitates basic historical conclusions – at some point a dynasty took power, no effort to replace it has succeeded, the current king is related to the prior one – even if more profound ones remain evasive.

I think that a case-specific study, such as Lisa Wedeen’s Ambiguities of Domination, yields the most explanatory power. The key strength of such an analysis is that it starts from the ground level and works upwards. It begins by interpreting the behavior of individuals and small groups within a society and moves towards a broader analysis of the society as a whole. (This is not to say that Wedeen attempts to account for every single variable, as doing so would be likely unachievable in a book of reasonable length). Doing so allows us to account for different variables at the scales at which they become relevant. Perhaps it’s equivalent to studying the body. Ultimately, the greatest advances in medical science have come not from looking at the body and working backwards, (that which ancient doctors had to do in their era), but from looking at the cell, then the tissue, then the organ, (that which modern doctors have done since the development of the microscope). The techniques of medical science and the social sciences are not the same, of course. But especially on this subject we are doing something similar. We’re trying to understand why a certain set of systems are producing a certain problem. We’re not sure if that problem emerges from the environment in which those systems exist, or a defect in one of those systems, or a particular type of wear on those systems, or a natural but ultimately harmful interaction between those systems. And, if we’re acting with the diligence that we should be, we want to know with precision what is wrong. It may be more expensive, in time and energy and paper, to break the Middle East and North African societies down to their component parts. But it’s what we have to do if we want a treatment plan that is more useful than “Get some sleep, drink water, and exercise.”






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *