Lineages of Revolt

Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East

Adam Hanieh

Conventional accounts of political economy in the Middle East tend to adopt a similar methodological approach, which begins, typically, with the basic analytical categories of "state" (al-dawla) and "civil society" (al-mujtama' al-madani). The former is defined as the various political institutions that stand above society and govern a country. The latter is made up of "institutions autonomous from the state which facilitate orderly economic, political and social activity" or, in the words of the Iraqi social scientist Abdul Hussein Shaaban, "the civil space that separates the state from society, which is made up of non-governmental and non-inheritable economic, political, social and cultural institutions that form a bond between the individual and the state." All societies are said to be characterized by this basic division, which sees the state confronted by an agglomeration of atomized individuals, organized in a range of "interest groups" with varying degrees of ability to choose their political representatives and make demands on their political leaders. The institutions of civil society organize and express the needs of people in opposition to the state, "enabling individuals to participate in the public space and build bonds of solidarity." The study of political economy becomes focused upon, as a frequently cited book on the subject explains, "strategies of economic transformation, the state agencies and actors that seek to implement them, and the social actors such as interest groups that react to and are shaped by them."

A conspicuous feature of the Middle East, according to both Arabic- and English-language discussions on these issues, is the region's apparent "resilience of authoritarianism"—the prevalence of states where "leaders are not selected through free and fair elections, and a relatively narrow group of people control the state apparatus and are not held accountable for their decisions by the broader public." While much of the world managed to sweep away dictatorial regimes through the 1990s and 2000s, the Middle East remained largely mired in autocracy and monarchical rule—"the world's most unfree region" as the introduction to one prominent study of authoritarianism in the Arab world put it. A dizzying array of typologies for this authoritarianism has been put forward, characteristically dividing the region between authoritarian monarchies (the Gulf Arab states, Morocco, Jordan) and authoritarian republics (Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia). These authoritarian regimes are typically contrasted with a third category, the so-called democratic exceptions, in which "incumbent executives are able to be removed and replaced." Israel is frequently held up as the archetype of this latter group—with Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq (following the 2003 US invasion) also included, each with a varying "degree" of democracy.

An entire academic industry has developed around attempting to explain the apparent persistence and durability of Middle East authoritarianism. Much of this has been heavily Eurocentric, seeking some kind of intrinsic "obedience to authority" inherent to the "Arab mind." Some authors have focused on the impact of religion, tracing authoritarian rule to the heavy influence of Islam, and the fact that "twentieth-century Muslim political leaders often have styles and use strategies that are very similar to those instituted by the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia some 1400 years ago." Similarly, others have examined the source of regime legitimacy in places such as Saudi Arabia, where the "ruler's personal adherence to religious standards and kinship loyalties" supposedly fit the "political culture" of a society whose reference point is "Islamic theocracy coming from the ablest leaders of a tribe tracing its lineage to the Prophet." Other more modern explanations for authoritarianism have been sought in intra-elite division, leaders' skills at balancing and manipulating different groups in society—so-called statecraft, natural resource endowment, and the role and attitudes of the military. All these approaches share the same core methodological assumption: the key categories for understanding the Middle East—and, indeed, any society—are the state, on one hand, counterposed with civil society, on the other.

This state/civil society dichotomy underlies another frequent (although not unchallenged) assertion made in the literature on the Middle East—that of a two-way, causal link between authoritarianism and the weakness of capitalism. According to this perspective, authoritarianism not only means that political and civil rights are weak or absent but also that the heavy hand of state control interferes with the operation of a capitalist economy. Individuals are prevented from freely engaging in market activities while state elites benefit from authoritarianism by engaging in "rent-seeking behavior"—using their privileged position to divert economic rents that pass through the state for their own personal enrichment and consolidation of power. Authoritarian states seek to dominate and control economic sectors through their position of strength, allocating rents to favored groups in order to keep society in check. In the Middle East, as a result, "private property is not secure from the whims of arbitrary rulers... [and] many regimes have yet to abandon allocation for alternative strategies of political legitimation, and hence must continue to generate rents that accrue to the state."

Within this worldview, the agency of freedom is neatly located in the realm of the market, while tyranny lurks ever-present in the state. The history of the region is thus characteristically recounted as a long-standing struggle between the "authoritarian state" and "economic and political liberalization." Told from this perspective, the narrative usually begins with the emergence from colonialism in the aftermath of World War II, when various independence movements sought a definitive end to British and French influence in the area. These independence movements were typically led by militaries or other elites, which seized power in the postcolonial period and began an era of "statism" or "Arab socialism." By the 1980s, however, these authoritarian states would come under severe strain due to the inefficiencies of state-led economic development and the desire of increasingly educated populations for greater economic and political freedom. These pressures for economic liberalization were compounded in the era of globalization by the ethos of "democratization" that swept the globe through the 1990s. There was—as two well-known scholars of the Middle East put it—a "direct correlation between economic performance and the degree of democracy ...the more open and liberal a polity, the more effective has been its economy in responding to globalization." Authoritarian states that had "waged literal or metaphorical wars against their civil societies and the autonomous capital that is both the cause and product of civil society" might sometimes choose the "right" economic policies, but these were inevitably "dead letters in the absence of implementation capacity, which only a dynamic civil society appears to be able to provide." Capitalism was, in short, best suited to—and a force for—democracy.

Instead of viewing the Arab uprisings as protests against the "free market" economic policies long championed by Western institutions in the region, they were framed as essentially political in nature."

This logic was widely replicated outside of academia through the 1990s and 2000s, forming the core justification for a wide-range of so-called democracy promotion programs. Integral to this was the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), established in 1983 and funded by the US State Department. NED, in turn, supported other organizations such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI)—linked to Democratic and Republican Parties respectively—and bodies such as the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the Solidarity Center (affiliated to the AFL-CIO). A host of other private corporations and NGOs were also involved. Through these institutions, the US government focused on programs that twinned the extension of neoliberal policies with the democracy promotion agenda in the global South. As then president George W Bush noted in 2004, this policy was based around "free elections and free markets." It was a form of democracy understood in the narrow sense of regular electoral competitions, usually waged between different sections of the elite, which largely aimed at providing popularly sanctioned legitimacy for free market economic measures. While organizations such as NED, NDI, and IRI were the most visible and explicit face of this policy orientation, all international financial institutions were to employ the same basic argument linking "free markets" and "a vibrant civil society" with the weakening of the authoritarian state.

In this vein, the response of Western governments and institutions to the revolts of 2011 and 2012 was largely predictable. Instead of viewing the Arab uprisings as protests against the "free market" economic policies long championed by Western institutions in the region, they were framed as essentially political in nature. The problem, according to the Western angle, lay in authoritarianism, which stifled markets, and the popular rage expressed on the streets of the Middle East could thus be understood as pro-capitalist in content. US President Obama noted, for example, in a major policy speech on the Middle East in May 2011, that the region needed "a model in which protectionism gives way to openness, the reins of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young. America's support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability, promoting reform, and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy." Likewise, the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, argued that the revolts in Tunisia occurred because of too much "red tape," which prevented people from engaging in capitalist markets. This basic argument would be repeated incessantly by Western policy makers throughout 2011 and 2012—autocratic states had stifled economic freedom; "free markets" would be essential to any sustained transition away from authoritarianism.
[Excerpted from Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, by Adam Hanieh, by permission of the author. © 2013 Adam Hanieh]

Vol. 47, No. 5, Aug 10 - 16, 2014