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Home Uncategorized Spring Forward, Fall Back

Spring Forward, Fall Back

Pádraig McAuliffe

The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform, by Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud and Andrew Reynolds, Oxford University Press, 352 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-0199660070

In the Western imagination, democracy is the fruit of bottom-up protest, from the rebellious yeoman-philosophers of the American Revolution, the sans-culottes of its French equivalent, the false start of 1848 and the mass agitation that brought political freedom to the Eastern Bloc with the fall of communism. There was something intuitively appealing for the popular imagination, therefore, in the Arab Spring of 2011, where mobilisation of disenfranchised masses appeared to herald the fall of a congeries of repressive regimes and the dawn of constitutional liberalisation in states like Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. Newspapers, diplomats and think-tanks thrilled to language of new technology and social networking tools (few were spared the trivialising sobriquet of “Twitter revolutions”), demography (the Arab “youth bulge”) and the tactics of activism in controlling squares and choreographing marches. Underlying this analysis was a notable voluntaristic strain, a strong belief that an agglomeration of civil society groups (trade unions, the unemployed, women, lawyers, keyboard warriors) could coalesce into mass movements capable of articulating and securing needed changes in deeply stagnant societies. The early falls of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt fostered hope that sheer numbers could overwhelm other repressive apparatuses in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia as these states would take their rightful place in the expanding liberal order. The last five years have betrayed this apparent promise.

At the time of the Arab Spring, this exuberance fostered an assumption that all non-democratic regimes were to a greater or lesser degree vulnerable to collapse under the stress of mass mobilisation. However, of the fourteen non-democratic Arab states in the Middle-East, eight saw only minor protest as the security regimes acted quickly to stamp out agitation. Of the six states that saw significant turbulence, only four saw the removal of dictators (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya) while two saw the violent endurance of the regime (Syria and Bahrain). Of the four where dictators were removed, only Tunisia can realistically be said to approximate something resembling a functional liberal democracy, while Egypt reverted to military rule and Yemen and Libya descended into civil war. These wars, plus the ongoing carnage in Syria, suggest that internal agents and external observers in many cases badly overestimated the malleability of these societies’ oppressive structures. For Brownlee, Massoud and Reynolds, this modest harvest cries out for explanation given the relative similarity of the background conditions in Middle-Eastern Arab states – why did some states see mass protest, why did some fall so easily and others endure so comfortably?

In answering the question of why success at the barricades was reversed or did not translate into structural change at government level, the authors depart from the emphasis on grassroots agency, critical junctures and dictatorial wickedness that has coloured prevailing analyses of the Arab spring in the media and social sciences. Consciously eschewing a focus on proximate factors like activist repertoires, social networking and the immediate responses of political leaders, they look for long-term, antecedent socio-economic reasons for these diverse outcomes that existed before the Arab Spring. The goal at all points is to sidestep the ever-present risk of generating simplistic post hoc narratives that use the outcomes of the Arab spring to impute causes for success or failure. One thing that is apparent in all Middle Eastern states is what the authors piquantly describe as “the asymmetry between tanks and civilians”. The brute force incumbents can employ against dissidents through their security forces means that most authoritarian regimes enjoy the prospect of ultimately enduring in the absence of compelling contextual factors that erode these advantages. Clubs are trumps, as Hobbes’s famous epigram goes, and this is particularly the case where those clubs are supplied by a US government keen to protect access to oil wealth and ensure Israeli security by providing the armies of Arab autocracies with repressive weaponry.

The military choices of the higher officers who benefit from this largesse (or, in the case of Syria, from the generosity of Russia) emerge as the key factor determining the success of all would-be revolutions in the 2011-2013 period. Where they decided to support authoritarian rule it would endure unless, as in Libya, external intervention altered the balance against the regime. These military choices were conditioned largely by two deeper variables whose influence was shaped over the longue durée since colonialism – the availability of oil rents and the sensitivity of hereditary rule. Those rulers who enjoyed the economic benefits of oil revenue and the political stability of successful hereditary rule (in the sense that power passed unproblematically from father to son) generally could develop a sufficiently resilient relationship with the state’s coercive agencies by either buying their loyalty with hydrocarbon wealth or by ensuring that hereditary transfer would promote better long-term, hand-in-glove pay-offs for them than any successful rebellion could.

The salience of these long-term structural factors that long predate revolutionary stirrings is most apparent if we look at the Arab Spring’s one incontrovertible success, Tunisia. Here the people overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime to eventually secure a recognisably (albeit not impeccably) democratic and constitutional regime. As portrayed in the Western media, the Tunisian revolution resembled a morality tale in which the self-immolation of the fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, in response to the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation that he complained was inflicted on him by a municipal official, lit the powder-keg of national dissatisfaction. This popular resentment was manifested in an intensive campaign of civil resistance and street demonstrations which culminated in the ousting of the president by January. The motive force here, as in all the other Arab spring polities, clearly came from the human agency of ordinary citizens engaging in mass protests. However, the fall of Ben Ali was not determined by the strength of these protests. The regime in Tunis fell because the army, which could have sided with the police in repressing the protesters and crushed them with relative ease, decided instead to support them and in so doing secured the revolution. This appears puzzling if we consider the alacrity with which its counterparts in Bahrain, Libya, and Syria responded repressively to uprisings. In explaining the response of the Tunisian army, understanding its relationship to the regime is crucial. Historically the Tunisian state, from the first post-colonial government of Habib Borguiba (a civilian with no military background), maintained a distance from the army, ensuring that the latter had a large degree of autonomy by the standards of the Middle East. Because Tunisia has no oil wealth, in later years there was little excess revenue to permit the government to douse military doubts about the competence of the Ben Ali regime with cash, while the non-hereditary nature of Ben Ali’s succession meant that there was little reason for the ruling clique to deeply imbricate the army’s leading officers to secure a family’s rule. While the interior ministry police killed hundreds of protesters to shore up the regime, the army leadership disobeyed orders to attack citizens and later in fact protected them. Once it became apparent that the army would not uphold his corrupt and unpopular rule, Ben Ali fled. Thereafter, the army would resume their distance from domestic politics as Islamists and moderates reached the compromises necessary to ensure elections and a degree of accountable rule.

Egypt too lacked the oil wealth that would allow Mubarak’s tottering regime to repurchase the loyalty of a wavering army, while those elements of the domestic economy the army controlled did not rely on his imprimatur. While the types of close bonds successful hereditary transfer of power tends to inculcate might have served to compensate for this lack of resources, a reverse effect was in play here. It appears the Egyptian military had become deeply alienated by Mubarak’s clumsy attempts to secure the succession to his rule for his allegedly corrupt son Gamal. Troubled by the instability of the Tahrir Square protests, defence minister Mohamed HusseinTantawi forced Mubarak to resign and ushered in the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which would first micromanage and then actively reverse moves towards democracy. A similar dynamic played out in Yemen, which again lacked the mineral wealth to bind the military to regime survival and saw a cack-handed attempt by President Saleh to commandeer the armed forces by imposing members of his family within the upper echelons of the army to boost a deeply unpopular succession plan for his son. Amidst civil war with the Shia Houthis in the north and the secessionist al-Hiraq movement in the south (to say nothing of an active Al-Qaeda presence), a general named Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, at whose expense Saleh had promoted family members, announced that the army would protect protesters in the capital, Sana’a. The ensuing spate of military defections made continued rule by Saleh untenable, even if the ultimate denouement was less dramatic than those in Tunisia or Egypt – Saleh was allowed to flee, while the office and powers of the presidency were passed to his vice-president, who later won a presidential election in February 2012 where he was the only candidate. Yemen has continued to disintegrate in the years since.

By contrast, domestic uprisings in Bahrain and Syria were met with brutal repression by the security forces. Even though the armies there were not noticeably larger or stronger than those in the regimes that were toppled, these states enjoyed hydrocarbon wealth that allowed the state to reinforce its coercive capacity in times of instability (Libya and Bahrain) or else experienced forms of dynastic succession that over decades cultivated an intense identification between army and regime (Syria and Bahrain) that meant the armies were always likely to side with power before people. Though Bahrain saw the largest uprising on a per-capita basis (as much as twenty per cent of the population was involved), this oil-rich state displayed high levels of despotic power. The Al-Khalifa family could secure the loyalty of elites through recruitment of Sunnis into the armed forces and the loyalty of the armed forces by pumping money into army pay and equipment. One of the interesting points the authors make is that high investment in the newest military technology is less important as an indicator of repressive ability (jets and drones are, after all, of limited use in clearing an occupied square in the capital) than as an emblem of the bond between the state as patron and the military as beneficiary of its munificence. The authors convincingly argue that Saudi intervention to buttress the regime was merely back-up to a unified Bahraini defence force that had the Shia-led rebellion very much in hand. The crack-down on Shias after the military cleared the Pearl Roundabout that served as the locus for protests has been sustained and brutal in equal measure.

Though Syria, like Egypt, lacked Bahrain’s ability to turn hydrocarbon wealth into coercion, the greater endurance demonstrated by the Syrian regime can be explained by the way the Assad family interacted with the army compared with Mubarak. As the authors argue, the transfer of power from father to son is so rare in the modern world that when such events occur in either monarchies or autocratic republics they indicate a significant degree of adherence on the part of the military to a regime that it is likely to protect in future. While the Egyptian military was resistant to the development of Gamal Mubarak’s power base in the later years of the regime, the Assads, over a period of decades, had penetrated the officer ranks, most notably through Bashar Al-Assad’s brother Maher, who commands the Republican Guard, and so guaranteed a seamless transition from Hafez to his son Bashar. As members of a Shia Alawite minority in a predominantly Sunni country, there has undoubtedly been an element of mutual preservation at work involving the Assads and their clients that was not present in Egypt, Yemen or Tunisia. Despite constituting a minority regime against rebels who have enjoyed significant international support (to say nothing of the depredations of ISIL), the regime has maintained coherence, with Russian assistance providing decisive support.

Nevertheless, it is notable that long-established hereditary regimes in less wealthy states like Morocco, Jordan and Oman also weathered the storms of 2011-12 with the same relative comfort as oil-based regimes like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So too would the Libyan regime were it not for the fact that NATO intervention reversed the near certain defeat of the national rebellion when Gadafi’s forces attacked Benghazi. Though Gadafi’s army splintered along tribal-regional lines in a way that those of Syria and Bahrain did not (in addition to the high-profile military defections to the West), the weakness and incoherence of the rebels meant that mercenaries and those army factions Gadafi could buy or depend on would probably have been sufficient to guaranteed the Jamahiriya’s endurance. The influence of Saudi Arabia in Bahrain, Russia in Syria and the West in Libya illustrate that external factors may on occasion serve to buttress or undermine autocratic rule, but in all bar the latter the fortunes of popular revolt were endogenously determined by the aforementioned asymmetry between the military and the people.

In those states where the exit of strongmen resulted in a genuine turnover of power, namely in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the attitude of those with arms remained determinative. In Tunisia, the army was content to maintain a watching brief. Unlike any of the other states that experienced the Arab Spring, its historical pattern of industrial development, of urbanisation and of a diversified economy meant that a much deeper and more diverse form of civil society emerged relative to the deliberate disempowerment of civil society in Libya and the religious and agrarian forms of organisation that predominated in Egypt. The parties that emerged from this environment, most notably the Islamist Ennahda party, were sufficiently grounded in compromise and power-sharing to ensure that the Tunisian military remained in its barracks as a complex negotiation process gave way to parliamentary elections in 2014 and a win for the secularist Nidaa Tounes party. By contrast, the Egyptian army’s pattern of active intervention endured even after SCAF removed Mubarak. Democratisation made apparent the fundamental disagreements between Islamists, liberalisers (the so-called “moderates”) and a secular army keen to retain its inherited prerogatives. The fate of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood after his election demonstrated the difficulties revolutionaries face once the unifying imperative to dismantle the ancien régime dissolves. Morsi’s ambitious constitutional declaration that would effectively grant him unlimited power to legislate without judicial oversight led to predictable popular protest across the country against what appeared to many as an Islamist coup, though it is far from clear that these protests accorded with the wishes of the majority of Egyptians. This in turn gave way to a military coup in July 2013 led by defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with the support of opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei and religious leaders. El-Sisi was elected president a year later, seen by some as a guarantor of security but by others as a reincarnation of the repressive state the events of 2011 were thought to have ended. Though there have been elections in Libya, military figures exercise predominant influence. These include the splintering national armed forces and the patchwork of regional militias and groups that have brought the state to a condition of near-anarchy. In a state where Gadafi deliberately broke up civil society and prevented any effective aggregation of demands by citizens, tribal allegiances and Islamist groups had enormous scope to contest the authority of elected leaders. Today a civil war between the Council of Deputies in Tobruk , the Tripoli-based New General National Congress and various tribal and  jihadist groups continues. The Libyan experience demonstrates that after the removal of an authoritarian leader, future progress is likely to remain illusory if there is no functional state apparatus capable of enforcing and maintaining a new liberal dispensation.

Though the Panglossian optimism that greeted every advance and setback during the Arab Spring has largely disintegrated, there is a sense of lost opportunity about the revolutionary episodes of 2011 and 2012 that may not in fact be justified. If we pay attention to those antecedent structural conditions that the tumult of events at the time tended to obscure, it is far from clear that the Arab spring offered anything like the liberalising potential other recent waves of transition in Eastern Europe or Latin America offered. As the authors of the present volume note, in all cases “the dissidents made the first noises, but the soldiers had the last word”. The Arab Spring: Pathways of Repression and Reform is a concisely written volume that adroitly balances a wider scholarship on democratisation with a concentrated treatment of the rapid trajectories of regime breakdown and regime crackdown. The conclusion ultimately drawn, that the Arab Spring might merely represent the lowest-hanging fruit of Middle-Eastern liberalisation (fruit which, in most cases, still could not be picked) is sobering. If the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak proved surprisingly fragile, the contagion effect they caused throughout the Middle East demonstrated that other governments were surprisingly robust. The roots of this greater steadfastness lie deep in the political economy of post-colonial state formation as rulers for life used oil revenue and/or patronage to wed the state’s armed forces to even the most corrupt and inefficient forms of rule. As Brownlee, Massoud and Reynolds conclude, “the Arab Spring will be remembered not as a fundamental change in the dynamics of the region’s politics, but as a reminder of the importance of inherited structures in determining the durability of autocrats and the prospects for democratic government”.


Padraig McAuliffe is a senior lecturer in the School of Law and Social Justice in the University of Liverpool

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Cormac Ó Gráda’s 2014 essay “Leaping Into Darkness” on the Chinese Great Leap Forward famine of 1959 to 1961. Here is an extract:

While Mao’s personal, genocidal culpability is central to accounts such as Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine and Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts (1996), he is quite a remote ‑ though hardly sinister ‑ figure in Zhou [Xun]’s narratives. One informant notes that “militarization was Mao’s idea”, another that he stressed the need for “self-reliance”; one remembered Mao’s visit in 1958 to the village of Xushui, iconic for its communistic feats, but he “couldn’t see him”; another, Barber Feng of northern Sichuan, referred to the head of his brigade as a crook, “the type of person that Mao once warned us about”. But that is about it. Moreover, to Zhou’s evident surprise, Mao’s memory was revered almost everywhere she went. In Henan’s Suiping county, devastated by the famine, “in almost every home there was a portrait of Chairman Mao”, while an old neighbour of Zhou’s in Chengdu claimed that “if it wasn’t for Chairman Mao, who liberated us, we would not be able to enjoy today’s good life”. An old villager, wondering why Zhou was dwelling on the past, explained that while under Mao people learned to appreciate life by eating bitter food, “these days life is not too bad for many people”. Zhou does not attempt to resolve the “disconnect” between the follies of the Great Leap Forward, the violence, and the deaths, on the one hand, and Mao’s role, on the other.

Had Zhou interviewed her subjects a generation ago, would their verdict on the part played by Mao in the famine have been the same? Oral history, like all history, often tells us as much about the present as the past. Its strength lies in the searing anecdote and the local detail, not in sophisticated analysis of political decision-making at the top. The Chinese poor were as remote from Mao and Beijing in the 1950s as the Irish poor were from Lord John Russell and London in the 1840s. The willingness of Zhou’s witnesses to let Mao off the hook in the 2000s, though important, hardly resolves the extent of Mao’s culpability in the 1950s. That issue remains controversial. For some (like, say, Frank Dikötter or Jasper Becker) it is enough to declare the famine “Mao’s Famine” ‑ and Zhou’s subtitle also echoes this sentiment. For others (like, say, Tom Bernstein or Stephen Wheatcroft or Felix Wemheuer) the famine was the result of an ill-conceived and reckless attempt at forcing a desperately backward economy to catch up. To compound the disaster, when the Great Leap imploded China lacked what Yang in Tombstone dubs “negative feedback”: thanks to the form of “closed” governance they had created, Mao and his circle seem to have discovered “destruction on a scale few could have imagined” rather late in the day ‑ although this issue is controversial and is one on which Yang and Dikötter, for instance, disagree.



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