Despite passing considerable economic and social reforms Arab regimes continue to avoid substantive political reforms that would jeopardize their own power. Reformers in ruling establishments recognize the need for change to increase economic competitiveness, but the preferred process of “managed reform” is leading to further political stagnation, says a new paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In Incumbent Regimes and the “King’s Dilemma” in the Arab World: Promise and Threat of Managed Reform, Carnegie Senior Associates Marina Ottaway and Michele Dunne argue that emerging, reform-minded leaders in Arab nations face a dilemma—globalization and better public access to information are prompting calls for modernization, yet history shows that even limited reforms introduced from the top often increase, rather than decrease, bottom-up demand for more radical change, as in the case of the Iranian revolution. To contend with this threat, Arab regimes are attempting to control the process of change through “managed reforms”: the introduction of formal, institutional reform without the transfer of real power (Bahrain and Egypt); substantive improvements in citizens’ rights without institutional reform (Morocco); or the limited participation of legitimate opposition groups (Yemen and Algeria).
- There is growing awareness in the Arab world that reforms are necessary to create a viable, competitive economy. Oil is no longer seen as an inexhaustible source of revenue that gives governments an infinite capacity to manipulate their citizens.
- Pressure from the United States. and Europe to introduce reforms has been inconsistent and has favored managed reforms, sending signals that external expectations are not very high, and that external actors can be easily appeased.
- Further political stagnation is the likely scenario for most Arab regimes, characterized by limited change rather than an uncontrolled slide into an uncertain future. The power of reformists remains limited in most countries, as they have generally failed to convince the population that they are serious about change, resulting in tarnished reputations.
- To be successful, regime reformers need to find allies in civil societies or moderate parties. Some reformers could decide that a competitive political environment would benefit their political future—yet a more participatory reform process could prove unpredictable.
“The evidence so far is that the top-down process is having very little effect, making at best a marginal difference on specific issues but not leading to the redistribution of power that a true process of democratization and even liberalization would entail. For domestic advocates of managed reform and for outsiders seeking to promote change alike, the lesson appears to be that political reform can never be risk free: Too much close management perpetuates authoritarianism, and unmanaged processes have unpredictable outcomes.”
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About the Author
Marina Ottaway is a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program and director of the Carnegie Middle East Program. Her upcoming publication, Beyond the Façade: Political Reform in the Arab World (co-edited with Julia Choucair-Vizoso), will be released in January 2008.
Michele Dunne is a senior associate and editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Arab Reform Bulletin. A specialist on Middle East affairs, formerly at the State Department and White House, Dunne’s most recent publication is “Egypt—Don’t Give Up on Democracy Promotion” (Policy Brief, July 2007).