The imbalance of power in Arab countries allows regimes to stay in control virtually unchallenged by non-violent opposition groups. Without a break in the stalemate between the key players—ruling establishments, moderate Islamist movements, and secular parties—democratization is impossible.

Getting to Pluralism: Political Actors in the Arab World, a new book edited by Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy with contributions by Michele Dunne, analyzes the political stagnation entrenched across the region. Authoritarianism does not come from Arab cultural exceptionalism or protracted regional conflicts, but from the currently unbreakable deadlock among governments, Islamist movements, and liberal or leftist groups. Incumbent regimes easily maintain power when faced with a weak and divided opposition on an uneven playing field.

Key conclusions:

  • Recent political reform has actually helped governments maintain the status quo. Little has changed behind the façade of change, leading to political apathy among the public.
  • Opposition parties have missed opportunities to improve pluralism. Secular parties lack effective organizational structures and compelling political platforms. Islamist movements are divided into those who want to appeal to their base by not bending their religious ideals and others who are willing to compromise on some social and political issues to be successful.
  • Civil society organizations in Arab countries are not particularly effective and are unlikely to trigger political transformations, despite conventional wisdom that they are crucial for democracy.
  • Western efforts to support political reform and democracy will continue to fail if they do not address the underlying imbalance of power.

“The weakness of opposition groups in the Arab world, coupled with the power of governments, which is often as rooted in the strength of the security services as it is in the political process, go a long way toward explaining why Arab countries have not been reforming politically,” write the editors. “It stands to reason that attempts by the international community to encourage political reform while failing to address the fundamental issue of power are bound to fail.”



  • Marina Ottaway, director of the Carnegie Middle East Program, specializes in democracy and post-conflict reconstruction issues, with special focus on problems of political transformation in the Middle East.

  • Amr Hamzawy, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, is a noted Egyptian political scientist who previously taught at Cairo University and the Free University of Berlin.


  • Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin. She previously served as a specialist at the State Department and White House on Middle East affairs.


  • Getting to Pluralism builds on two previous books about politics in the Arab world published by the Carnegie Endowment. Uncharted Journey (2005) explores the political actors in Arab countries and possible elements of a democracy promotion strategy for the region. Beyond the Façade (2008) evaluates the political reforms taking place and considers the potential for further change.
  • The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, socio-political, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key cross-cutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program produces the Arab Reform Bulletin, a monthly analysis of political reform in the Middle East.