The research community- both in the Middle East and in the West- concerned with political developments in the Arab world pauses today to reflect upon the major cognitive and conceptual shortcomings of its agenda over the last few years. It has channeled a great deal of its resources towards studies on democracy, good governance, and human rights only to reach the bleak conclusion that the first is staggering, the second deficient, and the third utterly absent.
As researchers, we have analyzed relations between ruling elites and opposition movements and concluded the obvious- namely, that political elites are closed to ideas of power-sharing and reform and that the opposition has failed to instigate change. We have tracked the development of civil society with the notion that the voluntary formation of organizations is indicative of an Arab society’s capacity to embrace ideas like the rule of law and equal citizenship, as well as its propensity to relinquish ideas of confessionalism, sectarianism, and tribalism. All of our research efforts have revealed, rather predictably, that public and civil institutions in the Arab world have fallen short of prompting change and have instead only thinly covered the primordial, patron-client structure of politics.
Some research centers have studied the state of human rights and basic freedoms in the Arab world and issued periodical reports documenting both limited positive transformations and the perpetual failure of governments to observe international standards. However, explanations for the absence of human rights in the Middle East are typically insufficient or simplistic; many acknowledge the hegemony of autocratic ruling elites but ignore weaknesses inherent in the opposition whose role it is to defend and promote human rights. Others treat the emergence of a sensitive human rights political culture as though it were bestowed upon a society rather than achieved through sustained effort.
To be sure, research on Arab politics has come a long way in providing detailed information on the modus operandi of ruling elites and opposition movements, the nature of Islamists movements in particular, and the penetration of civil institutions by primordial actors and networks. It is also true that the research community’s understanding of Arab politics has matured to acknowledge elements such as frail legislature, feeble judiciaries, the growing dominance of executive bodies, and gerrymandered elections conducted to preserve the status quo between the ruling elite and the opposition.
Nevertheless, these positive developments have yet to demonstrate the conceptual sophistication necessary to rise above trite explanations developed in the last few years of stagnant democratization, inadequate governance, and the absence of human rights. These shortcomings cannot be only attributed, as some scholars would argue, to the limited space available for political change in the Arab world or the recurring nature of challenges in Arab politics. Rather, it is the product of approaches that lack ingenuity and fail to recognize and analyze important political developments.
Two alternative approaches can allow us to overcome some of our analytical shortcomings. The first approach seeks to supplement research on democracy with research on the structure of the nation-state, its modernizing role, and the efficiency of its institutions. While factors such as unstable democracies, oppressive ruling elites, absent reforms, and trivial opposition are important in understanding Arab politics, they are merely one side of the coin. The increasingly weak nation-state and the erosion of its social legitimacy deserve serious consideration as well.
The state and its institutions have lost much of their legitimacy in today’s Lebanon and in Iraq between 2003 and 2006, and the entire existence of the state is currently threatened in Sudan and Yemen. In Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan, the state’s modernizing project has come to a halt. In some cases, Arab nation-states have failed to develop a system that assimilates citizens’ demands into a framework of the rule of law, equal citizenship, and fair distribution of wealth. In other cases, they have failed on a developmental level to provide basic services in vital sectors such as education, employment, health, and social security. In many countries, the state has failed on both fronts.
Many of the political ailments of the Arab world are directly linked to this inadequacy of the nation-state. This is true in Yemen, whose central government is threatened in the North as well as the South by opposition movements that no longer recognize its legitimacy, in Sudan where different regions challenge Khartoum's authority and demand secession, and in Lebanon where politics are crippled by sectarian power divisions. Furthermore, in Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt, the unprecedented deficiency of vital public services has increasingly eroded the state’s legitimacy.
Research on democracy in the Middle East has marginalized the issue of state failure and instead resorted to reductionist explanations and repetitive theories of political reform and rotation of power. The research community remains oblivious to the need to preserve the nation-state and restore both its social legitimacy and institutional adequacy. Though the collapse of the state in the Arab world has led some researchers to relinquish it as an "imported model” alien to the region’s social and political history and therefore see no harm in its demise, I believe that the nation-state remains crucial to the modernization of Arab societies.
The second alternative approach calls for research on the political economies that motivate actions of the ruling elite, the opposition, and civil society organizations. Our analysis needs to go beyond mapping important actors in Arab politics and the power relations between them within a framework of democracy and good governance. This one-dimensional approach should be replaced or supplemented by a deeper look at economic considerations. In fact, one of the major shortcomings of current research is that it analyzes the hegemony of the ruling elite in the Arab world without addressing the way this group preserves its economic interests.
Research has also fallen short by ignoring the effects of the political economy upon the actions of opposition movements. While issues facing these groups such as legal constraints, security challenges, and internal shortcomings (for example, a lack of internal democratic structures, weak organizational structures, and stiffness of leadership) are acknowledged in literature on Arab politics, key economic interests are routinely dismissed. In some Arab societies, these interests have led the opposition to forge coalitions with the ruling elite and thereby distance itself from citizens’ demands for political reform. In other countries, the opposition’s economic fragileness has negated its ability to compete in the political arena, which has bolstered the elite’s unchallenged hegemony of social and political structures.
The same disregard for the impact of the political economy has distorted research on civil society organizations. The limited efficiency of these organizations is inextricably linked to the shrinking middle class that they derive from. Furthermore, economic concerns fuel primordial actors’ need to infiltrate civil society organizations; they have learned how to protect their interests in the sphere of civil society for the small price of providing limited social services.
Perhaps the recurring problems, political stagnation, and entrenched power relations that plague the Arab world are perpetuated by the failure of academia to address the roots of these matters. In other words, static thinking has resulted in static politics. Rather than endlessly discussing ruling elites, opposition movements, and civil organizations from a reductionist framework centered on democracy and human rights, researchers must push their analysis outside the realm of conventional thinking. In particular, the significance of failing nation-states and political economies must be incorporated into discussions on Arab politics.