Governance and the Future of the Arab World

Intissar Fakir and Sarah Yerkes


Arab regimes have established a set formula for managing state-citizen relations: government services in exchange for public consent. This prevalent social contract dictated that rulers would provide citizens with public sector jobs and free or subsidized goods and services (such as health, education, energy, and food) in exchange for loyalty and minimal political rights and civil liberties.1 Over the past seven years, changes to the government-citizen relationship in the Arab world have reshaped citizens’ perceptions of what they owe their government and what they can expect from it. In this context, the balance of different components of this relationship—such as service provision, anticorruption efforts, representation, rule of law, security, and stability—are changing.

As some states failed to make good on their end of the bargain or the public became dissatisfied with the terms of agreement, many citizens broke their silence. The need to forge a new state-citizen relationship was one of the implicit drivers of the 2011 Arab protests and the ensuing unrest. One of the core components of a viable social contract—effective governance—is still in decline across most of the region. High unemployment rates in non–oil producing countries (especially among the youth), sluggish region-wide economic growth, and pessimism about the future add further dissatisfaction. Across the region, citizens—regardless of ethnicity, faith, wealth, education, or status—continue to demand basic elements of governance that states are often unable or unwilling to provide: basic freedoms, such as of expression and assembly, access to decisionmaking, effective service provision, and efforts to combat corruption. Addressing these three primary components of effective governance can alleviate some of the tension currently brewing in the region today and can help bring stability in the long term.

Representation, Participation, and Freedom: A Search for Alternatives

Across the region, civil liberties—namely freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and the press—are diminished. According to Freedom House, all but five Arab states (or 71 percent) are “not free,” and no Arab state is considered “free” in the press and internet freedom ratings.2 Freedom House rates Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Morocco as “partly free,” demonstrating these governments’ ability to control their liberalization processes. However, overall, discouraged activists in the region have come to see 2011 as an ephemeral moment. And the trauma it caused in places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen, as well as the harsh responses to public protest by governments in Egypt and Bahrain, prevents citizens from seeking more political inclusion from their governments.

Intissar Fakir
Intissar Fakir was a fellow and editor in chief of Sada in Carnegie’s Middle East Program.
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Citizens increasingly perceive traditional participatory mechanisms, such as voting and running for office, as lacking credibility, which further weakens the citizen-state relationship (see table 1). According to the Arab Barometer survey, Arab citizens have extremely low levels of trust in public institutions.3 In Morocco, for example, only 0.3 percent of survey respondents said they had a “great deal” of trust in political parties. In Algeria, only 9 percent of people said they had a “great deal” of trust in the government. Faith in the judiciary is somewhat higher in certain countries: 37 percent of Egyptians and 30 percent of Jordanians expressed a “great deal” of trust in their judicial institutions. Given this lack of trust, it is not surprising that, in most Arab states, citizens join nongovernmental organizations and groups at a higher rate than they join political parties. In Algeria, 9 percent of Arab Barometer respondents were members of an organization, while only 2.4 percent were members of a political party. In Egypt, 6.4 percent were members of an organization, while only 0.8 percent were members of a political party.

Yet, many people retain a sense of hope and feel that some options for engaging with their governments, however unconventional, remain at their disposal. Thus, people are looking for alternative ways to participate in their country’s decisionmaking processes and to assert and exercise their freedoms.

Diminished Freedoms

Some governments have pursued a zero-tolerance policy for freedom of assembly. In Egypt, for instance, a hallmark of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime has been its brutal methods of shutting down protests, tactics that were established early on in response to the anti-coup sit-ins in Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque in 2013 that resulted in 800–1,000 civilian deaths.4 Furthermore, since coming to power, the Sisi regime has reportedly imprisoned 60,000 Egyptians for various degrees of dissent, utilizing the most brutal forms of torture.5 This marks a shift from even former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule—to say nothing of the postrevolution era—during which, although crackdowns happened and constraints existed, activists were still able to mobilize. Public activism against the military or against Mubarak himself certainly inspired repression, but activists were generally aware of the redlines. Today, the redlines have shifted and are, at times, difficult to identify. Anyone, at any time, can face the ire of the state—as evidenced by stories of forced disappearances, unlawful arrests, and killings, notably the brutal murder of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni at the hands of Egyptian security services in 2016.

In the majority of Arab states, the press is consistently under attack, if not fully co-opted by the regime. Even in places where the press is partially free—such as Kuwait, Lebanon, and Tunisia—journalists face constraints including harassment, jailing, and legal limits on speech online, a phenomenon not unique to the Arab world. Within this restrictive environment, however, citizens have become adept at using alternative media and sources of information—such as communication apps and blogs—to access and spread information.

Sarah Yerkes
Sarah Yerkes is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa.

Although it is not a substitute for freedom of the press, social media has become an important advocacy tool. In Saudi Arabia, online activism flourished after 2011, culminating in various successful awareness-raising and advocacy campaigns. The women-led Twitter campaign #Women2Drive was responsible, in part, for Saudi Arabia’s decision to lift the ban on women driving in June 2018.6 Although the Saudi state ultimately used the issue of women’s rights (including the right to drive) as a diversion from the growing authoritarianism under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the country’s troublesome foreign policy, the contribution women activists made using every tool at their disposal, including social media, to bring attention to this issue cannot be overlooked. While many Saudi activists face arrest and prosecution at home, others are able to continue their engagement even in exile—a common trend across the Arab world. But even continuing their work in exile is proving a challenge to activists. The reach of many governments has expanded, as the disappearance and alleged murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi demonstrates.

Politics and Political Participation

Public disdain for politicians and political parties and distrust in governments has driven low voter turnout in elections, particularly among youth.7 Part of the lack of trust comes from the disenfranchisement felt by many, especially youth and women, who make up small parts of political parties across the region. The feeling remains despite some changes in recent years, including a requirement in Tunisia’s 2018 local elections for horizontal (not just vertical) gender parity within party lists.8

The lack of alternative political forces is adding to the fatigue and lack of trust in institutions. Citizens in the region struggle to find an alternative to the ruling elite that might help address the issues of ineffective governance and corruption. The ineffectiveness of political parties combined with the unpredictability of state pushback against public expression is gradually changing the nature of engagement. Citizens are increasingly turning toward informal mechanisms such as protests and boycotts, and focusing more on specific issues of governance, such as service provision, particularly at the local level. Furthermore, with democracy under threat across the globe, calls for broad democratic reform have been replaced by more basic demands.

Protests around specific issues of governance—for instance, in Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan—have become more common. In 2016 and 2017, protests against economic marginalization, high unemployment, and austerity measures consumed southern Tunisia, which has seen numerous similar demonstrations over the past decade. In Kamour, protesters occupied an oil and gas facility, bringing production to a halt, and demanded that the state more equitably distribute the profits from oil and gas extraction in their region. The protesters’ message—that the state cannot ignore the demands of one of the country’s most marginalized regions and that the oil and gas companies must provide some benefit to the local population—resonated throughout the country, resulting in smaller protests far beyond Kamour. The protesters eventually secured many of their initial demands from the state and private sector, further enforcing the idea that protests are more effective than formal political participation.9

In Lebanon, a wave of protests over waste management was generated by fed-up residents of Beirut who took to social media under the slogan “You Stink!” The movement soon evolved into a political coalition called Beirut Madinati that took part in the parliamentary elections of May 2018. In Algeria, protests have long been a main motivator for state action. Though protests remain largely dominated by interest groups organizing around particular issues, broader movements have taken hold. Over the past few years, Algeria saw sustained protests about shale gas exploration, particularly fracking. Locals from the area of In Salah organized a strong movement that displayed the power of civic resistence for months until it eventually succumbed to the state’s usual tactics of intimidation and co-optation.10

Likewise, in Morocco in 2016 and 2017, the frequency of protests spread from the Rif, a traditionally underserved region, to other areas, prompting the government to act with a mixture of quick fix measures, promised long-term reforms, crackdowns including arrests and beatings, and intimidation. The Rif issues in Morocco provided a clear example of how poor economic conditions can intersect with poor governance and a lack of respect for basic rights and freedoms.11 At the start of 2018, another protest movement, also a glaring illustration of poor governance, spread in Morocco’s eastern region, where citizens demanded access to basic services and more development opportunities to bring the region in line with the rest of the country. All of these examples show how citizens are circumventing traditional processes. When elected officials—through the ballot box as well as traditional bureaucratic processes—fail to improve governance, citizens are resorting to protests and boycotts to pressure their governments into action—even if the solutions are only temporary.

The Way Forward

  • While parliaments continue to lack real governing authority, in certain cases, local elected officials have more leeway to act. This is expecially true in countries where governments are pursing some degree of decentralization. And while overall levels of trust and satisfaction with politicians and processes across the region are low, political actors, both parties and individuals, could improve their performance at the local level by making greater efforts to improve service delivery. This would also allow political parties to improve their grassroots outreach and focus on specific local governance issues.
  • Parties could also work with civil society actors—many of whom, despite pressure from the state, remain some of the few independent actors capable of stepping in when the state fails—to better reach the public. Rather than trying to supplant each other, political parties and civil society could work together to strengthen their reach and to improve governance at the local level.
  • States have the option to use consultative mechanisms such as national dialogues around important issues as well as local dialogues and town halls. Some Arab states, including Morocco and Tunisia, have undertaken national dialogue processes around issues like youth engagement. In Tunisia, participatory governance is enshrined in the constitution and major legislation is regularly presented to citizens or groups across the country to solicit their input. These processes provide the opportunity for citizens to voice their views, concerns, or grievances and to feel a sense of ownership of the policymaking process. However, public consultations can be counterproductive if policymakers overlook public feedback. Here, again, civil society and political actors can work together to encourage citizens and ensure that the voices of the public are heard. Civil society can also help manage public expectations regarding the outcomes of participatory mechanisms.
  • Citizens can do little to safely combat the high levels of repression in the region, so the international community has a crucial role to play in publicly and privately calling out Arab states for violations. The international community can also support local and international media and civil society that focuses on media, access to information, and freedom of the press. Helping build the capacity of these groups and providing them with needed support can allow them to play their role, particularly in documenting abuses where possible.

Government Effectiveness

In their efforts to address the challenges of service provision, governments often look for solutions that do not address the core issue of accountability.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), among the richest countries in the region and its best performing government on service provision, began implementing a voluntary rating system to improve the public sector’s performance in 2011.12 Training was provided to all agencies, which were rated on their ability to provide information, develop capacity, and deliver highly satisfactory services.13 But for other governments, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, government effectiveness bears little relationship to resource levels. Despite their abundance of resources, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have failed to perform at the same level as the UAE and Qatar. Even countries with limited resources, like Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, perform at a similar level to Saudi Arabia (see table 2). But even in countries where governments have improved their effectiveness over the years, citizens are still frustrated with a perceived lack of progress.

The Challenges of Service Provision

Over the past few decades, some governments in the region have made substantial advances in health and education, eradicating a number of communicable diseases, decreasing high infant and maternity mortality rates through awareness raising, providing greater access to medication and investing in building or improving the state of medical establishments, and enhancing access to primary education.14 But despite these improvements, citizens remain frustrated at their insufficiency—particularly when juxtaposed with the perpetual rhetoric and seemingly never-ending reform processes.

Morocco and Jordan sought to improve the quality of basic services through a series of reforms in the early 2000s. However, singular stories of successful healthcare and education reform highlight the unevenness of development within countries that leads to regional marginalization and localized protests. In Morocco, each region’s access to basic services—including healthcare, education, transportation, or even drinking water—can vary by significant margins. In Drâa-Tafilalet, historically one of Morocco’s poorest regions, access to healthcare lags behind other regions by as much as 30 percentage points.15 Not surprisingly, Drâa-Tafilalet saw a series of protests in 2017, first around the lack of access to quality healthcare and then around inadequate access to drinking water.

The Egyptian and Lebanese governments are gradually lowering their citizens’ expectations regarding service provision. In Egypt, some human development indicators worsened following the 2011 revolution, as the military regime stabilized the country but struggled with public service provision. An Egyptian youth stated: “Sisi’s government has shifted citizens’ expectations from questions of governance and service provision to those of security and stability. Egyptians no longer expect government jobs, and the government is slowly cutting back on subsidies.”16 This gradual and deliberate effort reflects legitimate security challenges (instability in Syria and the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and affiliated groups in Lebanon, Sinai, and the Sahel) but also the government’s propensity to use security as an tradeoff between stability and prosperity.

In Lebanon, a country that experienced a brutal civil war, citizens prioritize security and economic development over service provision, and they are willing to accept a lower level of services in exchange for security.17 Clientelism and prevailing corruption have prevented the government from improving its effectiveness. Lebanese citizens’ perception of government effectiveness plummeted in 2006 as political infighting, the resulting government crisis, and government deadlock hampered service provision.18 Since 2011, the influx of Syrian refugees exacerbated the burdens of an already struggling government and the unequal access to public services across Lebanon’s subregions.

The gap between what governments promise and what they deliver is large and growing. And, as each year passes, the patience of citizens across the region, who are waiting for tangible change in their daily lives, wanes. As a young Egyptian attested: “For many younger Egyptians the lack of electricity in urban areas is a redline, causing even the most apolitical Egyptians to become politicized.” The combination of ineffective governments and increasingly restless publics could result in more protests and lead some to more radical means of affecting change. In Tunisia, some revolutionaries in the country’s marginalized south and interior regions are reportedly joining the ranks of the Islamic State in Libya or Syria—not because of a shared religious ideology but out of hopelessness, frustration, and a feeling that the democratic government they fought for has done little to improve their lives.19 Furthermore, the nature of citizens’ needs in some countries has changed notably as their quality of life improves.

How Governments Respond

Increasingly, many Arab governments are championing decentralization as the way to improve governance and foster development. In Morocco, in the early 2000s, King Mohammed VI put forth a blueprint for decentralization, and the 2011 constitutional revision created a strong basis for a decentralized Morocco. While the plans seem to be promising—and other countries, like Tunisia, are looking to emulate them—implementation remains an issue. The challenges facing decentralization include the lack of political will to truly devolve power to lower bodies or allocate necessary financial resources to peripheral regions, such as in Tunisia. Moreover, in many cases, the fundamental challenges that plague the central government are likely to be present at the local or regional levels as well, because the political culture, agendas, and priorities are not likely to be different.

Another long-lauded solution is e-government, or digitizing the bureaucratic process by providing electronic portals for citizens and public access to government information. Many governments are promoting e-government initiatives to streamline and clarify bureaucratic processes, cut back on corruption, and improve efficiency. For example, Bahrain’s streamlined e-government portals offer simpler processes for requesting official documents. The government sought to improve the portal system by launching several campaigns to raise awareness and promote its use.20 However, perceptions of Bahrain’s government effectiveness have largely remained the same, potentially reflecting other factors like the severe crackdown on civil liberties and the government’s harsh policies of discrimination.

These solutions remain stopgap measures as long as accountability is lacking. The Gulf countries are a prime example of how governments have effectively used their financial resources to avoid accountability, spending strategically to avoid public dissatisfaction and political stability. Following the 2011 regional upheavals, all Gulf countries sought to improve their government effectiveness in order to stave off a Tunisian- or Egyptian-style revolution and to address the more challenging global economic environment. Compared to the UAE and Qatar, Saudi Arabia has struggled with reforms. In 2011, the Saudi government promised to spend $80 billion to reform the public sector, and, more recently, it rolled out several major reform plans to convince its citizens to accept spending cuts. While none of these measures has yet demonstrated much change, neither has the situation led to major unrest. Conversely, Bahrain, without the abundant resources of Saudi Arabia or Qatar, continues to rely on repression to subdue its citizenry.

The uncertain outlook of global oil markets and rising budgetary pressures—due to high social spending and low economic growth rates—have led the Gulf states to formulate ambitious plans to transform their economies and social contracts. Bahrain’s Vision 2030 (adopted in 2008), Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 (adopted in 2016), the UAE’s Vision 2021 (adopted in 2010), Kuwait’s Vision 2035 (adopted in 2017), Oman’s Vision 2020 (adopted in 1995 and updated in 2016), and Qatar’s Vision 2030 (adopted in 2008) all share a focus on improving government effectiveness and service provision. Yet these countries struggle with staggering social inequities and little to no public and political accountability or civil liberties. This breeds dissatisfaction of a different kind—one that prioritizes the citizen’s desire for greater civil freedoms and access to decisionmaking over the performance of governments.

The Way Forward

  • Decentralization processes could facilitate better governance at the local level, provided adequate resources and political will. Building the capacity of local councils and providing competitive fund allocation programs that promote initiative and innovation among local actors would allow greater ownership of local development and could help address disenfranchisement among underserved populations.
  • Focusing on governance at the subregional, rural, and local levels and around specific issues, such as healthcare or education, is a potential starting place for actors looking to improve government effectiveness and address the lack of basic services. This can help raise political profiles and provide, or potentially restore, some trust in elected officials.
  • States could also consider efforts that reward good and effective performance at all bureaucratic levels—particularly at the local level, to encourage a higher performing public workforce and provide citizens with a sense of government responsiveness.
  • Other tools like the program being carried out in Tunisia, for instance a formal process of positive discrimination, could help generate goodwill among the population.21 Such a process both attempts to address long-standing regional marginalization by prioritizing resources for traditionally underserved areas, and financially rewards regions for meeting certain political and socioeconomic criteria, creating a positive cycle of regional development.
  • Internationally or locally funded nongovernmental organizations should consider channeling aid through the local level to circumvent inefficient national bureaucracies and ensure local control over local decisionmaking.

Control of Corruption

Across the Arab world, corruption—defined by the World Bank as “the abuse of public office for private gain”—cripples governments and angers citizens.22 In Carnegie’s 2016 survey of Arab thought leaders on governance, nearly half of the 103 respondents listed corruption as one of the three most pressing regional issues.23 Arab states exhibit varying levels of corruption, from small, petty corruption, such as bribing a traffic cop; to mid-level corruption, such as clientelism and nepotism in hiring practices; to large-scale, grand corruption, such as the illegal distribution of resources to a preferred ethnic or religious group or full kleptocracy.

Furthermore, although actual levels of corruption may not be on the rise, public perception of corruption is. And while most people in the region—both within and outside government—agree on the importance of fighting corruption, efforts have largely failed (see table 3).

Corruption has become a self-reinforcing system that is an “integral feature” of regional regimes, according to one Egyptian academic.24 With the notable exception of Tunisia, Arab states possess a variety of autocratic features that are correlated with corruption. In authoritarian regimes, elites control all levers of power to some degree. Adequately addressing corruption in the region requires not only legal reforms, such as passing freedom of information and asset declaration laws, or technological solutions, such as e-government initiatives, but also a fundamental change in the political culture within which corruption thrives. In many places, such as the Gulf countries, Lebanon, and Morocco, tackling corruption would be detrimental to the ruling elites, who benefit from the status quo. But failure to address this problem can lead to instability that could do even more harm to the regime and elite interests. The elite often control key media outlets, the private sector, key industries, and, at times, even influencial civil society organizations. Through these they can delay legislative decisions and judicial processes.

Many Arab states tend to have large and bloated public sectors, which is another driver of corruption.25 In oil-rich states, the distribution of rents also breeds corruption.26 As a Lebanese activist noted, the “lack of meritocratic recruitment in the public administration and the prevalence of clientelist, nepotistic, and sectarian considerations often leads to the appointment of unqualified civil servants who either take part or contribute to cover corrupt practices.”27 Clientelism across the region leads to a vicious cycle of poorly performing bureaucracies, which undermines trust in institutions, which in turn fuels further corruption.

Implications of Corruption

Corruption is costly. In addition to stunting economic growth, in a corrupt country or industry, “firms have no incentive to improve product quality, and the productivity gains and innovation that would come from new firms is halted. In other words, [corruption] undermines the competitiveness of the economy, hampering investment and the creation of jobs.”28 One study found that the low level of tax revenue in the Arab world is due, in part, to corruption as well.29 This is particularly troubling given the inability of the region’s resource-rich states to rely on hydrocarbons, whose reserves are quickly diminishing and whose revenue has seen a significant decrease over the past few years. As one report notes, “for countries with large oil and gas reserves, such as Saudi Arabia, raising tax revenues is less urgent, though still necessary for longer-run fiscal sustainability,” especially given the significant increases in expenditures witnessed since the start of the Arab Spring.30

Corruption can also have a detrimental security impact. It provides opportunities for traffickers—of weapons, drugs, and humans—to bring illicit goods into the country. Lax border controls resulting from a system based on bribery can make money laundering easier and can allow the spread of terrorism.31 As a Tunisian security analyst noted, border defenses are irrelevant if customs officials continue to be corrupt and allow illicit goods to cross.32 Furthermore, citizens who develop mistrust and antagonism toward governments they perceive as corrupt may be more willing to join extremist groups, which can claim that they are fighting corrupt leaders or rationalize another activity that is damaging to the state and its interests.33 Research has also found that Arab countries have highly opaque security sectors, as well as a lack of oversight and poor citizen engagement, leading to a greater risk of corruption inside these sectors.34 A 2013 Transparency International report found that Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen all had a “critical level of defence corruption risk.”35

Corruption can also reduce the quality of government institutions, particularly the bureaucracy. When bureaucrats become accustomed to engaging in corrupt practices, it becomes harder to implement public policies that are in the best interests of the state and citizenry. In the region’s resource-rich states, the decline of the rentier system has led to further corruption and subsequently more discrimination against guest workers, mercenaries, and other noncitizens who are competing for increasingly limited resources.

The Way Forward

  • Fighting corruption requires a strong legal framework, including legislation on access to information and asset declaration, and a strong judiciary and specialized bodies to prosecute corruption-related crimes. Throughout the region, anticorruption laws on the books are often not enforced. Without accountability, citizen recourse, and the political will to enforce them, access to information laws and other legal transparency measures are meaningless.
  • One potentially powerful tool is an independent national anticorruption authority, such as in Tunisia, where the National Anti-Corruption Agency (INLUCC) is funded by the government but operates as an independent entity to investigate corruption.36 But to succeed, these bodies must be free from political interference as well as adequately staffed and resourced to carry out what are often tremendous caseloads.
  • Another mechanism to fight corruption that has borne fruit in other regions is e-government processes and procedures. Digitizing bureaucratic processes such as customs operations, business registration, and procurement procedures can hamper opportunities for bribery, cronyism, and side deals by forcing all transactions through a humanless portal. While e-government procedures may not be appropriate for all circumstances, Arab governments that digitize and publicize their work will inspire greater trust, and people will be more likely to conduct their transactions within the formal and appropriate channels.
  • Arab publics (as well as international organizations like Transparency International) should continue to pressure Arab leaders to stem corruption, even in small ways. Furthermore, drawing the connection between corruption and security as well as corruption and economic decline can incentivize action. Civil society and international actors should magnify media and diplomatic coverage of corruption cases, as regimes often care about their image at home and abroad, and promote positive examples of anticorruption efforts.


Since the 2011 uprisings, the relationship between Arab leaders and citizens has been shifting. While the initial euphoria and hope of a democratic spring quickly faded, today—nearly eight years later—the anger and frustration that led to revolution, protest, and war persist. Across the region, citizens have grown impatient with governments they perceive as ineffective, corrupt, and unaccountable. This sustained anger and dissatisfaction is driving citizens to find and pursue new paths to reshape their relationship with the state. In the meantime, states are struggling to adapt and often coming up short, failing to deliver on promised reforms in the best case or resorting to repression and violence in the worst—both of which contribute to the growing gap between the citizen and the state.

Addressing these challenges will require more substantial action and a new social contract that “should move the region toward a more open political system, a more competitive economy where the state takes a more strategic and regulatory role aimed at ensuring broader access and a level playing field for a more dynamic private sector, and finally to a more inclusive economy and targeted redistribution system,” according to a 2016 Belfer Center report.37

In many cases, this sort of new social contract remains a remote possibility at best. At one end of the spectrum, states such as Egypt and Bahrain are actively and forcefully pushing back against the sort of political and economic reforms necessary to provide stability and effective service provision for their people. At the other end, Tunisia is slowly moving toward liberal democracy in the political sphere while also struggling to meet the socioeconomic demands of the public, also resulting in a massive trust gap between the people and their government.

Across the Arab world, governments must recognize that without addressing three issues—access to decisionmaking, effective service provision, and corruption—the state-society relationship will continue to deteriorate. There are no quick fixes to any of these challenges, but governments, civil society, and the international community can work together to develop gradual steps to improve governance, provide quality goods and services, and eradicate corruption across the region. Whatever the future holds for the region, these steps are sure to mitigate the worst outcomes.


Whither Egypt’s Judicial Independence? Sahar Aziz

Egypt’s judiciary is a state institution comprised of elites. Guarding their social status as highly paid civil servants, judges have little incentive to radically change the status quo. Thus, judicial independence is, by design, constrained by the state’s political system. With presidential power currently at a zenith, legal mechanisms are weaponized to silence civil society, which has historically played the role of government watchdog. Coupled with the executive’s misuse of courts to further its political agenda, promoting judicial independence in a manner that could threaten the executive’s firm grip on power is likely a futile endeavor. But even an authoritarian state has an interest in a competent and efficient judiciary. As austerity measures intensify poverty and squeeze the vanishing middle class, Egypt’s internal stability remains fragile. Attracting foreign investment and international aid is a top state priority. To do so, investors must be assured that Egypt’s courts can protect their property through the transparent and independent adjudication of laws. This provides an opportunity for domestic and foreign stakeholders to reform facets of the judiciary that, though mundane on its face, are critical to the rule of law. Three specific reforms would bolster judicial independence over the long run.

First, a professional judicial training center should be established, where all new judges must complete at least one full year of training and an exit exam. Better qualified judges who take pride in the quality of their work are more likely to guard their professional reputations and preserve their independence.

Sahar Aziz
Sahar Aziz is a professor of law and chancellor’s social justice scholar at Rutgers University Law School where she directs the Center for Security, Race and Rights, and also a senior scholar with both the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and the Center for Global Policy.

Egyptian judges begin their career immediately after law school as a prosecutor in the prosecutor general’s office. They are often selected to become a judge not solely on their grades or class ranking; nepotism also plays a role in selection.1 Prior to becoming a judge, law graduates do not receive any special training in law school, where the quality of education has plummeted over the last two generations.

In 2008, a group of judges supported a bill establishing a judicial academy that would both train new judges and provide continuing professional education for sitting judges. The bill was not approved by parliament. Revisiting this proposal should be a priority for Egyptian officials, judges, foreign investors, and international organizations concerned with making the administration of justice more efficient and fair.

Second, a judicial clerkship program should be created so judges can hire lawyers to assist in managing their overwhelming case dockets. Due in part to a shortage of judges and a litigious society, Egyptian judges carry significant caseloads. Yet, they have minimal, if any, administrative support to assist with legal research and case management. With more professional support, judges would have more capacity to give each case the time necessary to provide higher quality and more efficient adjudication.

Finally, Egypt’s courtrooms need upgrading. With Egypt’s courtroom infrastructure in shambles, Egyptian citizens perceive the judiciary as merely another inept state institution. Reformers, therefore, should push for upgrading courtrooms to make them places where the law is taken seriously—both by citizens and the foreign investors that the government seeks to attract. Perceptions matter in promoting the rule of law. If the state wants citizens to respect the law, venues where it is enforced should exude respectability and decorum.


1 Nora Elbialy, Miguel A. Garcia-Rubio, and Ahmed Zaki, “The 2007 Egyptian Judicial Reform and Its Efficiency Implications on First Instance Courts,” Effectius, 2011,


A New Era in Saudi Arabia: Limiting Reforms and Silencing ReformersHala Aldosari

Saudi Arabia is witnessing a disturbing transformation in its political leadership. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership acknowledges the historical economic, religious, and social challenges of the state while simultaneously curbing and antagonizing the civil society movement and reform leaders who were actively addressing those challenges. In addition, the engagement in regional conflicts threatens to deliver the same economic and political sustainability that it seeks to deliver.

On May 15, 2018, a wide-scale wave of arrests targeted prominent women activists, their lawyer, and several supporters. Surprisingly, the arrests started a few weeks ahead of lifting the decades-old ban on women driving. It was also preceded by two other waves of arrests, in which the state rounded up writers, Islamic reformist activists, high-profile businessmen, and statesmen, including members of the ruling family with significant political clout. The arrests also targeted women activists who had, since 2011, cultivated impressive public awareness and engagement on domestic and international levels.

Hala Aldosari
Hala Aldosari is a Saudi human rights activist, scholar, and writer, whose research focuses on gender-based violence and the intersections of gender and health.

Three of the detained women activists had introduced an advocacy model that galvanized a strong movement to promote reforms in women’s rights beyond driving. Their arrest stands out for its unprecedentedly vindictive nature, which trespassed the prevalent cultural norm of respecting the reputation of individuals, particularly women. There is no question that this unique hostility is a testament to both the vulnerability of women activists in an absolute monarchy and also to their success in gaining support. Shortly after the arrests, pictures of the women and men arrested appeared on the front pages of the state-linked newspapers and social media accounts stamped in red as traitors. Simultaneously, a state-backed campaign accused the group of treason and branded them as foreign agents in a trial by the media. A series of op-ed articles, front-page analysis by legal experts, unnamed state sources, and members of the Shura Council, including a woman member, rallied the public against the activists under the nationalist slogan “the nation is a red line.” The rhetoric changed from portraying them as agents of foreign embassies aiming to use international institutions against the state to labeling them as agents of Iran, Qatar, and Turkey, after the initial insinuations unnerved foreign diplomats in Saudi Arabia.

The state did not provide evidence for the charges against the activists. But, within two weeks, the state declared that the activists had unanimously confessed to the initial charges. All of this was carried out in the absence of legal representation or basic transparency. It was apparent that the persecution was intended to instill fear in the Saudi domestic audience in a provocative fashion reminiscent of the Saudi-led cyberwars against Qatar and other enemies. It is also notable that the state has expressed an increased interest in improving its international legitimacy, both to attract foreign investment and to secure political patronage for the new leadership. The arrests seem to be motivated by the state’s desire to control the narrative on reform, among not only the domestic audience but also the increasingly significant international one. Therefore, the arrests offer an opportunity for the international community to significantly influence the authoritarian nature of Saudi Arabia by supporting those who were targeted.

The state’s growing and unchecked authoritarianism has rendered domestic activism a precarious endeavor that can be easily rebuffed by raising nationalist sentiments. It took only one political decision to halt the growing momentum of feminism that had been patiently and carefully cultivated over years of collaboration and capacity building. The top-down approach to reform has limited capacity to meet public demands and decide on which reforms to pursue when the public is unable to prioritize claims, and scrutinize or inform policymaking. Most importantly, this drives activism outside the borders, where groups and individuals can organize, access information, and mobilize for a different model of governance.


From Civic Activism to Institutional Politics: Lessons From LebanonJean Kassir

In the summer of 2015, as rotting garbage piled up in the streets of Beirut, networks of activists initiated a large scale anti-establishment protest movement. They demanded officials find a sustainable solution for waste management and be held accountable. These protests expressed a growing nationwide anti-establishment sentiment and underlined the systemic corruption of the ruling elite. These anti-establishment networks had been building since 2011, mostly composed of civil society organizations, nongovernmental organizations, left-leaning political groups, and student collectives. The self-identified “civic movement” was the largest leaderless, nonpartisan, and nonsectarian political mobilization in postwar Lebanon.

Yet, despite its ability to mobilize, the movement failed to bring about significant policy changes and experienced a major setback in the long-awaited 2018 legislative elections when it ran as a coalition. The movement faced profound structural and strategic deficiencies that hindered its ability to play an impactful political role. While the leaderless and flexible structure, as well as its nonpartisan characteristics, led many Lebanese to take part in the demonstrations and feel ownership of the movement, the actors that initiated it fell short of building a solid popular base. Furthermore, the movement avoided traditionally divisive questions about Lebanese politics, such as issues of security and foreign policy, and instead focused on anticorruption in order to appeal to all. This strategy proved unsuccessful. Although it was motivated by a genuine willingness to unite Lebanese voters, the movement exposed the extent of its own internal ideological divisions by skirting contentious political questions.

Jean Kassir
Jean Kassir is a researcher and political activist who holds a master’s of science in comparative politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In the end, popular support for the protests remained fragile and the movement could hardly resist the establishment’s counteroffensives. Without a preexisting grassroots base and an institutionalized political structure, the movement failed to capitalize on sympathy and enthusiasm. The lack of a clear and comprehensive platform seriously harmed the movement’s credibility as a political alternative in the legislative elections and exposed its limited ability to build a popular base and transform the power structure. Additionally, most of the movement’s leading figures were largely unknown outside Beiruti activist circles and lacked political experience. Consequently, the movement struggled against Lebanese sectarian political parties that rely on deeply rooted networks, control media outlets, and benefit from massive financial support. The parties tried to discredit the civic movement’s leading figures by spreading rumors about their agenda, allegiances, and funding. These attacks, in addition to the state’s brutal crackdown,1 eventually succeeded in diminishing the protest movement’s popular support.

While organic anti-establishment mobilization managed to catalyze people’s discontent and influence the public discourse, it had limited ability to grow a popular base and impact the power structure. Building grassroots and institutionalized political groups appears to be a better approach for efficiently seizing opportunities and transforming the political system.


1 “Lebanon: Security Forces Using Excessive Force Against Protestors Must Be Held to Account,” Amnesty International, August 29, 2015,


Governance in GazaOmar Shaban

The Hamas-Fatah divide and the Israeli-imposed blockade on Gaza, which began in 2007, have produced countless victims in Palestine. The political implications of the conflict between Hamas and Fatah and the Israeli blockade include the undermined legitimacy of the 2007 democratic elections; human rights violations, including restrictions on the right to free expression; and severe limits on the freedom of movement. In Gaza, these extreme circumstances have instilled a growing tendency toward radicalism, especially among the younger generation. An estimated 100 young Gazans reportedly joined the self-proclaimed Islamic State, in addition to thousands who stayed and carried out attacks in Gaza.

But the most important aspect of the blockade is the decreased quality of services provided to the public, namely health, education, electricity, and water. The quality and availability of these services has suffered dramatically. Since the blockade began, it has been unclear who is responsible for providing these services: the Israeli government, which controls the border with Gaza; Hamas, which has been ruling Gaza since 2007; or the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people.

Omar Shaban
Omar Shaban is a Gaza-based analyst of the political economy of the Middle East and the founder of PalThink for Strategic Studies.

After the blockade began, the PA essentially ordered its public servants not to serve under Hamas. Hamas, in turn, filled these vacancies with tens of thousands of its own members—many of whom lacked qualifications. This shortage of qualified personnel severely impacted the availability and quality of services, particularly in the health and education sectors. Education sector personnel tend to be more conservative, so schools have become more religious, less diverse, and more politicized. In several incidents, schools even forced female students to wear special uniforms.

Gazans have also struggled with access to electricity and water.1 The PA cut Gaza’s electricity supply, which depends on three sources: the Gaza power plant, which is operated with fuel that comes from Israel and is paid for by the PA; Israeli supply, which is also paid for by the PA; and small quantities of electricity provided by Egypt and paid for by the Arab league.

Residents of Gaza currently receive three to four hours of electricity a day,2 which severely impacts water pumping and water treatment plants. Decreased electricity also affects the capacity of Gaza’s health facilities. Tens of thousands of cubic liters of sewage flood into the sea every day, and Gazan beaches are severely polluted. The harsh restrictions have also hampered private sector production—businessmen in all sectors struggle. Construction and manufacturing have been hit hardest, with many businesses unable to stay afloat. The decreased purchasing power of Gaza’s population has compounded the challenges they face.

The Israeli blockade and the political divide have weakened Gaza in staggering ways: the community is poorer, more dependent on food assistance, less productive, more radical, and less tolerant. These ongoing conditions pose a threat not just to Gaza but to the stability of the entire region.


1 Tamsin Avra, “Gaza Electricity Crisis Fact Sheet,” Rebuilding Alliance, 2017,

2 “Gaza Plunges Into Darkness: Severe Deterioration in the Energy Situation,” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, May 25, 2017,


1 Hedi Larbi, “Rewriting the Arab Social Contract: Toward Inclusive Development and Politics in the Arab World,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, May 2016,

2 “Freedom in the World 2017,” Freedom House, 2017,

3 “Arab Barometer IV: Public Opinion Survey Conducted in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia, 2016-2017,” accessed from

4 Omar Shakir, “All According to Plan : The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt,” Human Rights Watch, August 12, 2014,

5 “Egypt : Torture, Epidemic Maybe Crime Against Humanity,” Human Rights Watch, September 6, 2017,

6 Laura Smith-Spark, “The Ban on Saudi Women Driving Is Ending: Here’s What You Need to Know,” CNN, June 22, 2018,

7 Sarah Yerkes, “Where Have All the Revolutionaries Gone?,” Brookings Institution, March 2017,

8 Sarah Yerkes and Marwan Muasher, “Decentralization in Tunisia: Empowering Towns, Engaging People,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2018,

9 Youssef Cherif, “The Kamour Movement and Civic Protest in Tunisia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 8, 2017,

10 “Algeria’s South: Trouble’s Bellwether,” International Crisis Group, November 2016,

11 Maati Monjib, “The Relentless Tide of Morocco’s Rif Protests,” Sada (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 21, 2017,

12 “World Governance Indicators,” World Bank,

13 Athur Mickoleit, “An Exploratory Look at Public Sector Innovation in GCC Countries” (prepared for the Government Summit Thought Leadership Series, February 10–12, 2014, Dubai, UAE), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, February 2014,

14 Ibid.

15 “La Cartographie du Dévelopment Local Multidimensionnel : Niveau et Déficits,” Observatoire National du Dévelopment Humain, 2017,

16 Carnegie workshop, December 2017.

17 Carnegie workshop, April 2018.

18 Perceptions noticeably improved in 2010–2011 but have dropped again since 2012: “Lebanon: Government Effectiveness,”, 2018,

19 Author interview with Tunisian security analyst, Tunis, May 2017.

20 Mickoleit “An Exploratory Look at Public Sector Innovation in GCC Countries.”

21 Yerkes and Muasher, “Decentralization in Tunisia.”

22 Corruption Action Plan Working Group, “Helping Countries Combat Corruption: The Role of the World Bank,” Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network, World Bank, September 1997,

23 Perry Cammack and Marwan Muasher, “Arab Voices on the Challenges of the New Middle East,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 12, 2016,

24 Carnegie workshop, April 2018.

25 Kate Gillespie, “The Middle East’s Corruption Conundrum,” Current History 105 (January 2006):

26 Ibid.

27 Carnegie workshop on governance, April 2018.

28 Antonio Nucifora and Bob Rijkers, “The Unfinished Revolution: Bringing Opportunity, Good Jobs and Greater Wealth to All Tunisians,” Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Department, World Bank, May 24, 2014.

29 Patrick A. Imam and Davina F. Jacobs, “Effect of Corruption on Tax Revenues in the Middle East,” International Monetary Fund, November 2007,

30 Ibid.

31 Robert I. Rotberg, ed., Corruption, Global Security, and World Order (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009).

32 Sarah Yerkes and Marwan Muasher, “Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion: A Transition at Risk,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 2017,

33 Rotberg, ed., Corruption, Global Security, and World Order.

34 “Middle East and North Africa Governments Have High Risks of Defense-Related Corruption.” Transparency International, February 6, 2013,

35 Ibid.

36 Yerkes and Muasher, “Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion.”

37 Larbi, “Rewriting the Arab Social Contract.”