The Pendulum in Motion: The Arab World between Revolution and Counterrevolution

Thursday, March 28, 2019 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm

Hicham Alaoui

Provided below are Hicham Alaoui's prepared remarks. An original event description and photos from the event can be found at the bottom of the page.

The Pendulum in Motion: The Arab World between Revolution and Counterrevolution

Hicham Alaoui

March 2019

I wish to start by thanking the organizers of this event here at Duke University, namely the Center for French and Francophone Studies, Center for International and Global Studies, Center for African and African-American Research, and Middle East Studies Center. In particular, I also thank Professors Stephen Smith and Giovanni Zanalda for their leadership and efforts. Many thanks as well to students, faculty, and members of the community in hosting me yesterday in our engaging informal conversation. Finally, thank you to you all here today for your participation.

Since the Arab Spring, the Middle East has been a pendulum swinging between the poles of revolution and counterrevolution, creating instability and fractures. These wild oscillations may remind us of the European Revolutions of 1848, and the dramatic shifts in power between states and societies that those uprisings triggered. Currently in the Arab world, the pendulum remains swinging towards counterrevolution, but this has not so much restored stability as introduced a new wave of crisis. To understand this, we must consider three dynamics. 

First, at the level of geopolitics, the Arabian Gulf has become the new center of regional gravity, displacing traditional powers like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Second, at the level of regimes, a new form of authoritarian rule has emerged in most Arab countries, something we can call “revamped despotism.” Third, the level of societies, social forces and opposition movements have become atomized under the relentless pressures of those political leaders.

Yet this counterrevolutionary swing has hit a bump in the road. As the tragedy of Jamal Khashoggi showed, autocratic regimes have had to deploy increasing levels of violence in their quest to consolidate power and maintain order. The brutality of this impulse holds an important clue about the inherent contradictions of authoritarianism today. Rulers are promising a future of modernization and stability by attempting to restore an imagined past by re-instilling quietism. But that past does not exist anymore, its illusion having been terminally punctured by the Arab Spring.

This does not mean democracy will automatically emerge as the pendulum swings back to revolution. Sadly, democracies around the globe are suffering a political recession. Yet it does mean that the future of Middle East authoritarianism is anything but certain.

Our first level of analysis is the geopolitical arena, because what is happening domestically in these countries reflects external currents. Three changes have transformed the Middle East: the sectarianization of regional conflicts, the rise of the Gulf as epicenter of regional power, and the retreat of US hegemony.

First, the sectarianization of regional conflict has amplified disorder and uncertainty. This process began with the 2003 Iraq War, which not only destroyed a traditional Sunni Arab power and strengthened Iran, but also enabled the rivalry between the Arab states and Iran to play out in religious terms. After the Iraq War, regional order realigned around the competition between the bloc of so-called Sunni Arab moderate states, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and the axis of Iran and its regional proxies, such as the Assad regime and Hezbollah. 

The problem with this sectarian dynamic was that it could never resolve itself. The only true containment of Iran would require a military solution, but after the destruction of Iraq, there was never Western support for such an intervention. Inversely, the Sunni Arab states could never truly defeat Iran on their own for lack of economic and military capabilities, as well as their own domestic weaknesses. They projected outwards the impression of strength which they lacked internally. In recent years, this climate of sectarianization has created a second level of regional fracturing between Sunni Arab states. Fixation with Iran under the Saudi-Emirati banner has caused new divisions, such as the embargo against Qatar, while exposing vulnerability to new threats like the Islamic State.

In essence, for years, we have witnessed a de facto state of civil war in the Arab world.

Second, the rise of the Arabian Gulf as the epicenter of regional geopolitics is apparent in the Saudi-Emirati axis. The leaderships of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi have coordinated their foreign policies around aggressive military and political initiatives. This newly assertive sense of Gulf interventionism has filled the void left by the fading of traditional centers of pan-Arab regional power, namely Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which are no longer grand sources of ideology, culture, and wealth as they were decades ago.

However, this new sense of assertiveness has generated few rewards thus far and become adventurism. In Yemen, the Saudi-Emirati intervention has aggravated civil war and produced humanitarian disaster. Similar external meddling has likewise inflamed political instability in Libya. Efforts against the Assad regime of Syria have failed. The nearly two-year long embargo against Qatar has also failed to bring about Qatari capitulation, or won the support of the international community This new era of Arabian Gulf dominance has come with a curious byproduct, however. There is strategic rapprochement towards Israel, as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have found the country to be a convenient ally in the conflict against Iran. 

As a result, this has come at the cost of the Palestinians, whose dream of an independent state has become the casualty of Israeli-Saudi collaboration, and the concomitant US-sponsored ‘deal of the century.’

Third, the final geopolitical factor is the decline of American hegemony. Far more than the Obama administration, the Trump administration has relinquished the mantle of leadership that the US has held since the 1991 Gulf War. It conceded to Israel recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, and thus killed the two-state solution. Although many believed the two-state solution was already moribund, last year’s move was the final nail in the coffin. The US will no longer serve as the broker for any long-term settlement regarding the fate of Palestinians.

Trump’s further deference to the Gulf states, in particular the Saudi-Emirati axis in matters like the Yemeni intervention and containing Iran, also illustrates the increasing unlikelihood that the US will ever return to its post-Gulf War role as regional policeman. Even though the US may be uncomfortable with increased Russian, Turkish, or Iranian presence in conflicts like Syria, the Trump administration has not shown a willingness to intervene in any new capacity. On the contrary, the US now seems intent on withdrawing. Of course, even long declines can be punctuated by rearguard action. The US remains intent on confronting Iran, pulling out of the nuclear deal last year while pressuring its European allies to levy new sanctions. In this sense, the jury may still be out.

Yet, we should keep this in mind. Even in its most aggressive form, the American goal is to contain Iran, or even bring about its regime change – but not conquer and occupy it. This is drastically different from how it saw Iraq at the apex of its hegemonic power in 2003. All this points to a future Middle East with greatly reduced American influence, where regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, as well as global powers like Russia and China, all attempt to shape the affairs of the Arab world. A major result will be the tragic subordination of the Palestinians, but also their renewed resistance.

From geopolitics we arrive at the level of domestic politics, where we find in the post-Arab Spring era a renewed form of authoritarianism. Today, outside the Maghrib, most states have upgraded their technologies of rule in what we call “revamped” despotism.” That authoritarianism can repackage itself to appear modern and even “enlightened” is not new. Indeed, consider the European Revolutions of 1848, when monarchs claimed to be enlightened as they faced demands for popular sovereignty from below. 

While we will return to the European example later, it suffices to say now that revamped authoritarianism in the Arab world is anything but enlightened. Its true impulse is counterrevolutionary, because it intends to eliminate all opposition and cow entire societies into obeisance. In plain terms, it is autocracy on steroids. Revamped despots do not wish to simply delay the forces of change, but rather intervene into society to crush it. They are brash and vocal, flexing muscles and rattling sabers, while hoping to soothe the masses with promises of modernization.

At heart, this new version of revamped despotism encompasses five attributes that we must break down: paternalism, modernization, repression, religion, and nationhood. First, today’s revamped despotism has no ideology. It is guided not by a systematic framework of ideas or philosophy, but instead a pervasive sense of paternalism that requires societies to support the policies of the state unconditionally. This differs from past ideological phases in the Arab world, such as Arab Nationalism during the 1950s and 1960s. Then, voices like Nasser delivered a vision of collective liberation, one that would empower Arabs in return for supporting his leadership. 

By contrast, the paternalistic goal today is to destroy pluralism for its own sake, and dry up all forms of political dissent and economic diversity. In its place is the vertical, centralized, and hierarchical state that alone controls the discourse of change. This ruling formula even treats preexisting forms of economic prosperity as a threat, because it abhors any independent class that can create a critical mass of pressure. The favored business elites in this era are not the merchants and magnates of old, but rather new entrepreneurs explicitly sponsored by the state. This is also the reason why many Arab states have begun infatuated with mega-projects and massive infrastructural schemes. Such endeavors highlight how these states must be the primary providers of capital and resources, while also underscoring their absolute authority in guiding and shaping the discourse of modernity.

Second, this new revamped despotism embraces technocratic planning, because it promises to deliver modernization and development to the masses. By modernization, we mean the material trappings of capitalist achievement, such as infrastructural mega-projects and luxury developments, which are open for investments to the outside world and designed to trumpet the economic viability of these countries. The $500 billion mega-city in Saudi Arabia, proposed this October, is a case in point. Plans are deliberately vague regarding how a massive industrialized city 33 times the size of New York can sprout from the desert, but the message broadcast is to simply trust the Saudi state in planning such an undertaking.

Third, this recapitulated authoritarianism frames itself as an ironclad barrier against the dark forces of extremism and violence that plague Libya, Yemen, and Syria. This pledge for order justifies increased repression, which in some contexts has resulted in unprecedented crackdowns. Under Sisi, for instance, opposition in Egypt including the Muslim Brotherhood have been further suffocated than under Mubarak. There is no longer even a veneer of political contestation, social pluralism, and civil society. There is no space for opposition under the imperative of these rulers imposing paternalistic modernization that can deliver order and stability to atomized societies.

Fourth, revamped despotism exploits Islam in a dualistic way to bolster its rule with domestic audiences, while also winning favor from the West. In both regards, autocrats claim they are actually promoting the most authentic form of Islam. For domestic audiences, rulers enforce a version of Islam that they believe resonates with the majority of society. In Egypt, the Sisi regime has repeatedly invoked Islamic piety to justify various clampdowns, such as the arrest of those violating the fast of Ramadan, as well as the current LGBT community.

For Western audiences, rulers convey an image of Islam that emphasizes its moderate and compatible aspects. A prime example is the 2017 Riyadh Islamic Conference, where Saudi Arabia pledged to stamp out Islamist extremism abroad while expanding the boundaries of social and religious freedom at home. This has inverted the traditional relationship between religion, morality, and identity. In the past, religion produced morality and identity. Today, revamped despots have reversed the formula: now, the state will be the provider of morality and identity.

Fifth, revamped despotism has rediscovered national identity. Rulers invoke a renewed discourse of nationalism absent of traditional ideologies like socialism or Islamism. They conflate loyalty to leaders with belonging within the nation-state. We see the symbolic and material construction of new national identities especially in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates. Here, regimes have busily created new symbols, celebrations, and practices to give the impression that these are ancient nations and eternal regimes, not modern entities arising out of colonialism. It is as if they have just discovered nationalism, a phase that other Arab countries like Morocco and Algeria experienced as early as the 1960s.

In sum, revamped despotism today encompasses the five attributes of paternalism, modernization, repression, religion, and nationhood. It has not brought good governance or less corruption, much less actual democratization. Accelerating this counterrevolutionary mentality are other factors. Some countries have undergone leadership succession, which has brought new types of authority figures to the forefront of state power. These include Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar.

There is another dynamic at play in the Maghreb, however. Here, we have seen some degree of societal atomization as a result of renewed state repression, which has fragmented and penetrated large-scale movements.

In Morocco, for instance, the accumulated effects of repression and coercion from above have resulted in new forms of localized protest and opposition. The rebellion of the Rif is the latest example. The Rif movement over the past several years has drawn upon old historical symbols and the legacies of developmental neglect in order to launch bold and daring attacks against the state, even calling into question the legitimacy of the monarchy itself. Yet the strength of such rebellions, namely their localized nature, is also their weakness. The solution to such problems is only found at the national level, even if the underlying problems are deeply local or provincial. Ironically, the Moroccan state finds itself in the same contradiction, for its national political weakness is the underlying cause of these localized forms of resistance.

Something similar yet different is happening in Algeria. Until recently, Algerian society presented a similar dynamic of atomized, local opposition. For instance, a daring new environmental movement has been organizing protests against shale oil drilling in the Saharan south. However, this has changed dramatically in recent weeks with the rise of mass mobilization. President Bouteflika’s demand for a fifth term triggered a monumental wave of national protests, in which Algerians re-invoked the central theme of the Arab Spring – dignity.

In doing so, Algerian society is finally vanquishing the ghosts of its civil war from the 1990s, and expressing its collective desire for political change haunted by neither fear of Islamist takeover or the threat of political coercion. In effect, Algeria is “catching up” to Morocco and Tunisia. It is experiencing now the type of spontaneous national resistance that those countries saw in the Arab Spring. 

Algerians are rejecting the three forms of escapism that previously shaped everyday views on politics. These were emigration to Europe often through illegal means, the turn towards Islamism, or disconnecting altogether and living on the margins. Algerians term those who did the latter as hitistes, a hybrid French-Arabic term that literally means those who lean upon the wall. It is figuratively used to describe the many citizens who sought to exit their political trauma through existential disengagement. What we see today is its reversal through mass political confrontation.

On the other side is the Algerian military, which has dominated politics behind a façade of civilian rule since the colonial struggle. Like Egypt, the army is the backbone of the state. The Bouteflika era was a modest reconfiguration, as the president nibbled at this hegemony by drawing upon new business elites and shuffling the security services. The downfall of Bouteflika marks the military’s return to the visible forefront of Algerian politics. This political moment is a transition, but not a necessarily democratic one. The Algerian military will try to learn from its arch-nemesis, the Moroccan makhzen. Indeed, the Algerian military is mirroring the makhzen in its survival strategy. Facing popular contestation, its reaction will be to recycle the system in order to perpetuate it with a new civilian façade. 

Inversely, the makhzen is observing events in Algeria with apprehension. If the Algerian uprising results in genuine political transformation, it will find itself in a most awkward position – the only Francophone Arab country in North Africa still clinging to its old system. Of course, such political change in Algeria is not guaranteed.  It requires sustained mass pressures and strategic opposition that leaves open the possibility for a liberal political opening. In such highly polarized environments, any potential shift towards democracy will require a pacted transition with careful bargains between the army and societal actors.

Comparing these countries, we can say that the Maghrib experience encompasses a microcosm of the Arab world. If opposition remains atomized in small, localized pockets, then it makes revolutionary breakthroughs less likely, even if such diffuse mobilization is difficult to eliminate all at once. However, if opposition expresses itself more at the national level, as in Algeria today, then the possibility of singular, large-scale political transformations still exists.

All this being said, we can nonetheless argue that revamped authoritarians today are failing on two levels. They cannot deliver political dignity or economic prosperity given the inherent limitations of their politics. However, neither can they put the genie back in the bottle. Virtually no Arab state can offer the universal employment, social services, and guarantees for prosperity that typified the past, given the youth bulge and demographic reality.

The Arab Spring unleashed the realization that popular mobilization could overcome all but the most brutal regimes. That dynamic today still exists, but is more diffuse. The only advantage of the counterrevolutionary promise was that of stability and order. Now that we see this to be false, we also see the entire façade of the new authoritarian compulsion to be bowing under the weight of its own contradiction. If revamped despotism was truly working, then opposition would not exist, and there would be no need for repression. Instead, autocratic coercion in many countries is worse than before the Arab Spring.

Here, it is important to understand what the murder of Jamal Khashoggi represents. Khashoggi’s assassination by Saudi Arabia was, most obviously, a sign that popular voices across the region are not swayed by the promise of a prosperous future in return for obedience and loyalty. Khashoggi was no revolutionary, for he did not seek to radically overturn the political structure of his kingdom. Rather, he merely desired space for pluralism, as well as opportunities for political participation and vertical accountability. Because he refused to submit to threats and enticements designed to silence him, Khashoggi was marked for elimination. 

This murder struck a cultural nerve given its brutal nature. And for every Khashoggi, there are innumerable other voices of opposition that suffer human rights abuses. However, this incident also signified what the new authoritarianism has wrought for the region in the form of violence. It has forced many observers to question whether the new stability was worth these moral costs. 

It is instructive to compare this situation with old Europe, in the counterrevolutionary wave following the 1848 Spring of Nations. This is the closest thing we have to a model, and we may compare these two cases with all of their limitations to reveal insights. The Revolutions of 1848 were notable in exhibiting the same dynamics that would later characterize other regional waves of uprising global history, such as the Arab Spring. The European monarchs facing those revolutions, however, were forced to accommodate not just public discontent, but the awakening of new nationalisms. We refer to such despotism as possessing at least some “enlightenment” because while these were no democracies, monarchies recognized that new class structures, national identities, and social scenes could not simply be suppressed.

The seminal task was not to forestall change, but rather absorb, engage, and incorporate new forms of public consciousness into the political arena. The goal was not to forestall change, but rather shape it in a way to preserve their dynastic position. It is from these rhythms of revolution, counterrevolution, and ideological ferment that we therefore see the formation of modern Europe by the late nineteenth century, with the Third French Republic, a united Italy, and a centralized German state.

By contrast, the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world today are not building new states or unifying new nations. They are patriarchal and paternalistic, but they are not innovating. They are telling their societies to obey without offering anything new. This is why we call them revamped, but hardly enlightened. Their counterrevolutionary mentality seeks not only to preserve despotic power against the historical winds of change, but rather to destroy those winds themselves. 

In conclusion, it is important to explore what factors may weaken or strengthen this new model of perverse governance in the Arab world. 

In Saudi Arabia, the Khashoggi murder has created a new crisis. International outcry induced the Saudi regime to walk back some of its policies, such as relaxing impositions placed upon its economic elites, and exploring Yemeni peace talks in Stockholm with the Houthi movement. Tensions with Qatar have also modestly declined. Yet this counterrevolution has entered into a self-reinforcing cycle. The intensified harshness of early policies has caused new forces of opposition to mobilize. In response, this regime will strike back, which will generate even more mobilization. 

More broadly in the region, demography is not on the side of authoritarians. The Middle East has too many young people who suffer endemic unemployment, yet are a most technologically connected generation with a deep, collective memory of the past. Time, also, does not support durable despotism. When the chilling effects of war and violence dissipate, popular energies will mobilize once more. Fear is not eternal. The exhaustion of the rentier bargain also portends change. With welfarist promises no longer fiscally responsible, citizens need something beyond material satisfaction.

On the other hand, there are several international factors that could bolster autocratic rule. One is the entry of outside powers with no interest in promoting democratization, namely Russia and China, who use different strategies. Russia provides diplomatic cover to autocracies, such as in Syria and Ukraine, and is even willing to militarily intervene in order to strengthen their favored regimes. China is subtler, supporting authoritarians in the Middle East through economic and financial resources, as well as promising increased trade and investment.

A second problem is the waning of democracy in the West. Here, the erosion of democratic institutions and longstanding norms has cast a dim light onto what was, once, democratic models of liberal politics. A third problem is the rise of right-wing populism across the Global South, such as the Philippines and Brazil. Authoritarianism in the Middle East is not populist, because populism is anti-elitist, and these regimes remain run by entrenched elites.

However, these developments are dampening the diffusion of democratic norms, which began decades ago in the Third Wave of Democracy, but has now stumbled in the current global democratic recession.

Original event description:

Seven years since the Arab Spring, the prospects for Middle East democracy have diminished markedly.  Why?  Popular forces mounted uprisings but most didn't follow through.  Authoritarians regrouped and reorganized themselves under the mantle of “enlightened despotism”, whose projects to deliver order and modernity masked a deeper effort to destroy opposition and atomize societies.  There were dramatic shifts in the geopolitical arena, where conflicts became "sectarianized" and the Gulf kingdoms became regional power brokers.  The disruption of domestic politics by such geopolitical dynamics is unprecedented.  However, the new counterrevolutionary impulse paradoxically clings to an impossible future by referencing a mythical past as if the Arab Spring never happened – while in the present, resistance and dissent continue to erupt. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi exposes how this counterrevolutionary campaign has lost its footing.  But the prospects for democracy remain precarious, particularly as democracy faces a recession around the globe.

Hicham Alaoui is a "dissident" member of the ruling family in the Kingdom of Morocco often referred to in the media as "the Red Prince" for his pro-democracy stance. He is a Research Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, specializing in issues of comparative democratization. He is completing his Ph.D at the University of Oxford, where he focuses on the relationship between religion and politics in the contemporary Middle East. Through his research foundation, he is overseeing two new research projects on the political economy of educational reform and the politics of governance and local development in the Arab world. He was previously a board member of various research and advocacy organizations, such as the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University and the MENA Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch. He has also served with the Carter Center and UN for overseas elections monitoring and peacekeeping missions. He has published in academic journals such as Politique Internationale, Le Débat, Pouvoirs, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Journal of Democracy. He has also contributed to periodicals such as The New York Times, Le Monde, La Nouvelle Observateur, El Pais, and Al-Quds. He holds degrees from Princeton and Stanford Universities. His memoir, Journal d'un Prince banni, was published in 2014 by Éditions Grasset, and has since been translated into several languages.

Photos from the Event:

Hicham Alaoui speaking at Duke

Hicham Alaoui Speaking at Duke


Hicham Alaoui Speaking at Duke

Pink Parlor, East Duke Bldg (East campus)