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Shifting Patterns of Arab Politics 


Regional politics in the Arab World are often characterized as an endless game of rivalry, struggle, and competition for influence; the players may vary, but the rules don’t change. In fact, however, today’s rivals are fighting battles over very different stakes and deploying different arsenals than their predecessors in the 1950s, or even in the 1990s. Just as the early post-independence battles about the configuration of states gave way to Cold War struggles to sustain the stability of regimes, today’s competition reflects new divides over the instruments and beneficiaries of government policy. To understand the patterns of contemporary Arab politics, we must examine not just the new players, but their new purposes and new powers.

Securing Independent States: Debating the Past
In the early postimperial years, when memories of European control were still fresh, political debates within the Arab World centered on the shape of the postcolonial order: how much of the legacy of European rule would survive? Sovereignty and statehood were prized as the symbols of autonomy, authority, and agency in a world structured, at least in part, by a global order reflected in the new United Nations. But who would exercise that sovereignty, and which states would be recognized as exercising it?

From the 1950s through the 1970s, these questions were debated in many forms and fora, as the relationships between nations, states, and governments were all contested. During this period, Egypt was not only the largest country in the region but also the most powerful, thanks to its demographic weight, cultural influence, and charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser’s embrace of pan-Arab nationalism reflected and sustained the tension between revolutionary nationalism and state sovereignty that characterized the era. As Nasser wrote in the Philosophy of the Revolution, “There is an Arab circle surrounding us and this circle is as much a part of us as we are a part of it.”

From the toppling of European-imposed monarchs in Egypt, Iraq, and Libya and the wresting of Algeria from France to the creation (and dissolution) of the United Arab Republic to the repeated (and failed) efforts to liberate Palestine from what was widely seen as an illegitimate foreign occupation, the region was convulsed in existential argument and dispute. Boundaries were porous and identities fluid as pan-Arab aspirations justified intervention in states across the region and republics and monarchies alike pursued proxy wars in civil conflicts in Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere.

With the Arab military defeat and loss of territory to Israel in 1967, the heady ambitions to redraw the European map of the region gave way to more modest efforts simply to secure its borders. The withdrawal of the British from their last possessions east of Suez and the independence of the small Gulf states in 1971 marked the end of formal European control, and by the end of the decade, the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty signaled the triumph of state interests over nationalist ambitions. Efforts to remake the past were finished. The arena of contestation was to move inside states and, as the oil embargo of 1973-74 suggested, power was to be defined not only by territory and population but increasingly by financial resources.

Safeguarding Stable Regimes: Prolonging the Present
In the struggles over the shape and even existence of newly independent countries, statehood and sovereignty had been the prize. Over the succeeding decades, however, as control of territory was secured and international recognition assured, regime stability came to take precedence over state-building. The global superpowers settled into a Cold War détente and, prizing predictability over uncertainty, supplied client regimes with the foreign and military aid that ensured policy continuity and, not unrelatedly, regime stability. So, too, did the availability of increased oil revenues—among both the oil producers and their regional allies— support regime stability. After decades of military coups, there was no regime change in the Arab World in the thirty years between the oil price increases of 1973 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Orderly succession upon the death of the rulers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Syria illustrated the investment in regime continuity across the region.

Yet, this stability obscured important changes in the dynamic of regional politics; it represented not only the surrender of earlier nationalist aspirations, but also the abandonment of more conventional state-building. Regimes began to supplement and eventually supplant states as the focus of political loyalties. These autocratic rulers relied not on the popular support of citizens so much as on financial subsidies from external patrons that, in turn, they used to create and sustain networks of patronage at home. This shifted the discourse from appeals to citizens—appeals that might have produced demands for greater freedom and participation—to claims for allegiance based on ethnic and religious solidarities. This deliberate and often cynical tactic to evade accountability to a broad-based citizenry quickly escaped the control of the regimes; however, as such, identities proved at least as effective in mobilizing opposition as support. By the 1980s, the state-based order was challenged by Islamist and sectarian mobilization as groups based on networks of religious affiliation and ethnic kinship proliferated, providing aid and solace in communities where the state itself was weakening.

Indeed, although state boundaries were largely immovable and regimes seemed similarly secure, ordinary people were increasingly vulnerable. Conflict raged across the region, taking a major toll in human life without discernible impact on political regimes. The Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990 cost an estimated 150 thousand lives and the exodus of almost one million people from the country, but it produced no change in the regime that governed the state. Shortly after the war ended, the parliament declared amnesty for all political and wartime crimes, promoting an outcome in which there was “no victor, no vanquished”. Similarly, after more than eight years and as many as a million casualties, the Iraq–Iran war of the 1980s produced a stalemate, and again, no change in regime. In 1990, the war was settled with an exchange of prisoners and a return to the status quo ante. The global investment in stability was confirmed in the decisive rejection of Iraqi claims on Kuwait in 1991 and, less decisively, in the continuing failure to address Palestinian aspirations to statehood.

The human costs of regime stability were reflected not only in war casualties and refugee counts. By the 1990s, population growth and economic stagnation had converged to erode the gains in health, education, and employment of the preceding decades across the region, and the post-Cold War era saw little improvement as neoliberal policy prescriptions discouraged large-scale government investment in social welfare provision. By the turn of the century the Arab World had among the lowest adult literacy rates in the world; only 62 percent of the region’s adults could read, well below the world average of 84 percent and the developing county average of 76 percent. The region’s economies had stagnated: its share of global exports fell from 2.3 percent in 1990 to 1.8 percent in 2008, most of which was accounted for by oil and gas. This reliance on oil and neglect of labor-intensive sectors amplified scandalously high unemployment, especially among the young.

In fact, as the 21st century opened, the Middle East was becoming what economist Thomas Piketty and his colleagues called “a pioneer region in terms of extreme inequality”. Between 1990 and 2016, almost all income growth in the Arab World was absorbed by population increases. Although…


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