If somebody told me two weeks ago that it would be possible to get a good grasp of contemporary Arab politics in less than 400 pages, I would have had a hard time stopping laughing. After reading Ottaway and Hamzawy’s book, the answer would be different.
Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy edited a volume which deals with highly pertinent and yet a somewhat understudied feature of Arab politics – pluralism of Arab regimes. It is true that the literature on Muslim Brotherhood or country case studies is blooming. However, a comprehensive overview of political actors in current Arab world is a rare sight. The editors identify three sets of political actors to deal with: incumbent regimes, secular parties and Islamist movements. They do not deal with civil society because they consider them to be too weak and ineffective. In fact, most NGOs are service-oriented or charitable institutions and as such do not pose a threat to governments.
The editors identify incumbency as a strong political asset, with power not generated at the ballot box but with the help of strong security apparatuses instead. Although many Arab regimes are not in love with the opposition in their countries, simple crushing of the opposition parties is no longer a viable option. However, the political conundrum is further exacerbated by apathetic voters who do not turn up in large numbers at the elections.
The volume is divided into three chapters, each one devoted to one set of actors. Each section begins with a general introduction identifying key findings and then followed by a couple of case studies illustrating points made in introductions.
The first chapter deals with the incumbent regimes. With coups d’état out of fashion in the Middle East, most of the regimes tended to ossify in the past decades. Nevertheless, currently, reform actors emerged in all countries. Political laws have changed in almost all countries of the region and electoral competition increased (without making elections free and fair). The goal of the reformers is not to democratize but to modernize. This attempt is partially driven by a discovery that oil wells have their bottoms too and that oil non-producing states need to find their economic niche. In this search for improvement through managed reform, however, political institutions can become seen more as an obstacle than a helpful tool.
(think Kuwait). The authors identify three models of managed reform: reforming political institutions without changing power distribution (Egypt or Bahrain), social reform without a political one (Morocco or Saudi Arabia) and managed reform accepting legitimacy of opposition (Yemen, Algeria). Political reforms then lead to a split between hardliners and softliners within the regime. The key levels of power – military, internal security or intelligence – remain with small exceptions controlled by hardliners anyway. Occasional calls for political reform are aimed at improving the governance with a goal to improve conditions for economic growth, partially under Western pressures.
The second chapter of the book deals with secular parties, caught between restrictive political regimes and Islamist challenge. Their biggest problem is their internal organization which is absolutely unsuited for electoral participation. The secular parties also suffer from the fact that Arab societies have recently become increasingly socially conservative and religious. The authors identify the crisis of the secular parties as the major problem of current attempts for political reform in the Middle East. Many secular parties are tying themselves with the government, in order to win over the Islamists. The authors demonstrate this point with the example of Morocco, where the secularists aligned with the government in a vicious circle where the former opposition parties are actually becoming government parties, creating a kind of background charade to the palace. Another example is Egypt, where secular parties are completely unable to compete with the incumbent regime or Islamists, who are extraordinarily well organized. Although electoral participation in Egypt is low, secular parties fail to identify new potential constituencies and to mobilize them. The secular parties are unable to project a vision, to form a specific message and exhibit extraordinary organizational weakness.
The third chapter is devoted to Islamists. The editors rightly point out that the very fact that Islamists participate in elections means that they accepted the legitimacy of nation states and rejected (for the moment) the idea of creating a state for all Muslims. Furthermore, the participation shows that Islamists came to accept political space as a legitimate space for the fight of ideas. Lastly, by participating in elections, Islamists accept the right to participate in parties with different ideologies. When it comes to Islamists, two major concerns usually appear: firstly whether they are truly democratic and secondly whether the electoral participation can strengthen their democratic norms. As for the first question, the authors say that Islamists are unlikely to sweep elections even if they were allowed to participate and use examples of Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco to support this claim. Islamists can win only in very special circumstances, usually when regimes are perceived as extremely corrupt, as what happened in Palestine in 2006 and in Algeria in the early 1990s. Furthermore, authors claim that evidence does not show that the Islamists use elections only as a ruse – and claim that Islamists do not even want to win the elections in order not to trigger a devastating response from governments. Many Islamist parties have also, in fact, their own internal democratic procedures and their opinions on issues such as women’s rights appear to be similar to those of the Western world of the first half of the 20th century. As for the question whether the electoral participation strengthens democratic values, authors claim that if electoral participation takes place under normal conditions, it leads to moderation. However, if elections are taking place under ‘siege conditions’, then internal politics of
Islamist parties will tend to lead to creating more hard-line positions. The main problem of Islamists is to strike the right balance between politics and ideological commitment, coupled with their attempt to strengthen the power of legislatures (the political arenas in which they are allowed to compete).
Despite the fact that the volume offers an excellent primer on current Arab politics, several shortcomings need to be pointed out. Firstly, authors of chapters often seem to ignore widespread rigging of elections and unfair conditions. When they point to the problem free election of Hosni Mubarak in 2005 as a sign of weakness of secularists, they ignore the fact that the elections were far from fair and
Mubarak was sure to win. In claiming that Islamists did not win in elections in Jordan as an example of the fact that Islamists would win the elections sweepingly if allowed to participate, the authors forget to mention that the
Jordanian electoral system was severely gerrymandered precisely for the purpose of strengthening other constituencies than Islamists. Plus, they forget that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2005 won all positions it competed for. Lastly, some of the conclusions of the authors are hard to grasp – their claim that secularists are not organized properly and thus cannot successfully attempt to rally support in the elections and point to the strength of the Islamist organization, is hard to square with their statement that Islamists would not sweep the elections if allowed to. Free elections would mean that this organizational strength, coupled with lifted restraint on the number of fielded candidates, would probably lead to comfortable victory for Islamists.
The most serious shortcoming of the book is, however, different. It is a virtual absence of footnotes and sources, which makes it impossible for the reader to follow some of the more interesting aspects more deeply or go to the sources of information. This absence of footnotes is baffling and seriously impedes the use of the publication in
a more scientific process.
Despite these shortcomings, the publication remains the best offering for an overview of Arab politics. It offers important ideas for policy and also a great general overview. Accessible language as well as direct flow of information, make the book a comfortable read. Ottaway and Hamzawy tried to present the current political reality of the Arab world in a succinct way to a nonspecialist reader. It needs to be said that they succeeded very well.