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Chapter 8: Authoritarianism (Introduction to Middle East Politics)

Authoritarianism can be defined as a small group of individuals who control the state with little popular interference or oversight, in contrast to democracies.

But the presence of an authoritarian government does not mean no political participation, for political participation exists in every political system. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have key features that distinguish them from each other.

Republics are the most common, but there are also monarchies.

Formal political institutions exist but are the exception. In authoritarian systems, political participation occurs informally, by influencing the decisions made by the state but also to extract resources from the regime and advance personal interests and oppose the status quo politically.

The social contract in the Middle East is when regimes formally or informally guarantee security and a stable economy in return for a closed political system, where voting rights don’t exist.

Populism is a tool that authoritarian regimes employ, it is when politicians assure their supporters that they will support them and will pursue their interests against an enemy. The content of populist politics changes, it can appeal to fear of outsiders, class tensions, or even conspiracy theories.

But populism is not just aimed at catering to people’s sympathies. It can also affect policy. Nasser’s move to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956 and Mossadeq’s move to nationalize Iranian oil in 1951 are both examples of populist policies. They are symbols of challenging a foreign oppressor in the name of the people.

Assad in Syria

Hafez el Assad ruled from 1970 to 2000 and was able to maintain his political power through the army and moukhabarat (intelligence). and the use of coercion. The internal security forces and the army were responsible for crushing the uprising of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. The city of Hama was leveled and between 10,000 to 20,000 people died. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood still existed after the event but not in any meaningful capacity. The 2011 uprising in Syria saw them take a leading role.

Assad also used sectarianism to his advantage. Syria was divided into many different sects, with a majority Sunni Arab population – this community was usually in control of Syria’s politics and economy. Assad came from a marginalized Alawi community and the most important security services positions going to members of his community, while other less important positions were given to Christians and Sunni Muslims.

The economic model pursued in Syria was socialist but with some exceptions. The Sunni Urban population was allowed to own private property. After the end of the civil war in Lebanon, Syria was able to make economic gains by exporting 1 million poor workers to Lebanon. This came after recessions in the 1980’s (ramifications of the 1982 uprising).

The Assad regime introduced many secular laws and many of these led to improvements for women and minority groups.

Assad wanted to pressure Israel into returning the Golan Heights, and wanted to do so by using the PLO. But In 1976, Syria’s goal to control the PLO through intervening in the Lebanese civil war backfired, as it exposed the intentions of the regime.

Saudi Arabia’s Monarchy

Large oil deposits were found in Saudi Arabia in 1938, this made the country a top exporter of oil in the world. The Saudi state was established when the Saudi family took over the Arabian peninsula in the early 20th century. The Saudi monarchy is indigenous to the region and has developed its own form of religious ideology and legitimacy through Wahabism.

King Saud’s rule lacked adaptation and innovation. He ruled without a constitution and closed the political system, while emphasizing legitmacy through religious elements. Economic mismanagement eventually led to the drain of the government’s new found wealth, and this lead to an internal coup in 1964, when the King was replaced by his half brother Faisal.

Faisal tried to improve the functioning of the Saudi society through education, infrastructure, and industrial programs, funded by the state’s oil wealth (that had increased dramatically after the 1973 oil embargo).

But this managed reform process was not accompanied by a political reform process.

The oil-rich east part of Saudi Arabia is home to the Shia’a (15 % of Saudi’s 28 million people) – a group that has long been oppressed by the monarchy.

An Introduction to Middle East PoliticsChapter 8: Authoritarianism (Introduction to Middle East Politics) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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