PhD Proposal: Accounting for Differences in Outcome of the Arab Spring




Research Questions, Hypotheses & Variables:

Why did the Arab Spring affect states differently? What accounts for these differences in outcome? This article seeks to address that very question.

In this research, I extend “Wimmer et al’s” model of ethnic conflict & exclusion to include ethno-religious groups in the Middle East. Ample literature has been written on the consequences of minority rule, especially in the Middle East, but there is little research on ethno-religious exclusion as the source of national instability. The typical variables considered are foreign intervention, religiosity or authoritarianism. My argument is that some states are more or less politically developed than others, and as such, exhibit a more sophisticated system that at the very least represents the majority ethnic fabric of the nation-state. Exclusive states tend to be less developed politically, and as such disenfranchise ethnic majorities leading to more instability.

Syria – minority ethno-religious, leader stay, chaos, politically semi-developed

Egypt – majority ethno-religious, leader gone, stable, politically developed

Libya – majority ethno-religious rule, leader gone, chaos, politically underdeveloped

Method: Qualitative, comparative micro-analysis, generalizability, not always enough cases for particular regions or issues

Case Selection: Variation in variables; historically, contextually and regionally relevant; concise.

Hypothesis: More politically developed, historically rich states in the Arab world like Egypt, whose ruling class represents its ethno-religious majority experiences more stability and less conflict. Contrarily, less politically developed states, like Libya, while the state might still represent the majority ethno-religious group, its underdevelopment enabled its collapse into war.

History & Political Structure
SyriaAssyrian & Phoenician civilization, but often conquered & eventually absorbed
Libyaconquered by various civilization, rarely autonomous
Egyptuniquely autonomous, relative to others, richer unified history, Muhammad Ali

Literature Review on ethnic & religious exclusion and variant perspectives on the roots of Middle East conflict (foreign intervention, authoritarianism, religiosity).
I fill the gap in the literature by focusing on ethnic exclusion as a cause of conflict on the Middle East by controlling for intervening variables.

Conclusion: The ruling class in Egypt is not from a minority group, and coincided with end of one leadership. Syria is historically semi-politically developed, with a decent structure, and a long history of foreign influence. But the Alawite ruling class is an ethnic minority that doesn’t represent and excludes the majority Sunni population.

For this reason, ethnic misrepresentation of the general population allowed for utter chaos and war, all the while, unlike the two aforementioned cases, the ruling class & leadership remains in power.

The conflict rages on in Syria, while in Libya the war has settled with skirmish erupting between various rebel groups underneath a powerless and nearly absent state, led by a new General National Congress vying for power and stability amidst violence. Egypt has faced two leadership changes, yet it remains authoritarian, however it has entirely averted war & remains wholly stable as a state and society.

Globally, no state is a “perfect democracy” but some are obviously closer and more exemplary than others. Democracy is multi-dimensional meaning that there are components therein, all of which are necessary for its sustenance.

Regionally, this is also true – that some states are more or less democratic than others. Of all the MENA states only Tunisia is considered a “successful” democracy. Both Tunisia & Egypt enjoy more developed institutions than Libya & Syria, for example. One might attribute development to geography & history, given Egypt has been more autonomous than other Arab counterparts, but this doesn’t apply across the board, given Tunisia was part of the Ottoman Empire while Egypt was not.

Why did revolution fail to break-out in Saudi Arabia?

Libya is also an oil-rich state, but it was left ravaged. Oil was not a stabilizing force in Libya. It’s underdevelopment and economic control & political underrepresentation led to chaos.

Saudi Arabia has a notoriously strong security apparatus, one that is tied directly to the ruling family, the House of Saud. The same is true in Syria, where an Alawite-dominated military has direct links with the ruling Assad “clan”. However the major difference is that Saudi Arabia is supported by America, unlike Syria.

States which experienced military invasions endured the worst outcome of the Arab Spring, versus countries that maintained autonomy. Compare the violence in Yemen, Syria & Libya to Saudi, Egypt & Tunisia, and the claim carries weight.

This can be extended to Iraq & Afghanistan, invaded by the US.

But why then has America stood by Saudi Arabia & flip-flopped on Syria?

The US switched from mildly opposing the Syrian regime under Obama to supporting it tacitly under Trump. This underscores that US policy is not monolithic, and there are two forces contending, with one seeking further democratization & the other benefitting from authoritarian neoliberal (neocolonial) constructs such as the Saudi or Syrian state.

Perhaps the extent of political development and institutionalization in Arab states like Egypt prevented foreign countries from being able to influence the trajectory of the demonstrations, whereas thoroughly guarded states like Saudi Arabia & Syria with almost no degree of democratic institution were forced to suppress uprisings. Not only does Egypt have a sizable minority, it has institutional provisions & a political infrastructure which make it less vulnerable to chaos. Clearly Egypt is no democracy, and has in fact continued as an authoritarian state, but it averted war despite experiencing two relatively peaceful revolutions & the ouster of two leaders. The mere change in the face of executive leadership from Mubarak to Morsi then to Sisi – no matter how illusory – represented a power shift. This is arguably the result of the political infrastructure of the state which has democratic features such as separation of powers & independent judiciary.

Ultimately then it can be argued that while culturally Saudi Arabia and Syria are different, they are politically underdeveloped to a comparable degree, with few to no provisions in place meant to separate powers of the state or establish a mild sense of accountability among officials.

Thus the failure of the Arab Spring to overwhelm Saudi Arabia can be traced to the US decision to stand by the government, despite its authoritarian character. Syria’s government was beginning to give way, until a pivot away from the Obama policy & direct coordination with Russia by the newly elected US government.

But that only explains why the US flip-flopped, not why the outcomes of the Arab Spring were different themselves. In Yemen, and Libya, leaders were ousted but war broke out. In Tunisia & Egypt, leaders were ousted under stable circumstances. In all four cases, leadership changed. In all four cases, the ruling class represented the majority ethno-religious group, Sunni Muslims. Syria on the other hand collapsed into war, and the ruling class remains in power, despite its unrepresentative character of the Syrian population.

Democrats in the US are closer allies against neoliberalism in the Middle East, than Republicans.

Perhaps this why there was such a coordinated effort by various authoritarian governments across the world to influence the 2016 election in favor of Trump, who is more or less sympathetic to authoritarianism than his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton.

Globalization has rendered the world inextricably linked no matter how much anti globalist nationalists tout otherwise. Since America is the world’s most powerful state, it is only sensible that changes in its domestic politics would have ripple effects, especially in the Middle East where it has been involved so long & the politics are so volatile.

Perhaps it will be easier to tell in 2020, unless of course Trump doesn’t make it that far.

Is it safe to conclude then that the chapter of revolution has not yet ended in the region?

As Saudi Arabia & Iran both scramble to avert their own spring of sorts, one is left to wonder how much longer of a lifeline such dynasties can maintain?


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