A new Saban Center for Middle-East Policy (Brookings) report looks at the methods in which Arab regimes are dealing with the rising political expectations of their citizens.
Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World [40-page pdf]
“Tunisia is our model. Just look at them! They are much more repressive than we are, yet the West loves them. We need to figure out how they do it.” --Syrian political analyst.
What is emerging in the Arab world, ... is a hybrid form of authoritarianism. It combines tried-and-true strategies of the past—coercion, surveillance, patronage, corruption, and personalism—with innovations that reflect the determination of authoritarian élites to respond aggressively to the triple threat of globalization, markets, and democratization. These efforts are aimed at creating and sustaining an emerging “authoritarian coalition,” one that hinges on preserving existing bases of institutional and social support while strengthening ties to or at a minimum buying off, groups that have been regarded by regimes as unreliable, if not potentially antagonistic.
Five features stand out as defining elements of authoritarian upgrading. All of these elements are evident in varying combinations in major Arab states, including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Indeed, elements of these features are ubiquitous throughout the Arab world, although the particular mix differs from case to case. The five features are:
1. Appropriating and containing civil societies;
2. Managing political contestation;
3. Capturing the benefits of selective economic reforms;
4. Controlling new communications technologies;
5. Diversifying international linkages.
Interestingly, ruling parties have also embraced the technological apparatus associated with elections in established democracies. High-tech “war rooms,” a term that has been imported in English into the political vernacular in places like Egypt, have been established by the technocratic cadres of ruling parties in recent elections in both Egypt and Yemen. In the Egyptian case, the “war room” became the base for massive efforts to identify likely voters, track voter turnout, conduct survey research and focus groups, amass photographs of polling stations throughout the voting to monitor traffic at the polls, and other practices associated with state-of-the-art election management.
[The] dramatic growth in access to media, telecommunications technologies, and the internet is among the most significant and tangible changes of recent decades. Compared to even the relatively recent past, when Arab media were marked by a stultifying, obsequious focus on political leaders, limited and poorly-produced state-approved programming, heavy-handed censorship, outmoded technologies, and tightly regulated access to the outside world, the Arab region has at last begun to experience the media and communications revolutions that for many are emblematic of what it means to be modern. Without question, literate Arab citizens today are more connected to global media flows and have better access to information about their own countries and the world than any previous generation.
To balance these pressures, Arab regimes are converging on strategies to control and manage public access to new communications technologies along lines that reflect broader patterns of authoritarian upgrading. Governments now accept, however reluctantly, the spread of new communications and media technologies. Arab leaders value the political and reputational gains associated with their self-proclaimed roles as champions of innovation. They also recognize the value of these technologies as steam valves: outlets that mitigate social pressures that might otherwise become politicized. At the same time, virtually every Arab regime has built up extensive systems of regulation, surveillance, oversight, and coercion that vastly limit the autonomy and privacy of users.
Typically, these systems begin with centralized control of access to internet sites, with close attention to sites that carry political content but also pornography or other material deemed, for whatever reason, to be “inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values” of a country. Controls also include regulations requiring ministerial approval for opening an internet café; requirements that internet service providers report the names of subscribers to government agencies; holding owners of internet cafés legally liable for their customers’ actions; holding website owners liable for the content of their sites; inspections and monitoring of internet usage by ministry personnel, internal security personnel, or the police; and systems requiring individual users to register for permission to establish internet access accounts from their homes.
As text-messaging grows in importance, regimes are honing their ability to monitor and censor this means of communication, as well. It is entirely likely that within the next year the use of text messages to mobilize participants in political rallies—a technique used by leaders of the Kifaya (Enough!) movement in Egypt among others—will no longer be possible.
In broad terms, therefore, what has emerged in the Arab world is a hybrid approach to the management of the internet and new media communications technologies that is characteristic of authoritarian upgrading. Regimes have become more open to and accepting of these technologies. They acknowledge their social, political, and economic benefits. Yet they also assimilate these technologies into authoritarian strategies of governance, using them to enhance and upgrade their own capacity to keep tabs on their citizens, and to surround them with a “multi-layered architecture of control.”