Oct 17, 2007

Upgrading Authoritarianism in the Arab World - Despots 2.0

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.”


Lurch said...

It sounds like they've been watchiing their good friends, Messers Bu$h and Cheney and taking notes. Mandating that ISPs and carriers register the names of all their customers is a nice touch.

Meatball One said...

...or the other way around.;)

Lurch said...

Oh no. You're not dragging me into that chicken/egg controversy. You've had too many honeydew martinis on SoBe.

You make the point that "literate Arab citizens today are more connected to global media flows..."

This is not the danger within Arab societies, I expect. I think literate Arabs, by definition, are upwardly and economically mobile and thus of less danger to the rulers.

The real danger to any closed society is exposure to the openness of Western culture (the recent unpleasantness of the US notwithstanding) this cultural diffusion (contamination) creates a rebellious under-society in just about any culture.

While we can correctly state that "Communism" fell because the USSR could no longer afford the economic competition, it was really the refusal of the narodny to continue to go without jeans, western rock n roll records, and the open marketplace of unsupervised community that doomed the Party. When the Party pushed the loyal Army processional divisions to move on the White House (legislature) it was Ivan Ivanovich who stood in their thousands to defend their newly opened society. And the Party blinked and stepped back.

The "Arab street" resents Western merchandising but they like our DVD players, televisions and decadent blondes doing Dallas. They resent the cultural imperialism of Coca-Cola, but they drink it. Their women like Parisian haute couture and as economy improves, more women will gave access to the funds to look like their wealthier sisters. No matter what you believe, behind closed doors, Arab husbands pay attention to their wives, and obey. ;)