Why democratisation could not take roots in the Middle East countries that were affected by the 2011 Arab Spring protests?

In 2011, the World Bank wrote: «The food products price index, which increased by 15% between October 2010 and January 2011, has risen 29% from its level in the same period last year» (Ziegler, 2011). The excessive increase of basic goods price since 2008 due to the economic crisis and other factors, such as food speculation in the financial markets, affected notably to the welfare conditions of many people from the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. This data helps to understand in part why a mass demonstration held in different countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, triggered a wave of citizen protests called ‘The Arab Spring’ which sought to achieve democracy and social rights. “The Tunisian Revolution not only represented a political nature protest, it also started from a discomfort with the progress of the economy, corruption and with the accumulation of wealth in a few hands“ (Gámez y Arrais, 2018). Almost eight years later after the uprising, Tunisia is the only country among all those who participated in the Arab Spring that has stood out for achieving democratic progress, although at a slow pace.

Tunisia, Arab Spring, 2011

For many years, scholars have tried to explain why North Africa and the Middle East had not joined the democratizing waves of recent decades. What is exceptional in this area is the core of many recent debates and studies. It is difficult to clearly explain the complex reasons for no successful transitions and conversions from authoritarian regimes to democracy except in the recent case of Tunisia. Why this exceptionality? The reasons that lie behind this unique and relative success of Tunisia can be found in a host of numerous factors that we will try to present according to a revision that we have made to the article by Eva Bellin titled ‘The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective’.

Tunisia, at first glance doesn’t seem different compared to other countries in the area. However, it has factors that make it unique and may explain the reasons why the regime led by Ben Ali since he staged a coup d’etat in 1987, finally fell in 2011. According to Bellin’s article, the regimes of North Africa and the Middle East are characterized by several similarities that generate the necessary conditions to encourage robust authoritarianism as a politically determined coercive force. To understand the formation of these authoritarian governments we should go back to the times of the Cold War where the United States financed and supported numerous authoritarian regimes in order to weaken left leaning movements in the context of a world divided into two blocs: the Communist and the Western. Once the cold war ended, international interests persisted and sources of international patronage continued in the area mainly in countries with authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Algeria for strategic reasons of vital importance to the OECD countries: they meant a stability for regular oil and gas supply and radical Islamist threat restraint. As a direct consequence, this support helped to strengthen regimes formed with a coercive apparatus that represses with violence any attempt of democratic reform. The generous natural resources located in the Middle East and North Africa countries give exceptional access to rents which make for the reliable payment of high military and security costs: “Access to abundant rent distinguishes the region and subsidizes much of the cost of these overdeveloped coercive apparatuses” (Bellin, 2004).

Gas pipeline in the Middle East

On the other hand, the countries of the Middle East lead the world in the acquisition of weapons, which means a huge amount of revenue goes directly to powerful European and American armament corporations. This explains why, in times of economic crisis, countries such as Egypt were forced to sign an IMF accord to cut back on areas related to the welfare reducing the subsidy on basic products by 14%, while security expenses increased by 22% for the same period.

Bellin considers that several reasons explain a greater openness of the regime to democratic reforms, which may mainly depend on the degree of institutionalization of the coercive forces. In countries like Saudi Arabia or, to a lesser extent, Jordan and Morocco, the coercive power stands out for its patrimonialism meaning that there is a great relationship between the coercive apparatus and the regime that it sustains, thus preventing the political opening.

The military apparatus in Egypt and Tunisia is considered to have a high degree of institutionalization, which in part explains its will to stop the violent repression of the protests in 2011. «The more institutionalized the security establishment is, the more willing it will be to disconnect of power and allow the political reform to advance» (Bellin, 2014). In the Tunisian case, as well as in the Egyptian case, it could be said that a slight crisis of succession was generated by a cancer diagnosis to both leaders Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

Egypt, Arab Spring, 2011

As it has been said: «the most powerful walls fall by their fissures» and probably, civil society found in the fissures of the regime the opportunity to organize autonomously and provoke a popular mobilization. In order to understand the massive mobilization of citizens we should concede that it was also shaped by ideological factors like Islamism, which explains part of the subsequent success. Tunisia was an example in which the regime elite was pressured by the internal popular discontent and undoubtedly, the new technologies helped: «Before the silence and indifference of the formal press, and in a context of full fight for freedom of expression and against Internet censorship, cyber-activists played a key role at covering the origin of the revolution» (Toumi, 2016). Certainly, it somehow helped to mitigate what Kuran would call «pluralistic ignorance» and civil society was more determined in its demands for openness. As pointed Bellin, when a popular massive mobilization sparks, the regime elite may perceive that reforms are not as devastating as the cost of violent repression. A high level of repression may risk domestic legitimacy and lose international support and therefore, the elite is forced to prevent a costly decision. «The transition no longer seems to be an abysmal rupture and repression begins to be considered simply uncivilized» (Przeworski, 1991).

This is what initially happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Although in Egypt, the lack of social peace after the fall of Mubarak and the increased influence of Islamic ideology due to the Muslim Brotherhood political presence, it triggered a coup d’etat and the seizure of power by the military forces, which meant the return to a restricted dictatorship. Tunisia, on the other hand, after the first democratic elections of October 2011, maintained a moderate success of the different political forces by generating consensus for the promulgation of a new Constitution. Nowadays, the changes demanded in the protests still have not been materialized: «there are no changes in the social conditions of the population, especially in the interior regions of Tunisia, but rather there has been a regression of the economy, and to talk about economics is to talk about the social conditions of people» (Khiari, 2016).

Apparently, change has shifted from the repression of the security forces into an economic repression: after the establishment of democracy, Tunisia received millions in loans from the World Bank and the IMF, in exchange for deep tax reforms and cuts in public spending that have notably affected the welfare of the people. Possibly Tunisia now faces the well-known «market authoritarian regime»: «Escaping submission to the IMF, which has put Tunisia on its knees and drowned its economy, is a precondition to the emergence of any real change» (Chandoul, 2018).

Christine Lagarde, Managing Director and Chairwoman of IMF – Photo: Reuters / Joshua Roberts

In most countries of North Africa and the Middle East, there is a low level of popular mobilization with a will to demand political reforms. This is due, as Bellin argues, to the absence of prerequisites of democracy, but not only. Historically, people of this region identifies political liberalization with colonial domination rather than with self-determination. Also, institutions such as workers unions and political parties don’t have enough power of influence due to lack of prior experience with democracy. Moreover, the presence of Islamist influence among the opposition to the regime demobilizes activist key elements from educated and middle class.

To sum up, on the one hand, it is very difficult to explain why democratization could not take roots in the other countries that were affected by the 2011 protests, nevertheless seems to be a consequence of different factors: low level of institutionalization in the region’s coercive apparatuses, low level of popular mobilization and especially, high level of international support related to economic interests focused on military revenues to OCDE countries. Additionally, natural resource supply and Islamic restraint, all together contribute to producing enough power and rents to maintain the high cost of the state’s coercive apparatus which definitely reduces the capacity to carry out a successful democratic transition. As Bellin said: «Where patrimonial institutions are wedded to coercive capacity, authoritarianism likely to endure. In this context, regime elites possess both the will and the capacity to suppress the democratic initiative. And where international support and financing is forthcoming to the authoritarian regime, rapid regime change is unlikely» (Bellin, 2004).

On the other hand, the future seems to be uncertain because of the difficultt example represented by Tunisia and its economic chaos due to the recent implementation of the coercive regime of the IMF, which does not seem to be inspiring to other countries. Furthemore, the great interest of international forces in maintaining regimes away from Islamic radicalism, as well as the interest in maintaining a stable supply route for oil and gas, rather continue to finance the coercive apparatus of the regimes which added to the already low popular mobilization atmosphere prevents democratic reforms. While international forums do not urge the different countries of North Africa and the Middle East to build impartial state institutions, such as associations, parties or civil society organizations away from Islamic fundamentalism, the liberalizers of the regime will not be able to find effective ways to materialize a democratic change.


This is a revisit of Eva Bellin’s article on authoritarian robustness in the Middle East:
Bellin, Eva (2004). “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East”. Comparative Politics, n. 36, pp 139–157.

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