By Miriam Scharf
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Democratic Transition in the Middle East

This article is over 9 years, 2 months old
Edited by Larbi Sadiki, Heiko Wimmen and Layla Al-Zubaidi
Issue 381

This selection of essays is fascinating for its timing. All focus on the potential for change in specific countries of the Arab Middle East (AME) and were written before the explosion of the Arab Spring transformed politics in the region. They are valuable sources to understand the political, economic and social dynamics at work, and have a common motivation in describing the “spaces” which were opening up to new kinds of activism which, in hindsight, we can see contributed to the Arab Spring.

Their emphasis is on activism where the aims are “acquiring the toolkits for democratic struggle rather than competition for office or occupation of the state”. The capacity of informal networks based on internet contacts to provide bases for action is addressed, especially in relation to Egypt, where the internet is credited with raising the confidence of people to challenge the establishment and protest on the streets. In Bahrain a traditional form of religious authority is characterised as being transformed through internet networks into a place for challenge and debate, and a precursor for political change.

The ways in which political systems use sectarianism to encourage vertical loyalties to leaders who dispense patronage through client networks, be they tribes as in North Yemen, or religious sects as in Lebanon, are examined in terms of when and how people break from these alliances to organise on more democratic, cross-sectarian lines.

The concrete efforts of the anti-occupation movement in Iraq are also analysed in this light.

The barriers to being able to act against the state without being imprisoned or tortured, to being able to blog or publish anti-state material, or to begin to develop democratic modes of organising, are to a great extent specific to each country’s history. The chapter on Syria details how economic changes have tied new economic groups into the existing political regime and gives insights into why there has been a lack of organised opposition from public sector workers who have suffered the brunt of privatisation.

The approach used in these essays is determinedly outside traditional methods of social analysis. The words socialist, communist, and Marxist have been intentionally disowned as party political and top-down. The organised working class do make an appearance, especially in Everyday Resistance in Egypt, where the Mahalla textile strikes and the wave of labour protests are seen as vital to the context of protests in Cairo in 2006. Phil Marfleet and Rabab El-Mahdi’s 2009 book, Egypt The Moment of Change, gives a fuller account of the part workers’ struggles have played. And other texts would provide more on the role of Islam. However, this book makes an important contribution to understanding the ways that opposition to authoritarian states developed pre-2011, and the potential for and the obstacles against the struggle for a better life for the peoples of the Arab Middle East.

Miriam Scharf

Democratic Transition in the Middle East is published by Routledge, £25.99

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