Thinking about Arab autocracies as protection rackets

Daniel Brumberg‘s recent article in Foreign Policy caught my eye. He identifies the reason that Arab dictators were able to stay in power for so long – that basically they all shared the features of a mafioso protection racket. Here’s the pertinent paragraph:

I would suggest that we think about Arab autocracies as protection rackets. The latter pivoted around an exchange by which regimes provided a diverse range of groups — ethnic or religious minorities, the business sector, and secular activists — with a haven from the uncertainties of an open democratic process. If many elites accepted this bargain, they did so because they feared that competitive elections would produce assemblies that would undercut their de facto social or political liberties in the name of the majority. In the Arab world, autocracy with would-be democrats has been a long-standing phenomenon.

He then goes on to describe that in Tunisia’s smoother transition is due (at least in part) to the former regime’s repressiveness. He says (bolding  mine):

in Tunisia, a protection racket system that was far more closed and repressive than that of Egypt collapsed, thus setting the stage for genuine democratization. Several factors particular to Tunisia account for this more optimistic story. First, because the small, 30,000-man professional military had been long ago subordinated to the political apparatus, Islamist and secular leaders could not easily appeal to any authoritarian enforcer to arbitrate competing visions of democratic life. When the 135,000-strong security forces then demonstrated neither the will nor the capacity to violently repress the uprising, the crony-based ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party melted away, thus leaving Islamists and secularists with little choice but to make peace or fight.

Indeed, the near total collapse of the ruling apparatus created a relatively open and unchartered political field, reducing the opportunities for manipulation by all players. While secularists clearly feared that Islamists had a substantial organizational advantage, no party had sufficient information that might have tempted one or more to pursue transition modalities designed to serve narrow or selfish interests. Even when the September negotiations over the procedures for a constituent assembly seemed at their most polarized, everyone pulled back from the brink and compromised. Finally, the presence of a large urban middle class that cut across the Islamist-secular divide provided further incentive for cooperation. Thus out of the ashes of one of North Africa’s most repressive systems competitive democracy seems to be emerging.

Overall, I liked Brumberg’s article, but this strikes me as a bit over the top. Brumberg seems to conflate the RCD with the ruling government apparatus.

He’s correct that the RCD did, for the most part go away – though not of their own volition. In fact, after a period of laying low, many former RCDists tried to resurrect their fortunes during the electoral cycle. The reason they did not succeed (compared to the NPD in Egypt, for example), was due in large part to the electoral system, rather than their lack of trying. I would argue that without a party list, proportional representative election, we would likely see a lot more former RCDists in the Assembly today. The fact that the elections were based on political parties rather than personalities closed this door.

Brumberg then goes on to talk about the collapse of the ruling apparatus. Though this is perhaps implicit in his argument, I think it is important to further delineate what this collapse was, because it did not occur in the business sector or in the government – where those who were in power largely remained in power throughout the transition. Rather, the ruling apparatus was Ben Ali’s family, which had taken control of a large section of the Tunisian economy. This relatively small group of people was the target of most of the rage against the regime. To most Tunisians, it was not the RCD or corrupt bureacrats or bankers – but rather the family that forced those people to be corrupt. With the removal of the head, Tunisians were open to hearing different voices, secular, Islamist and otherwise.

One final point that is perhaps  the luck of history. In February, as strikes and sit-ins paralyzed the country – all of the political actors were able to coalesce around the figure of Caid Beji Essebsi. An octogenarian product of the Bourguiba regime, he was publicly seen as honest and trustworthy and among political actors he was seen as too old to pose a real threat to their interests (unlike Essebsi’s predecessor Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was seen as very close to the Ben Ali regime). Essebsi was all but forgotten in Tunisian politics at that point, and if the uprising had not taken place this year, but rather in a few years time, he may have been unable to step up. Essebsi was able to open the political space for the Ben Achour commission to do the important work of preparing for the elections and negotiating the ground rules of the transition between all political parties.

1 thought on “Thinking about Arab autocracies as protection rackets

  1. Good comments. The nuances get lost when you squeeze so much detail into two paragraphs..I appreciate your insights. DB

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