Review: The New Authoritarianism

Stephen J. King’s The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa (Indiana, 2009) is a frank and tremendously useful study of how privatization and cosmetic democratization has strengthened authoritarianism in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia over the last thirty years. Looking at economic and political reforms and their influence on political order in four important Arab states, two of which are drastically understudied in English. The author pulls few punches in examining doctrinaire economic liberalization and its role in tightening already entrenched political elites’ hold on power while effectively dissolving or fizzing out the influence of both civil society and organized labor. He tracks these developments carefully, academically and purposefully. Though its tone is in the drab  monotone of contemporary Anglo-Saxon political science, bits of indignation and outrage come through the narrative, especially where King rings out myths about organized labor in the countries in question. Unlike in some other academic accounts his tells the workers’ struggle with a somewhat obvious sympathy (separating them from their stooge secretary generals); he tries (and fails) to hold himself back when relating the story of how Syrian workers have tried to defy their regime-appointed bosses. His sections on Algeria are some of the most valuable written in the last ten years. They make excellent reading with Isabelle Werenfels‘s key Managing Instability in Algeria Elites and Political Change since 1995 (Routeledge, 2007). In that regard, however, at times he seems to overestimate the historical importance of the FLN in governing, though this is sometimes a problem of diction rather than analysis. (One might quibble with his repeated citation of Wikipedia for his tables on electoral results.)

King has written before on Tunisia with great success; he has also studied the discontents of economic liberalization in depth and has done political science a terrific service in this way. Too many analyses of North Africa (and the Arab states in general) rely on simplistic formulations, goading on economic “reform” without a critical take on its actual results in what remain mostly closed political and economic orders, but that is not King. In the Arab states, the expression “money is power” is often just as strong when reversed to “power is money” and this old fact of life is one of the powerful takeaways from The New Authoritarianism. The old authoritarianism was based on political domination, backed up by nationalist or socialist dogmas; the State controlled society by sucking up civil society and the economy formally. Unions were run by the States, women’s, religious and youth associations were run by the State, industry was owned by the State, natural resources were exploited (or strongly controlled) by the State, public services were run by the State. The new authoritarianism allows the same men to dominate society by free market dogma. The unions and civil-social organizations are dissolved or sidelined, public services, state industries, news media and all then rest goes off to the highest bidder. And the bidders are the old party bosses and military chiefs. Parties are allowed and elections take place  but substantive political change is illusive.

In each of his cases, King exposes the particularities and commonalities in the establishment of democratic and free market façades over dusty elite regimes. He does not make the mistake of imposing Mashreqi or Maghrebi schema on one or the other; each is in its own context while linking back to the wider narrative. King’s case studies ably shy from simplicity, evidencing his extensive familiarity with both the Arab east and west, a facility happily welcome. King does not claim to have all the answers, and the variables he examines are surely complemented by others but stand powerfully here. As he has it, economic reform has made authoritarianism stronger in the region not because it has not been accompanied by political reforms, but because it has a part of a devious sort of political reform. The situation is one of politicized economics, as corrupt and exclusive as it is unpopular. This new authoritarianism is dynamic and clever, leveraging social, political and economic relationships to keep power. King’s book offers a fascinating and much needed study of Arab authoritarianism in our time.

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