Beyond fragmentation in the Arab States: time for a “new social contract”

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The Middle East

Six years after the so-called “Arab Spring”, the overlapping of civil and proxy wars in Syria and Iraq, Libya and Yemen and the war on terror against the Islamic State have gradually turned the Greater Middle East into a land of conflicts, asymmetric threats and (geo)political challenges undermining the stability and legitimacy of the regional order.

The emergence of these issues in Arab societies has provoked both an implosion of some Mideast states and a breakdown of the old state system. This paradigm shift has subsequently stressed other typical problems in the MENA region.

There are multiple causes behind the collapsing Middle Eastern order: political polarization, a dangerous return to authoritarian normalcy, deep corruption, a lack of accountability and democracy, large scale demographic transformations, failed neo-liberal models, financial crises of rentier states, high poverty and unemployment rates (in particular among young people), the rise (and fall) of political Islam, regional conflicts, sectarian rivalries, foreign intervention and new patterns of terrorism. Indeed, recent developments suggest the need to rethink and radically reform the current system of governance in the Arab world.

According to the Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy, the best way to stabilize the Middle East is “to forge a new social contract between ruled and rulers that promises to transcend the persistent crisis of development, good governance, and the rule of law.”[1]

Contradictions and weaknesses of the Mideast system have their roots in issues that developed over time and originated well before the overthrow of former presidents like Hosni Mubarak, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Muammar Qaddafi or Ali Abdullah Saleh. During the 1950s and 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt, created the basis of the “old social contract”, which was later replicated by other Arab leaders. Essentially, Nasser theorized a balanced and stable state order for the Arab world to be based on a mix of rentierism and despotism. This was intended as a sort of patronage system or dictatorial regime (also known in political science as an “authoritarian bargain”), in which citizens voluntarily gave up their political rights to the élites and, in exchange, the regime provided them with all kinds of social and economic services.

Although there are significant differences between the internal affairs of Arab states, the majority of them rule as autocratic regimes. For example, the Gulf monarchies have built a mechanism based on a wealthy society without rights. In the Mashreq states, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, tribalism and sectarianism have created a peculiar pattern of fragile state. In North Africa, Egypt and Tunisia have witnessed the establishment of an autocratic and self-referential system that – in the absence of the vast oil revenues that characterize a countries like Algeria and Libya – has provoked social grievances and popular marginalization. Despite the local variations, all these countries focused on a model of government based on extensive government control over public opinion, a reiterated use of repression and powerful security and intelligence apparatuses. These three features have defined the political legitimacy – or lack thereof – of the Arab state system of power.

Yet, for several years while it endured, this state system managed to ensure a broad, if superficial, social peace. However, when in several countries the “authoritarian bargain” imploded in 2011, the result was a deep political polarization, an exacerbation of societal divisions and inequalities among citizens, a proliferation of different forms of illicit business (mainly human trafficking and arms and drug smuggling) and a growing transnational terrorist threat. All of these factors in turn triggered an upsurge of violence and conflict against local and central authorities, hindering both economic progress and political reforms. Protests and dissent erupted all over the MENA region precisely as a form of rebellion against the old social contract. Indeed, some protagonists and observers thought that these Arab “revolutions” represented an opportunity to begin a new era of social and political rights for local populations, a new starting point capable of overcoming the traditional authoritarian model. But high hopes made way for the current turmoil – and in many cases restoration. The uprisings against illiberal central authorities have favored a regime change without clear political alternatives (for example in Egypt). In other cases, this power vacuum created the conditions for a long and uncertain civil war (such as in Libya, Yemen or Syria) or a deeper sectarian conflict (such as in Bahrain and Iraq). Only Tunisia has defined a complex transitional process aimed at rewriting a new and more inclusive social contract.

However, if it holds true that the Arab Spring and the subsequent counter-revolutionary processes produced some political changes, it is not clear how these wild oscillations will ultimately affect Arab societies. It is exactly for this reason that it is important to develop a new notion of “social covenant” that could have direct relevant implications for both rulers and common citizens. A more sustainable deal should certainly establish socio-economic measures in terms of justice, public administration and transparency; it should repair good governance, as well as encourage a wider democratic participation. At the same time, it should go beyond the old paradigm “economic reforms first, political reforms later,” since political and socio-economic dimensions must act in parallel to strengthen and feed a more comprehensive reformist process.

The role of non-state actors in these societal processes is equally important. Non-governmental organizations, transnational political actors and organizations, civil society and young people can play a fundamental role as facilitators – and to some extent competitors or watchdogs – capable of conditioning the procedures in the set up of new policies and laws on the basis of some clear priorities: rule of law, respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, accountability, better quality of governance, decentralization of power to local administrations, economic privatization, constitutional reforms, national dialogue and conflict resolution. Finally, external actors such as the United States and the European Union could also play a role in these mechanisms by supporting reformism and pluralism through a conditioned cooperation with the Arab states, aimed at promoting liberal democracy – and indirectly a new political order – in the Mideast. Without significant, albeit gradual, progress in these areas, the state system is condemned to collapse under new social pressures, also threatening the regional order.

For these reasons, overcoming the old social contract in the Arab societies represents the main challenge for the stability and the legitimate power of the Arab states, but it is also a relevant testing ground for the stabilization of the regional and international security system.

[1] A. Hamzawy, The Arab World Needs a New Social Contract, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 22, 2016,