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Mediterranean Politics
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The Arab Uprisings in Theoretical


Perspective An Introduction
a

Michelle Pace & Francesco Cavatorta

Department of Political Science and International Studies ,


University of Birmingham , UK
b

School of Law and Government , Dublin City University , Ireland


Published online: 18 Jul 2012.

To cite this article: Michelle Pace & Francesco Cavatorta (2012) The Arab Uprisings in
Theoretical Perspective An Introduction, Mediterranean Politics, 17:2, 125-138, DOI:
10.1080/13629395.2012.694040
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13629395.2012.694040

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Mediterranean Politics,
Vol. 17, No. 2, 125138, July 2012

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The Arab Uprisings in Theoretical


Perspective An Introduction
MICHELLE PACE* & FRANCESCO CAVATORTA**
*Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham, UK, **School of
Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland

ABSTRACT The so-called Arab Awakening is a momentous event that surprised both
scholars and policy makers. For over a decade the paradigm of authoritarian resilience had
dominated studies of the Arab world, almost entirely replacing the democratization paradigm
that had been prominent throughout the 1980s and 1990s. This inter-paradigm debate on how
best to explain and interpret the politics of the Arab world now calls for a review, in light of
the Arab uprisings. The contributions to this themed issue offer a first attempt at highlighting
some of the theoretical issues that should inform our rethinking of this debate thus far. Overall
the issue thus aims at making a theoretical contribution by providing a deeper insight into the
socio-economic political structures and the new actors that led to the uprisings in the Arab
world. It also explores and considers the opportunities and constraints that these structures
offer for sharpening our theoretical tools which may in turn lead us to use the paradigms
and models available to us more flexibly. The case studies that this themed issue deals with by
no means exhaust all the issues and case studies that need to be re-thought since the Arab
uprisings of December 2010 to date. The aim is to provide useful insights for others to apply
more broadly across the whole region.

Introduction
The Arab Democratic Spring or Arab Uprisings or Arab Awakening1 is a
momentous event that surprised both scholars and policy makers (Gause, 2011). For
over a decade the paradigm of authoritarian resilience (Albrecht & Schlumberger,
2004; Anderson, 2006; Schlumberger, 2007; Heydemann, 2007) had dominated
studies of the Arab world, almost entirely replacing the democratization paradigm
that had been prominent throughout the 1980s and 1990s (Salame, 1994). This
inter-paradigm debate on how best to explain and interpret the politics of the Arab
world calls for a review in light of the Arab uprisings, and the contributions to this
themed issue offer a first attempt at highlighting some of the theoretical issues that
Correspondence Addresses: Michelle Pace, Department of Political Science and International Studies,
School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, Muirhead Tower, Edgbaston,
Birmingham B15 2TT, UK. Email: m.pace@bham.ac.uk; Francesco Cavatorta, School of Law and
Government, Dublin City University, Glasnevin, Dublin 9, Ireland. Email: Francesco.cavatorta@dcu.ie.

1362-9395 Print/1743-9418 Online/12/020125-14 q 2012 Taylor & Francis


http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13629395.2012.694040

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M. Pace & F. Cavatorta

should inform our re-thinking of this debate thus far. In terms of case selection,
Tunisia was selected as this is where the Arab uprising kicked off and where,
paradoxically, authoritarian rule was said to be most solid, exemplifying therefore
the contradictions and problems of the two leading paradigms. The Egyptian
revolution began soon after the events in Tunisia and led to the ousting of Hosni
Mubarak. Egypt is included in this issue as it is the most populous country in the
Middle East and its political influence in the region and beyond stems from, amongst
other things, its strategic geographical position, its diplomatic expertise, its military
strength and cultural pre-eminence. Furthermore, the Arab League was formed in
Cairo in 1945 and Egypts role and efforts in the Middle East Peace Process since
Camp David make it a crucial mediator in this conflict. Egypt has traditionally
perceived itself as a regional power and wants neighbouring countries and
international observers to see it that way too. In solidarity with the Egyptian
revolution, protests were held in Rabat, Fez and Tangier in early February 2011.
Morocco has also been included as it has been considered by observers as a case of
very partial awakening and it is important to analyse countries that do not seem to
have moved much during the Arab uprisings. Civil uprisings erupted in Syria on 26
January 2011 and turned into a violent internal conflict which is still on-going.
Although the Arab League, the United States, European Union member states, Gulf
Cooperation Council states and other countries condemned the use of state violence
against protesters, military intervention has been ruled out by most countries. Due to
the manner in which the Arab Spring impacted on Syria, we felt it a crucial case to
include in this themed issue. Finally, Yemen has also been gripped by major
upheaval since the start of the Arab Awakening. Despite the fact that President
Saleh ceded power, the country remains at a crossroads. We also considered this an
important case to include here since as Yemens political future evolves, its new
government needs to address a range of deep-seated social and economic challenges.
Space limitations meant that our focus on the above five case studies did not
leave enough room for a thorough analysis of other equally important cases
like those of Bahrain, Iraq and Libya. It is our hope that readers will take up
this challenge to follow on the reflections that we aim to kick-start here in the hope
that our understandings of the Arab uprisings are more nuanced and informed by
deeper insights.
The Inter-paradigm Debate and the Arab World
Although it is too early to derive firm lessons from the Arab uprisings there are
certainly a number of interesting issues that have emerged as deserving scholarly
attention. These range from the arrival of new protagonists on the political scene such
as youth movements and armed rebels to the rapidity with which even the seemingly
most solid regimes fell and from the direct military intervention of NATO in the
region to the absence of Islamist movements at the helm of the protests sweeping
through the region. From a purely theoretical point of view, the events over the last
months have challenged much academic scholarship and policy makers assumptions
about the Middle East and North African region, bringing the much-criticized

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127

democratization studies back onto the agenda. While the democratization/transition


paradigm was dominant in the 1980s and 1990s (ODonnell et al., 1991; Przeworski &
Limongi, 1997), it was successfully challenged by the paradigm of authoritarian
resilience in the 2000s. Where studies of the Arab world through the lens of
democratization explained events in the region according to the existence of a linear
path from authoritarianism towards democracy, considering it inevitable, studies of
authoritarian resilience argued that events in the region and in other semiauthoritarian states across the globe were better understood by examining how
authoritarian rule survived and the mechanisms that permitted its persistence, leading
to the idea that we had entered a phase of post-democratization (Valbjrn & Bank,
2010). The Arab uprisings have therefore led to a degree of soul-searching among
regional experts (Jung, 2011) with both academic paradigms coming under scrutiny.
The argument of this themed issue is that both paradigms need re-visiting in light of
the shortcomings that they have demonstrated in explaining Arab politics over the last
three decades. This is a call for more inter-paradigmatic exchanges rather than one
about getting rid of both paradigms because we believe theoretical models are still
very useful to make comparisons across cases or to derive inferences from specific
case studies. Nevertheless, some of the failures have to be accounted for and the case
studies in this themed issue all indicate that more nuanced explanatory models are
necessary not only to interpret what has happened, but to also make sure that future
trends are more clearly identified. The rigidity of both paradigms should not lead to
their dismissal because they both still have much to contribute (Heydemann &
Leenders, 2011; Valbjrn, 2012), but should lead to a re-thinking, particularly when it
comes to the over-emphasis on the role of the state, ruling elites and traditional
political and civil society actors to the detriment of societal forms of unstructured
mobilization and non-traditional, leaderless and horizontal social and political actors
(Aarts & Cavatorta, 2012).
To begin with, it is clear that the upgrading authoritarianism argument
(Heydemann, 2007) has encountered significant difficulties and even some of the
most repressive regimes have not been able to survive popular uprisings. As the
UK foreign secretary William Hague recently stated: there is a lesson here for
others in the world that once a critical mass of people of a country set out to
achieve change or bring democracy to their country, then attempts to repress that
by violence will not permanently succeed (Stratton, 2011). The fall of Mubarak,
Ben Ali, Saleh and Qadhafi certainly cast some doubts on the validity of the
paradigm of authoritarian resilience and the mechanisms through which ruling
elites were seemingly able to reconfigure authoritarian power by adopting
nominally liberalizing reforms. While it would be unfair to argue that scholars
adopting this approach saw authoritarian rule as inevitable and ever-lasting, there
has been little or no attention paid to how the top-down political and economic
reforms of the last two decades influenced society and how societal forces also
reacted to these reforms, giving indeed the impression that the political systems in
place would endure for a very long time. The aspect that was always missing from
the notion of upgraded authoritarianism is the one related to the unintended
consequences that any form of change or upgrading brings about (Haugblle &

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Cavatorta, 2012a). While specific political and economic reforms were certainly
implemented with the intent of reconfiguring authoritarian power rather than
genuinely liberalizing the polity, it should be noted that such reforms may have
had undesirable effects and unexpected consequences for those guiding them
through. Thus, while ruling elites attempted to steer society in one direction, these
attempts may have also generated unintended reactions that sowed the seeds of the
fall of these same regimes. Thus, this themed issue makes the point that underlying
the Arab protests since December 2010 there have been economic as well as
political reasons which remained hidden for a long time and that eventually drove
so many young people, who were assumed to be de-politicized, to overcome their
fear of the brutal and long-standing regimes and go out into the streets en masse to
demand social justice, dignity and real freedom. The articles in this themed issue all
tend to emphasize how actors, networks and social phenomena that were missed due
to the rigidity of the theoretical debate between democratization and authoritarian
resilience became in fact central to the Arab Awakening. Specific attention is paid to
actors who organized horizontally via social media, to traditional face-to-face
networks that kick-started the uprisings (occupied the main squares and called for
real reforms) and to opportunistic actors that took over the process. Social
phenomena that seemed of little importance revealed themselves in all their
relevance. For instance, the contribution by Leenders and Heydemann on Syria is an
extremely detailed study of how social networks within Syrian society have been able
to cope with political authoritarianism and economic liberalization in the country
over the last decade and how these networks have been instrumental in mobilizing
against the Assad regime and sustain their challenge to it. Such a study indicates that,
possibly, too much scholarly attention was paid in the recent past to what occurred at
the level of the state and the ruling elites to the detriment of the transformation and
changes taking place within wider society. This does not mean that the studies on
authoritarian resilience are completely invalid. For one thing, the mechanisms
through which ruling elites attempted to upgrade authoritarian rule still operate
successfully in many of the countries in the Arab world. This themed issue includes
the case of Morocco where some popular pressure has been brought to bear on ruling
elites, but, as Dalmasso argues, the fundamentals of the regime are still very much in
place. However, even in the case of continued stability and with very little significant
institutional change, the monarchy was forced to abandon the official political sphere
and accept the arrival in power of an Islamist government, which is something that
before the Arab uprisings and the popular demonstrations across the country would
have been unthinkable. Thus, the strength of the Makhzen (the network of political
and economic power centred around the monarchy) is still considerable and frames
the way in which political changes take place, although anti-regime protests, for the
first time, have not ended after the intervention of the monarch, indicating that a new
level of political consciousness that looks beyond the monarchy might be slowly
emerging. In addition, in his contribution on Yemen, Durac also problematizes the
departure of former president Saleh, arguing, much like Ottaway (2011), that the fall
of a president does not automatically translate into the end game of an authoritarian
regime.

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The questioning of the validity of the paradigm of authoritarian resilience has meant
that the theoretical assumptions of the democratization paradigm seem to have found a
new lease of life after the criticism of the late 1990s and early 2000s (Carothers, 2002).
In particular, the idea that authoritarian or semi-authoritarian forms of governments
are only temporary stages on the path towards democracy and not sustainable political
systems in their own right, as argued in the past (Brumberg, 2002), has resurfaced.
Accordingly, developments in the Arab Spring are being compared with the 1989
revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe (Kaldor, 2011), leading some commentators
to argue that they might conclude in the same manner, that is, with the establishment of
successful democratic forms of government. This new-found enthusiasm for
democratization is certainly legitimate because it matches the high hopes of Arab
revolutionaries. It is also legitimate because the changes taking place seemingly
confirm the inevitability of democracy and therefore speak to those who still hold on
to the idea of the end of history (Fukuyama, 1993). From a theoretical point of view it
also means that countries where regimes have fallen are being examined with the tools
of the democratization paradigm, leading to a discourse once again of soft-liners
versus hard-liners and of moderates versus radicals, of the importance of civil society,
of the necessity of pacts and so on, in order to properly craft a new democratic system
(Di Palma, 1990). This new-found enthusiasm for democratization studies should
however be tempered.
First of all, democracy has not taken hold anywhere yet and the path towards it
is extremely tortuous, as Murphy (2011) noted even about Tunisia, the country that
has gone the farthest in attempting to establish genuinely accountable political
institutions and the one that seemingly has the best chances of success (Alexander,
2012). Second, many of the expectations of the democratization literature had not
actually materialized for quite some time despite the belief that all the ingredients
were in place leading to questions being asked about the timing of the Spring.
Third, the international context is vastly different from the one of the late 1980s
and early 1990s. Liberal democracy per se is in a state of crisis where it is most
established across the West (Hay, 2007; Pace, 2011) and might not be as attractive a
model as it was in the past for those aiming to build new political systems in the
Arab world. Other models, such as the Turkish one, might become appealing and
this was not the case 20 years ago. Finally, and probably more importantly, none of
the actors and preconditions that the democratization paradigm deems indispensable
for a transition are relevant in the Arab Awakening. Contrary to expectations,
traditional opposition parties and civil society movements were as surprised as the
ruling elites by the uprising and were not initially keen to follow the street, with
forgotten actors such as trade unions and leaderless horizontal youth-driven
networks taking instead centre-stage. In addition, neo-liberal economic modernization, rather than creating a pro-democracy bourgeoisie, gave rise to significant
middle-class discontent, as Kandil explains in his contribution on Egypt, despite the
efforts of the Mubarak regime to link the middle class to his political project, in an
effort to retain his authoritarian rule. The way in which economic reforms were
implemented and the rise of a new class of crony capitalists set the regime and
sectors of the middle class on a collision course. If working-class resentment against

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the outcome of two decades of neo-liberal reforms is added to the mix, economic
modernization has been a key element in triggering the uprisings (Aita, 2011;
Springborg, 2011) rather than a positive contributor to democratic demands, as it led
to ever wider gaps between the poor and rich in MENA societies. This has
significant implications for the future choices Arab countries will make as to
whether they open up politically or not because it is precisely the economic policy
choices that the democratization paradigm deems necessary (to establish a liberaldemocratic system) that the protesters targeted in light of their failure to deliver jobs
and a fair wealth distribution.
Thus, whereas the paradigm of authoritarian resilience failed to take into
account the potential unintended consequences of liberalizing reforms destined
to reconfigure authoritarian power, the democratization paradigm failed to shift
its focus away from traditional assumptions and actors. In many ways, the two
paradigms suffer from a broadly similar shortcoming: an excessive focus on the state
and on traditional actors, with very limited attention given to the role of social
networks and to the innovative and often private ways (Bayat, 2009) in which
society responded to the reforms undertaken over the last two decades across the
region. The contributions to this themed issue, building on in-depth country studies,
provide some theoretical insights aimed at helping us move beyond the more rigid
tools and structures of both paradigms and at encouraging scholars and policy
makers alike to focus their attention on significant longer-terms socio-economic
changes that Arab societies have been going through and their influence on political,
social and economic institutions.
There are three key assumptions about the politics of the Arab world that the Arab
Awakening has contributed to challenge. Thus an in-depth examination in the case
studies of these aspects is a crucial element for our understanding if we want to go
beyond the parameters of the inter-paradigm debate and integrate these lessons
for future analyses. These assumptions are very closely linked with those that
the policy-making community also holds and can also partly explain the Wests
failure to deal with the Arab Spring coherently. First, there has been an inherent,
un-problematized belief in the potential of neo-liberal economic development
bringing about political change in the MENA. Secondly, policy makers and scholars
have been working on a prevailing truism that the Arab world has somehow missed
its rendezvous with modernity. Thirdly, observers have been assuming that the only
alternative to authoritarian rule in the region is the prevalence of religious politics
and that Islamist parties would be the only potential alternative and not a welcome
one given their very suspect democratic credentials (Cavatorta & Pace, 2011).
When one analyses the Arab Awakening, it clearly emerges that ordinary Arab
citizens rose up against precisely those rigged neo-liberal reforms imposed by
Western organizations like the IMF and the World Bank that led to an even more
unequal distribution of wealth in their countries and impoverished the masses over
the last two decades (Teti & Gervasio, 2011). While the blame for the sorry state
of their countries was squarely placed on the shoulders of ruling elites, there is no
doubt that there was a significant economic element to the uprisings linked to
the integration of Arab countries into the world economy. The paradigms of

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authoritarian resilience and democratization studies both focused overwhelmingly


on the market reforms that were implemented over the course of the recent decades
to highlight, respectively, how the state was restructuring its power at a time of
neo-liberal globalization (Guazzone & Pioppi, 2009) and how the state was opening
up to the multiple influences coming from society and therefore pluralizing.
What was missing, however, was a focus on how such reforms, whatever their
intended outcome, impacted on society more broadly, what kind of groups became
disconnected from the regime and from politics and the political in general and
what kind of social networks were being transformed or revived. This is the reason
why one of our contributors considers it beneficial to reintroduce the concept of class
into our analysis. While many would argue that this concept is outdated, a detailed
analysis of Arab politics cannot easily escape from the relevance of class structures
which inform both political and social behaviour. In his contribution to this themed
issue Kandil focuses precisely on this concept of class in explaining how economic
reforms influenced the political behaviour of large sectors of Egypts middle class,
while Cavatorta and Haugblle focus on how the consumerist overdrive of the
Tunisian economy and the predatory economic behaviour of the ruling elites (Hibou,
2011) provoked the resurgence of a pious, ethical and private form of Islam adopted
by the middle class that was to have significant consequences for the country after
the fall of Ben Ali. For their part, Leenders and Heydemann illustrate how economic
changes in Syrias peripheral areas influenced the structure and aims of social
networks that proved to be vital in the on-going uprising against Assad. In terms of
the aftermath of the Arab Awakening, it is unlikely, as mentioned earlier, that more
neo-liberal structural reforms will be accepted and acceptable, particularly if
dictated by morally and financially bankrupt entities such as the European Union,
which had consistently lauded authoritarian regimes in the region for their economic
reformism. More nuanced analyses (Allal, 2009; Chalcroft, 2009) had already
indicated that there were significant loci of contestation against neo-liberal
policies that had characterized workplaces across the Middle East and North Africa
(MENA), with strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations taking place on a daily basis from
Tunisia and Egypt to Morocco and Algeria. The question is, then, how did ruling
elites respond and what kind of outcomes did the response to this social turmoil lead
to? What kind of impact and unintended consequences did neo-liberal economic
reforms have? What can explain the significant differences in outcomes with respect
to popular mobilization against such reforms? In the past, significant weight would
have been given to the role of oil, with countries rich in hydrocarbons being better
equipped to deal with economic crises than countries without access to such
resources. This does not seem to be the case today though, as oil-rich countries such
as Libya have experienced potent anti-regime movements while resource-poor
Morocco has remained relatively stable. The conclusion to all this is that economic
demands represented a significant aspect of the popular uprisings and that
concentrating too strongly on how authoritarian elites used economic modernization
tools to survive in power prevented analysts from making a deeper examination of
the social transformations that were occurring across the region and that led to the
emergence or re-emergence of new social actors.

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This leads to the second mistaken assumption about Arab politics, namely the
absence of a strong desire for just rule as one of the key components of modernity,
despite scholars such as Tessler (2002) arguing that ordinary Arab citizens generally
see democracy as positive. In terms of the Arab worlds lost rendezvous with
modernity, the Arab uprisings have demonstrated that quite the opposite is true both
in form and substance. As for the form, the use of social media and technology
coupled with wide popular participation indicate a level of knowledge and social
awareness that many outsiders suspected did not exist in the Arab world because
they were overwhelmingly focused on civil society movements that were secular in
nature, official and comparable to western entities in terms of beliefs and behaviour
(Pace, 2009). These were in fact a tiny minority, but did not exhaust the broad
spectrum of mobilizable knowledge and awareness around them. As Dalmasso
explains in this issue, official Moroccan civil society had become an important
but a-political actor almost entirely transformed into a set of lobby groups interested
in pursuing very narrow interests rather than focusing on more significant issues
related to demands for effective political pluralism that would guarantee a voice to
all in Moroccan society. The unexpected emergence of the 20 February movement is
as much a question mark on the legitimacy of the monarch as it is on traditional civil
society actors upon which democratization studies had pinned so many hopes.
A similar point can be made about the resurgence of tribal and clan links, which
have played an important mobilizing role in Yemen and Syria. In addition, once
again the unintended consequences of upgraded authoritarianism re-emerge. The
cases of Tunisia and Syria are particularly telling in this respect, with both regimes
attempting to generate economic growth through an increase in investment in
technology and training for computer engineers. The increased proficiency of
ordinary workers and citizens and the widespread availability of the internet allowed
protesters to organize themselves online and bypass the security checks in place
(Haugblle, 2012). While Twitter Revolutions might not be an appropriate label
when one considers that we also had uprisings in less proficient contexts such as
Yemen, there is no doubt that the capacity of activists to organize outside leaderless
and formalized structures has been a significant aspect of the Arab Spring (Khatib,
2012a, 2012b). As for the substance, it should be recognized that dignity and
freedom, whatever the institutional and legislative framework that will be set up, are
values that ordinary citizens hold dear and that authoritarianism as a bulwark against
something presumably much worse can only work for a limited period of time. This
leads to the very important issue of political Islam.
In regard to Islamism, it was widely believed that it constituted the only significant
opposition to incumbents, but Islamists, as organized groups or movements, were
largely absent from the Arab demonstrations since December 2010 and did not take
a leading role in them. In fact, in some contexts they were as surprised as the ruling
elites about the turn of events, lagging behind new social actors. The leadership
of many Islamist actors was also divided on what to do with significant intergenerational conflicts, pointing again to an under-explored aspect of Arab politics,
namely the generational differences that emerged strongly both in society and
in organized political movements whether in power or in opposition. This does not

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mean that Islamism is no longer present; quite the contrary. Islamist parties have
won elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco in the latter part of 2011, indicating
that Islamism is going to be the protagonist of the post-Arab Awakening period.
However, Islamism is a broad field and movements such as the Egyptian Muslim
Brotherhood have not only gone through considerable ideological and structural
transformations (El-Ghobashy, 2005), but are also now challenged both from within
and from without by a host of other Islamist actors, not least the Salafi movements.
Over time different strands of Islamism have emerged that appeal to very different
sectors of MENA societies and all intend to put forth their vision where possible.
The authoritarian resilience paradigm focused strongly on the nature and role
of Islamist parties and movements, arguing that their potency and perceived antidemocratic stances allowed authoritarian regimes to find favour with secular sectors
within their domestic societies and the international community alike. The article on
Syria in this issue highlights how the Syrian regime is still attempting to use the
spectre of Islamism to justify its repressive measures. This focus on Islamism
as an obstacle to democratic developments in the MENA may no longer be as relevant,
if it ever was, because Islamism has not only changed considerably over time (from
an ideological point of view), but also because it has proven that it can play the
democratic game and cooperate with parties of different ideological persuasions
(Haugblle & Cavatorta, 2012b). The democratization paradigm for its part paid great
attention to the divisions between moderates and radicals in opposition and in the
Arab world this translated into Islamists as the radical party and secular opposition
parties as the moderates, but this view is rather simplistic. We believe that, with
regard to Islamist parties, it is important to note that the key question is not whether
so-called moderate parties are present vis-a`-vis other Islamist parties on the
party scene. What is important is how strong the Islamist parties are within the
party system and the political system, as well as what their agenda is on a broad
range of institutional, economic and international matters. Even within theoretical
discussions, notions of radicals and moderates are used in different ways. When
applied in the democratization literature, these usually refer to actors within the
regime (hardliners and reformers) and within the opposition (radicals and moderates),
with the moderates and reformers willing to negotiate/enter into pacts. Hence
what some authors label a radical party could actually be a reformist or moderate
party depending on where it is located within the regime or opposition (Onis, 1997;
Schwedler, 2006, 2007, 2011).2 In his contribution on Yemen, Durac clearly suggests
that political adaptability can be associated with the Islah party and Dalmasso also
suggests this in the case of the Moroccan Party for Justice and Development (PJD).
In Egypt as well, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be adapting to Egypts new
political scenario especially when compared to the Salafi coalition of parties that
came in second place at the 2011/12 parliamentary elections. All this again indicates
that traditional labels and assumptions have to be problematized if new theoretical
insights are to be gained from the Arab Spring.
Where do all these misconceived assumptions and challenged theoretical
paradigms leave the study of the Mediterranean/MENA region since the Arab
uprisings? First, we have what can be considered the end of Arab exceptionalism in so

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far as it is no longer possible to argue that Arabs are inherently illiberal and antidemocratic. This is not a new argument but in this themed issue we would like to draw
particular attention to how it is now quite clear that ordinary MENA citizens wish to
have governmental accountability and political and civil rights like their counterparts
across the globe. How they might get there and what kind of institutions might
guarantee these rights remain open to question, but an analysis of how changes took
place and how regimes responded thus far might give us an indication of what future
developments might look like. Second, and to the surprise of many, traditional
opposition parties and civil movements, including Islamists, have not been at the
forefront of the uprisings, although Islamist formations are becoming the key
beneficiaries of the upheavals in the region. What should be emphasized is that the
protests were generally leaderless and the spark was ignited by a loose coalition of
individual dissidents who built both horizontal organizations of protest and
interpersonal trust relations away from political parties and formal groups espousing
clear ideological projects. This in turn highlights the largely diminished sense of trust
or hope in the MENA peoples leaders/representatives and in their political options,
leading to the overwhelming sense of the need to create their own political power
through protests, demonstrations, etc. en masse and even the readiness to die for their
political, economic and social demands. There is indeed a distinctive anti-political
flavour to the uprisings, if by anti-politics we understand dissatisfaction with
traditional modes of political representation and channels of policy implementation.
An examination of these new kinds of actors and in particular this new kind of
people power is both important and necessary because they will play a role in the
construction of new political systems where regimes have fallen and because they
will still have their say where stability seems to have gained the upper hand for the
moment, as almost permanent unrest in Tunisia over workers rights, regional
imbalances and cultural politics indicates. These new actors, including tribes, clans
and youth movements, have been crucial in the uprisings, but traditional ones, such
as the army and trade unions have also played and still play an important role.
An analysis of the institutional setting in place before the uprisings can help explain
why these actors behaved differently in different contexts and what kind of dynamics
their choices generated.
Thirdly, it is quite clear that the demands of the protesting crowds across the region
were both political and economic: they targeted the ossified structures of power in
place as well as the unfair distribution of their countries wealth. This is very relevant
for the type of issues that will emerge as central in the near future. Fourthly, the
seemingly unbreakable authoritarian strand in the Arab world was toppled by popular
uprisings not through the direct impact of Western democracy promotion policies
(Pace & Hassan, 2012). Fifthly, although the reactions of the international community
have been mixed, there is not much change in how the EU is attempting to prescribe
the future direction of these Arab revolts. Despite the fact that there has been a
plethora of declarations along the mea culpa direction by the likes of Commissioner
Stefan Fule, for instance,3 there does not seem to be any serious reflections on
lessons learnt from past mistakes of supporting authoritarian regimes in the name
of stability at the expense of the protection of human rights and civil liberties.

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135

Moreover, what is equally relevant and interesting is that the Arab Spring did
not occur across the entire Arab world and that, where it occurred, it still faces
considerable obstacles before it succeeds in transforming authoritarian regimes into
more accountable ones. This themed issue in fact investigates cases where profound
changes have taken place and cases where changes have been much more limited.
Finally, although an improved economic situation, the holding of genuinely free,
fair and transparent elections, and the creation of a truly vibrant civil society, remain
important building blocks in the long road to transition in all MENA countries,
these blocks are not enough on their own. What people in the MENA region have
shown very clearly throughout their awakening is that what are needed now are
democratic vehicles for citizens representation: this means that much more work
needs to be done on the ground as well as in our conceptual reflections in terms of
the development of political parties not only in regard to the importance of
their presence but more crucially in regard to their democratic foundations.
All this has deep consequences for the theoretical debate that has characterized
studies on democratization over the last decade. In some ways the Arab Democratic
Spring both challenges and confirms the two theoretical paradigms. The
democratization paradigm has been severely tested as the Arab uprisings have
shown that there is no linear transition from liberalizing authoritarian rule to a fully
fledged democracy of the liberal kind. The transition from repressive systems to
established democratic institutions representing the executive, judiciary and
legislative spheres in any society takes years to establish. However, it is clear that
the end product of the MENA peoples demands will be a more accountable political
system, although notions such as democracy and human rights may take vastly
different meanings and forms from those with which we in the West usually
associate them. The authoritarian resilience paradigm has been thrown into the some
disarray by the success cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. However, even
in these cases, there is still a very long way to go before the remnants of authoritarian
rule are completely dealt with. The cases of Syria, Morocco and the Gulf states
show that there remain struggles ahead, quite specific to each case, which in turn
uncover the underlying validity of scholarly work that focuses on the resilience of
authoritarianism in the MENA region.
The driving question of this themed issue is how the Arab Awakening forces
a reconsideration of the theoretical tools that both the authoritarian resilience and
democratization paradigms have used to explain politics in the Arab world for the
last three decades. Overall it aims at making a theoretical contribution by providing
a deeper insight into the socio-economic-political structures and the new actors
that led to the uprisings in the Arab world thus far. We also explore and consider
the opportunities and constraints that these structures offer for sharpening our
theoretical tools which may in turn lead us to use the paradigms and models
available to us more flexibly.
As mentioned early on in this Introduction, this themed issue does not claim to
have exhausted all the issues and case studies that need to be re-thought since the
Arab uprisings of December 2010 to date. We do acknowledge that important case
studies such as Bahrain, Iraq, Libya and Algeria, for instance, have not been

136

M. Pace & F. Cavatorta

covered, but the cases this themed issue deals with can provide useful insights for
others to apply more broadly across the whole region. It is therefore our wish to
invite scholars to reflect about the contributions made here in order to shed light on
very context-specific arguments of how and why it is that Arab populations have
arisen against their long-standing authoritarian rulers when they did and continue to
do so, not least in cases like Bahrain where behind the regimes facade of
normalization, violence continues daily to escalate and possibly slide into dangerous
outcomes (ICG, 2012).

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Notes
1

2
3

We are aware that there is an intense debate about the definition one should use for the events that have
occurred in the Arab world since December 2010 and that there are objections to the use of Arab Spring
because of the Orientalist connotations of the terminology employed. In this themed issue, however, the
definitional debate is not tackled and contributors tend to use the terms spring, revolutions and
uprisings almost interchangeably. This should not indicate any methodological confusion, but, rather,
the difficulty in pinning the phenomenon down with significant precision due to uncertain political
outcomes.
We would like to thank our anonymous reviewers for shedding light on this important clarification.
See Commissioner Fule speech to the European Parliament on 28 February 2011: http://europa.eu/
rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=SPEECH/11/130&format=HTML&aged=1&language=
EN&guiLanguage=en (accessed 17 March 2012).

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