Three years after the Arab Spring began, prospects for a more democratic Middle East seem worse than ever. Political transitions appear stalled in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, while most other protest movements have failed to seriously challenge other regional leaders.
Despite these disappointments, the Arab Spring provides a golden opportunity to Middle East observers and scholars of authoritarianism. Examining regional trends not only helps clarify structural factors that strengthen dictatorships fighting to survive waves of revolutionary upheaval. It can also serve to inform future attempts to achieve more meaningful political reforms.
Accounting for why Arab Spring protests successfully produced regime change in some countries but not in others is certainly a momentous task. In this article, we consider some of the answers political scientists have proposed in response to this question and build upon their ideas to offer our own explanation for why the different uprisings of the Arab Spring succeeded or failed.
Our analysis differs from previous scholarly attempts, in that we divide the uprisings into a series of manageable questions that address what we believe are key turning points facing embattled dictatorships. In adopting this approach, we attempt to offer a more nuanced interpretation of how factors previously understood as affecting the durability of regional regimes—oil wealth, hereditary monarchy, security apparatus loyalty, and foreign support—influenced the political trajectories of Arab Spring countries.
Accounting for Change: An Academic Debate
Since 2011, analysts have been hard at work identifying the factors that should have made the surprising revolutions of the Arab world seem inevitable to keen observers. These scholars attribute causality to a variety of social, economic, and political factors, including social media, demographic shifts (the youth bulge), and economic grievances like high unemployment and limited social mobility. While all these issues are relevant and probably helped to spur the protest movements, none satisfactorily explain the variance in outcomes across different countries.
In attempting to explain why certain dictators succumbed to popular pressure while others never faced serious challenges to their rule, scholars and Middle East observers have identified a number of structural variables that affected regime durability. Among the most compelling arguments is that something about monarchies sets them apart—perhaps a distinctive political culture, or access to a wider range of political strategies. Alternatively, the well-known “resource curse” argument posits that a surplus of oil wealth in several authoritarian Arab countries hindered revolutionary change. Meanwhile, others point to the strength of a regime’s coercive apparatus as the most important factor in determining the dynamics of conflict in protest-ridden societies. Proponents of this position argue dictators are more likely to survive if the armed forces decide to stay loyal to the regime, whereas their defection makes it more likely a revolution will succeed.
These three factors—monarchism, oil, and the coercive apparatus—certainly have merit, but on their own, do not tell the whole story. What has generally been missing from these conversations is the attempt to develop a comprehensive, region-wide explanation that accounts for why each individual uprising succeeded or failed.
A recent paper by political scientists Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, and Andrew Reynolds has attempted to fill this gap. Writing in the Journal of Democracy (JOD), the authors build on the above-mentioned arguments, and contend that a combination of hereditary succession (a category that includes Syria along with the region’s monarchies) and oil wealth increases a regime’s resiliency by providing it with significant resources and generating stronger loyalty. On the other hand, countries without patterns of hereditary succession or substantial oil reserves are expected to be more vulnerable to domestic pressures.
In contrast, we argue, that hereditary rule is not an entirely reliable indicator of state loyalty to dictatorships. For instance, the Syrian military was not necessarily any more loyal than the Libyan and Yemeni militaries, as all three cases involved defection and loyalty by various parts of the armed forces in the face of unrest. However, the JOD authors make a persuasive case for the relevance of oil wealth, while also identifying foreign intervention as an additional factor affecting regime durability. As a case in point, without intervention by NATO in Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi would have been more likely to have held onto power.
Reforming the Research Agenda: Three Questions
Though political trajectories in regional countries have clearly differed, Arab dictatorships faced a series of similar turning points as they maneuvered to ensure their survival amidst the Arab Spring unrest. By breaking up the outcomes of these uprisings into a series of manageable questions based on specific turning points, we can better understand why some dictators survived while others did not.
From Protest to Uprising
The Arab Spring was a revolutionary moment in which a wave of turmoil swept across the Middle East—nearly every Arab country experienced protests. These demonstrations initially varied in size and intensity. Dictators in some countries quickly found themselves overwhelmed by massive, popular uprisings, while others confronted only modest opposition. As a result, the first question to address is: why did protests acquire enough momentum to become uprisings that threatened regimes with collapse in some countries but not in others?
By defining an uprising as a protest movement that calls for the overthrow of the regime and that is also sufficiently large enough to threaten the regime’s survival, two already-discussed factors—monarchism and oil wealth—differentiate those states that experienced full blown uprisings from those that were the sites of more limited demonstrations. Of the region’s eight monarchies, only Bahrain experienced a substantial uprising. Of the region’s eight oil-wealthy regimes, two experienced uprisings—Bahrain and Libya. Of the six countries in the region that were both oil-poor and did not have hereditary monarchies, four experienced uprisings—Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen.
The presence of monarchism and oil wealth reduce the likelihood of an uprising by establishing barriers to protest escalation. In monarchies, those barriers are rooted partly in the regime’s structure. In these types of governments, the king sits outside the field of contestation, and legislative institutions are often composed of a wide-range of factions that balance against each other and compete in elections. This arrangement increases the credibility of reforms offered by the monarch, since he can cede meaningful powers without sacrificing his position, and dis-incentivizes the opposition from making demands for radical change. As such, protesters are less likely to demand the removal of the monarch and more likely to call for internal reforms, since reforms are attainable without the demise of the ruler and the ineptitude of elected officials often appears to be the source of most problems. Consequently, protests are more manageable and pose less of a threat to the regime. This dynamic was apparent in both Morocco and Jordan, where significant protest movements never developed coherent-enough demands to threaten the regime, and were quickly diffused by the monarch’s offers of reforms, which were often never fully realized.
In oil-wealthy regimes, the financial resources accrued from oil create barriers to escalation by raising the costs of participation for protesters. Governments can rely on their resources to offer citizens financial incentives that help pacify them and thereby reduce the likelihood of an uprising. Several Arab regimes attempted to use this tactic as unrest swept across the region, by increasing public salaries and subsidies on staple goods. The resources available to oil-wealthy regimes, however, were typically substantial enough to matter.
The Military Responds
The emergence of an uprising is only part of the story, as not all protest movements that threatened regional regimes produced political change. In fact, in only two countries—Egypt and Tunisia—did popular protests peacefully sweep leaders out of power. In others states that experienced uprisings—namely Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—at least parts of the military stood by the regime and helped repress the opposition. Research has shown that the actions of a regime’s coercive apparatus play a significant part in determining whether a regime will survive a mass protest movement. This brings us to our second question: why did the military work to repress protest movements in some countries but not in others?
Scholars have already attempted to answer this question in the context of the Arab Spring. Eva Bellin has argued that more institutionalized militaries in Egypt and Tunisia refrained from oppressing protesters, while Sharon Nepstad has suggested militaries’ material ties to their regime and perceptions of regime strength determined the decision to repress.
While these analyses are useful, we propose an alternative explanation based on prior research by Theodore McLauchlin. His study compares two regime strategies that help foster military loyalty: individual incentives and ethnic preferences. He finds that militaries connected to their regimes only by individual incentives, whether positive such as material benefits or negative such as increased repression, are susceptible to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which mass protests indicate regime weakness and encourage the military to abandon the regime. On the other hand, in militaries where the fate of soldiers and officers is connected to the regime because of ethnic ties, they have an extra incentive to defend the government. While the regime might experience defections from the group that does not receive preferential treatment, a majority of those connected to the regime will stay loyal.
This dynamic has been readily apparent during the Arab Spring. Among the regimes that experienced uprisings, only two—Egypt and Tunisia—did not possess militaries linked to the dictator by some form of group preference. In both countries, the military refused to repress mass protests. On the other hand, militaries in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have historically been connected to ruling regimes by sectarian, tribal, familial, and/or ethnic ties. While defections by soldiers not tied to the preference-receiving group did occur in some of these countries (namely Libya, Syria, and Yemen but not Bahrain), ethnic ties proved crucial in ensuring these regimes retained a core of loyal military supporters willing to violently repress protests.
Attempts at Repression
A military’s decision to repress protests does not, however, ensure a regime’s survival. The government must still be strong enough to implement a crackdown that will scatter the opposition and help reassert its control over the state. In Libya and Yemen the regime failed to do this, while in Syria the government remains locked in a brutal civil war that threatens President Bashar al-Assad’s survival. Only Bahrain managed to repress its uprising such that the regime no longer seems at imminent risk of collapsing, though instability continues. This brings us to our third and final question: why were some regimes able to repress the opposition successfully, while others failed to do so?
Authoritarian regimes that retained the loyalty of their militaries were forced to confront and repress different brands of opposition, ranging in scale from persistent protests to armed rebel groups fighting an outright civil war. Despite these variations, however, regime success has depended on resources, namely, does the regime have enough money, weapons, and soldiers to crush or outlast its opponents? Two factors are particularly relevant here: oil wealth and foreign support. Regimes with substantial oil wealth have had more resources to subdue uprisings, whereas foreign backing of the regime or the opposition can affect the resources that ultimately determine a dictatorship’s fate.
Consider Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. For years the Bahraini regime has complemented its security forces with hired Sunnis from Pakistan, Jordan, and Yemen and has also made significant arms purchases. During the uprising, the state’s powerful coercive apparatus was also supported by a military intervention led by Saudi Arabia, which aimed to secure the regime. Thanks to these resources, the regime effectively crushed the uprising and has continued to limit the risk posed by ongoing protests in the country. Libya, another oil-wealthy regime, also seemed to have the resources to crush the opposition, despite some defections among the armed forces. Able to complement his military with bands of mercenary groups, Qaddafi was close to dispersing the uprising when NATO intervention halted his momentum and ultimately enabled the rebels to defeat the regime by providing them with access to resources that would otherwise have been unavailable.
The Syrian regime was much poorer than its counterparts in Bahrain and Libya, and after more than a year of intense fighting seemed close to defeat at the hands of the Syrian rebels. The regime was saved, however, by a concerted Iranian effort to prop up the Syrian military with training, equipment, and even fighters. The conflict is now deadlocked, with foreign powers providing backing to their preferred factions. Meanwhile, in resource-poor Yemen, Saleh slowly bled power as the country fell apart around him, until forceful diplomatic intervention by foreign powers eventually convinced the embattled president to step down, although he still retains significant power and influence in the country.
Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of Regime Durability in the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring offers scholars an important comparative opportunity to examine the factors that influence authoritarian durability during a period of domino-like unrest. We believe prior studies have successfully identified key variables relevant to the Middle East region: monarchism, oil wealth, the loyalty of the military, and foreign support. What has been missing, though, is a comprehensive, yet nuanced, explanation of how and when these factors mattered. We have attempted to build on others’ work by constructing such an explanation.
Understanding the outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings requires answering the three interlinked questions about the region’s unrest posed here. First, where did protests transform into uprisings that could sufficiently threaten the regime’s hold on power? We have argued monarchies and oil-wealthy regimes can erect more barriers to prevent protest escalation, and thereby protect the government. Next, we asked why militaries abandoned regimes in some countries where uprisings occurred, but cracked down violently on the opposition in others. We have suggested that a military tied to the regime by familial, tribal, ethnic, or sectarian connections would be more likely to support the regime. Finally, in cases where the military repressed the opposition, we asked why such repression was successful in some countries but not in others. Because resources are important in this regard, we have argued that oil-wealthy regimes were more likely to successfully repress their opponents, and that resources brought to bear by foreign powers for or against the regime could also have a significant impact on the outcome.
Ultimately, we must agree with the JOD authors in their discussion of the Arab Spring’s modest harvest. They suggest that the Arab world’s “low-hanging fruit” has been picked, and that the region’s remaining dictators will not go easily. Yet, just as it would be unwise to expect the rapid emergence of new revolutions anytime soon, it would be equally unwise to dismiss the profound turmoil still affecting the region. Factors such as monarchism, oil wealth, and supportive militaries and foreign governments might work in favor of the remaining regimes, but they do not offer complete immunity to revolutionary upheaval. Three years after the region was inundated by demands for a more just and free future, the rulers of the Arab world would do well to keep this reality in mind.