Analysis: Revolutions, Regime Change, and State Collapse in the Arab World

[Ed. Note: The commentary below, abridged from the original available at the Carnegie Middle East Center, provides an important overview of events unfolding throughout the Middle East and North Africa and should serve to temper those swept up in the emotional exuberance of the Arab Awakening and its potential to reorder the lives of millions. The link to the full article is available at the end.]

Of Revolutions, Regime Change, and State Collapse in the Arab World by Marina Ottaway and David Ottaway

With breathtaking speed, massive popular protests across the Arab world have swept away two Arab strongmen and shaken half a dozen monarchies and republics to their core. But the Arab world has yet to witness any fundamental change in ruling elites and even less in the nature of governance.

Libya now seems poised to be the first country to see a true change in governance, thanks to Muammar Qaddafi’s megalomania and his amorphous jamahiriya (state of the masses). But such change may not have a happy ending. The damage Gaddafi has inflicted on his country is likely to extend well past his demise because he leaves behind a weak state without functioning institutions.

The uprisings sweeping across the Middle East have similar causes and share certain conditions: authoritarian and ossified regimes, economic hardship, and a growing contrast between great wealth and dire poverty, all worsened by the extraordinarily large number of young people who demand a better future. But the consequences will not be the same everywhere.

The protesters who keep turning out after Friday prayers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and on Tunis’s Avenue Bourguiba are absolutely right to keep pressing their cause. They have their work cut out for them. Mubarak and Ben Ali may be gone, but the individuals and institutions overseeing the transition remain the same—the old cronies of the former presidents and the pillars of the old regimes. Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq in Egypt was appointed by Mubarak days before he resigned. Mohammed Ghannouchi in Tunisia had been prime minister since 1999. In both countries, the same well-developed bureaucratic states and powerful military and security forces that buttressed authoritarian rule remain intact and seemingly determined to curb the pro-democracy momentum generated so far. A change in ruling elites and system of governance is still a distant goal.

The fall of Gaddafi will be a different matter. By necessity it will bring about both a new leadership and an entirely different system of government. His downfall will create a vacuum because the political house he built—inspired by his rambling Green Book of philosophical socialist musings—is now being blown away with him.

If Gaddafi’s demise only entailed the dissolution of his regime, it would be tempting to declare good riddance and hail the good fortune of the Libyan people in freeing themselves of the old regime in one blow, without having to deal with its remnants, as Tunisians and Egyptians are struggling to do. Unfortunately for Libya, the fall of the House of Gaddafi will not only put an end to his regime, but risks causing the collapse of the Libyan state. Gaddafi’s long reign did nothing to forge institutions that can ensure the continuity of the state beyond regime change. There is no well-organized bureaucracy to ensure administrative continuity.

The weakness of state institutions is already apparent in the eastern part of the country, which is now under the control of anti-government movements. Reports indicate that insurgents are trying to organize ad-hoc committees to keep order, direct traffic, maintain services, and even protect oil installations. In the vacuum created by the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in the eastern part of Libya, the country’s tribal structure appears to be the only enduring element. In Egypt and Tunisia, the permanent features are the bureaucracy and the military and security forces.

Key to the outcome for Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is whether a functioning state exists. Without a state, democracy is unlikely—if not outright impossible. Democracy can only emerge in the context of functioning institutions, not of chaos. Unfortunately, the strong state institutions also bolstered the old regimes. They were not one-man affairs: no matter how authoritarian Mubarak or Ben Ali were, they did not rule single-handedly. Their regimes were multi-layered, supported by massive security apparatuses and extensive bureaucracies, and used, among other purposes, to produce landslide electoral victories for the ruling parties.

Countries with such strong state and regime structures are difficult to change. Both Egypt and Tunisia may in the end weather the crisis with little—indeed too little—change, by sacrificing the presidents and their families and scapegoating the top layer of politicians. But the maneuver to stymie change may not succeed if protesters keep up the pressure. If protesters succeed in bearing prolonged pressure on the regimes and force them to introduce more far-reaching reforms, however, countries like Egypt and Tunisia stand a chance of developing into democracies.

In countries like Libya or Yemen, where such structures are weak or non-existent and the autocrat holds the country together through a web of personal relations, the prospects for democracy appear far more problematic. A sustained uprising in such countries could lead to sudden and complete regime change, since the leaders and their immediate entourage constitute the entire regime. Even the state is likely to collapse because there are no underlying structures independent of the top leaders. Regime change thus would be extremely unlikely to lead to democracy. More likely, the outcome would be a variation of the fragmentation that has bedeviled Somalia for twenty years.

[Ed. Note: A previous commentary concerning real vs. perceived regime change by one of these authors is available here.]

Complete article via Carnegie Middle East Center


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