Authoritarianism in the Arab world is not what it used to be. Indeed, it might well be stronger, more flexible, and more resilient than ever, despite the best efforts of the United States, its European Union partners, and Arab democrats to bring about sustained and systematic political reform over the past two decades. While U.S. conceptions of Arab authoritarianism and U.S. strategies for promoting democratic reform have remained largely unchanged during this period, Arab regimes have not stood still. They have adapted by re-organizing strategies of governance to adjust to new global, regional, and domestic circumstances. Autocrats have not simply fallen back on coercion to fend off pressures for change—though repression remains a visible and potent element in the arsenal of Arab governments. Regimes have turned instead to a process that can best be described as “authoritarian upgrading.”
These emerging strategies of governance have undermined gains achieved by democracy promotion programs, and will continue to blunt their impact in the future. Has democracy promotion in its current form run its course? Has it outlived its usefulness? The possibility should be on the table. If democracy promotion has, even if unintentionally, provided Arab regimes with new tools for securing authoritarian forms of governance, should it be continued? If so, in what form?
At a minimum, authoritarian upgrading underscores the need to rethink how the U.S. pursues democracy promotion and to recognize, in particular, that Arab regimes are converging around policies that are explicitly designed to stabilize and preserve authoritarian rule in the context of ongoing demands for political change. At the same time, authoritarian upgrading holds out clues to the kinds of democratic changes it is reasonable to expect in the Arab world, and how these are likely to differ from the Latin American and Eastern European experiences that have been a principal inspiration for U.S. democracy promotion policies worldwide. To be effective in this context, democracy promotion efforts must also adapt.
After twenty years, Arab regimes have become proficient at containing and disarming democracy promotion—if not exploiting it for their own purposes. Strategies that take advantage of the openings offered by authoritarian upgrading are more likely to advance democratic change in the Middle East than the continuation of policies that do not take into account how governance in the Arab world is being transformed. Two openings hold out particular promise:
• First, adapting U.S. democracy promotion policies to exploit more effectively the openings that upgrading itself produces;
• Second, taking steps to weaken the coalitions on which upgrading depends.
Both will require substantial adjustments in U.S. democracy promotion policies.
Steven Heydemann is Associate Vice President at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was formerly a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. From 2003 to 2007 he directed the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University, where he remains an adjunct professor in the Department of Government. He is the author or editor of several books, including Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970; War, Institutions and Social Change in the Middle East; and Networks of Privilege in the Middle East: The Politics of Economic Reform Reconsidered.