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Beyond Islamists and Autocrats: Prospects for Political Reform Post Arab Spring

David Schenker, Sarah Feuer, Vish Sakthivel, John P. Entelis, and Simon Henderson

Also available in العربية

Ongoing 2015-2016


This series of articles sheds light on regional actors outside the tired authoritarian-versus-Islamist narrative and provides suggestions for how best to cultivate and preserve this limited resource during this critical time of transition.

Concern about the political direction of the Middle East has long ago replaced the optimism that briefly followed the 2010-11 so-called Arab Spring. Many countries in the region seem headed toward either a return of traditional dictators or a new Islamist authoritarianism. Yet all is not lost. The Arab states have not fallen like dominoes to the Islamists. Modest opportunities to move toward greater pluralism, more-representative government, and increased respect for universal human values can be found in several places in the region. And in other areas, the poor governance record and declining popularity of Islamists in power are creating an opening for non-Islamist alternatives.

To address the prospects for the region’s non-Islamist, nondictatorial forces, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy announced in June 2015 the publication of a new series of scholarly papers, Beyond Islamists and Autocrats: Prospects for Political Reform Post Arab Spring, to be published over the next eighteen months. The essays offer sober assessments of non-Islamist, pluralistically inclined actors in a dozen or so Middle East states. The analysis focuses on the particular conditions in each country, detailing the goals, strengths, and weaknesses of the groups in question, and exploring their approach in the contest with their Islamist rivals.

Only in recent months have voices in Washington begun to recognize the promise, however limited, of non-Islamist actors, as opposed to focusing solely on the authoritarian-versus-Islamist narrative. The Washington Institute’s series aims to shed light on this trend and provide suggestions for Washington on how best to cultivate and preserve this limited resource during this critical time of transition.

Series Introduction

David Schenker • June 2015


Four years after the Arab Spring, the Middle East is aflame, but the Arab states have not fallen like dominoes to the Islamists. In Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood electoral victory was reversed by a military coup; in Tunisia, a democratically elected but widely unpopular Islamist-led coalition ceded power to a more secular coalition government. Elsewhere in the region, non-Islamists—individuals, NGOs, and political parties—are also contesting the concept of religiously inspired government. Yet ISIS and other Islamic extremists remain quite powerful in some places, while traditional autocrats claiming various shades of religious legitimacy continue to rule in others....

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Ch 1 | Post-Jasmine Tunisia

Sarah Feuer • June 2015


One of the more dramatic Arab Spring plotlines has been the rapid turn of fortune for Islamist movements throughout the region. If the tumult of 2011 initially paved the way for Islamist parties to assume power in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, by 2014 the pendulum had swung decidedly back and Islamists were on the defensive, if not wholly defeated, in most of the affected countries. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab uprisings, was no exception. There, the Islamists of the Ennahda Party who swept into power after the 2011 parliamentary elections were, by late 2013, struggling to negotiate a departure from the government that would preserve the party’s future political relevance. Ennahda’s stinging defeat in the parliamentary election of October 2014, and the election of an avowedly anti-Islamist president two months later, ostensibly spawned an Arab democracy in which non-Islamists are the dominant actors....

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CH 2 | MOROCCO: Prospects for civil society

Vish Sakthivel • August 2015


Despite the upheavals wrought elsewhere in the Middle East by the Arab Spring uprisings, the 2011 protests in Morocco did little to loosen King Mohammed VI's hold on power. Nonetheless, influential civil society organizations have subsequently spoken with a stronger voice, including groups focused on women's and reproductive rights, human rights, Amazigh (Berber) advocacy, and democratic development, along with trade unions. For many citizens, such groups represent the only authentic way to strive for reform on various issues, and are thus well worth examining. In this essay, the second in the Institute series, Beyond Islamists and Autocrats, Vish Sakthivel looks closely at obstacles to reform in the Moroccan context, as well as opportunities for CSOs to attain limited but meaningful gains.....

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Ch 3 | THE ALGERIAN CONUNDRUM: authoritarian state, democratic society

John P. Entelis • January 2016


AlgeriaThe prospects for democratic reform in Algeria are as complex and paradoxical as the country's convoluted history and opaque politics. While civil society has long possessed a democratic spirit rooted in its historic interaction with French republican principles, this orientation is highly disaggregated. For its part, the authoritarian polity maintains its stranglehold on civil society through a military-industrial complex that monopolizes the key coercive, economic, and bureaucratic instruments of the state. No amount of externally derived pressure for democratic reform, whether economic or political, has been able to alter this stalemate in state-society relations. This essay, the third in a series exploring prospects for political reform throughout the region, considers the strengths and limitations of democratic-style reformers in Algeria today. Following an overview of Algeria's political landscape, the paper examines the historical roots and current contours of Algerian civil society, where prospects for democratic-style reform remain in force, however limited. The chapter closes with a cautionary note for U.S. policymakers eager to engage constructively with Algeria. 

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Ch 4 | BAHRAIN'S STALLED REFORMS AND THE FUTURE U.S. ROLE

Simon Henderson • January 2016


BahrainWith tensions peaking between Iran and the conservative Arab states, the current calm in the island kingdom of Bahrain may prove only temporary. A longtime U.S. ally that hosts the Navy's Fifth Fleet headquarters, Bahrain plays a crucial role in ensuring regional security. Yet reforms of its political system have stalled, with the Sunni royal family refusing to concede a broader role for representatives of the country's substantial Shiite community, a dynamic suggesting an uncertain future. This essay, the fourth in a series exploring prospects for political reform throughout the region, considers Bahrain's outlook, particularly in the context of eventual succession from its king and prime minister. It argues that Washington must be ready to use its influence and local respect to help Bahraini leaders continue avoiding the perils of either harsh dictatorship or revolutionary chaos.

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Ch 5 | Lebanon's [Un]Civil Society

David Schenker • March 2016

BahrainSpillover from the war in Syria has had a profound impact on the region, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Lebanon, where refugees from the conflict now constitute nearly 30 percent of the state’s population. In the absence of effective state institutions, Lebanese civil society organizations have played a critical role in providing assistance to the refugees. Nevertheless, while Lebanon’s civil society is among the most vibrant in the Middle East, the efficacy of its organizations in influencing change in Beirut has been limited, due in large part to the sectarianism that characterizes Lebanese politics. This essay, the fifth in a series exploring prospects for political reform throughout the Middle East, considers the strengths and limitations of Lebanon’s robust civil society. It provides an overview of Lebanon’s political landscape, discusses the role of civil society, and assesses this sector’s efforts and its prospects for promoting positive change in this historically dysfunctional state.

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