The Middle East and North Africa remains haunted by the specter of instability. The fundamental problem is not so much the lack of democracy but the lack ofdurability – of stable and long-lasting governments that are robust, popular, and responsive to society. Most of the problems that dominate Western headlines from the region, from terrorism and violence to invasions and revolutions, reflect the uncomfortable fact that many Middle Eastern countries are ruled by political regimes that seem one uprising away from disintegration, leaving their territories open to unsavory groups like the Islamic State.
Why? Certainly, national borders are contested, oil wealth is a curse, and the youth generation is booming. Yet as my book explains, prior to all these factors is an underlying pathology of distorted state-building. Since gaining independence, most dictatorships in the Middle East have seen their societies as threats rather thanpartners in the enterprise of state-building, and so seldom sought to mobilise broad bases of popular support. What has catalysed such destructive patterns of detached governance has been frequent outside interventions, often in the form of foreign aid and military assistance that helped many regimes overcome domestic opposition. For outside powers like the United States, this assured the existence of client states like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Pahlavi-era Iran. Yet such external subventions paradoxically hurt rather than helped in the long run by discouraging these dictatorships from relying upon domestic legitimation and instead looking to the outside world during periods of crisis.
To understand this pathology, consider the logic of dictatorship. Unlike electoral democracies that require political leaders to win at the ballot box in order to govern, most dictatorships see elections as little more than window-dressing exercises. Yet at the same time, they cannot rule through repression alone. Any self-anointed grand leader that enjoys absolutely no compliance from any citizen would have to coerce and violate everyone, all the time, just to enact the simplest laws. In actuality, the most durable autocracies have plenty of popular backing, securing the support and loyalty of various groups in return for patronage and protection. Those groups typically include business leaders, urban middle classes, rural landowners, the military, and other forces who may feel threatened by the ‘radicalism’ of elected government – one that may, for instance, wish to redistribute land, stamp out corruption, promulgate fair taxation, and rein in army spending. Such grand bargains typically result in decades or more of stability, for better or for worse. For example, autocracies as diverse as Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Paraguay, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cuba all outlasted the Cold War on the backs of popular ruling coalitions. Today, China is testament that even without elections and pluralism, a single-party autocracy can rule comfortably without any revolutionary threat on the horizon.