The Evolving Ruling Bargain In The Middle East Working Group II

On September 15–16, 2012, the Center for International and Regional Studies kicked off the 2012–2013 academic year with a two-day working group meeting to discuss “The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East.” The members of the working group were invited to Doha for a second time to conclude the research initiative and to discuss their individual paper submissions on the topic. The first working group meeting took place on February 19–20, 2012.

The working group members, comprised of international and regional scholars of the Middle East, discussed the current period of “transition” in various Arab countries. Although social and economic grievances have been simmering in countries of the Middle East for decades, mass protests, rapidly sparked by individual acts of protest in Tunisia and Egypt, took place at moments where the old ruling bargain was suddenly viewed as unacceptable to a newly emboldened public. Thousands took to the streets in defiance of authorities to demand a new bargain with the state or to do away with that government altogether. The participants discussed histories of political regimes and other forms of social engineering to see how one state differs from another and how these changes may affect the future of these countries.

Before delving into the individual areas of inquiry, the participants questioned the terminology used to address issues related to the Arab uprisings. They analyzed the language employed in the discourse and marked the parameters of the debate on how to conceptualize the recent events in the Middle East. They discussed whether the events could be considered as “revolutions” leading to radical transformations of society, community, and political structure, or whether these upheavals would more properly be called “uprisings” or “rebellions” that have ousted an old regime by replacing it with a new one. Further, they questioned whether the social, economic, and political arrangements that existed in these countries can be termed “social contracts,” as this term implies involving at least two parties that negotiate to achieve mutually acceptable or agreed-upon arrangements.

Often, ruling bargains are based on formally codified laws, while others are unspoken assumptions that have evolved over time. In many cases, formal opposition and political parties in the Middle East represent the semblance of democratic processes without gaining any actual power. The participants argued that these parties do not challenge regime stability, but, in fact, strengthen the regime’s position at a symbolic level. The state presents itself as the provider of the national interests in return for political acquiescence. Yet, the participants said, despite this arrangement loaded in favor of the state, the government and opposition parties are in a constant state of negotiation – a push and pull attempt to redefine the boundaries of power, albeit in a controlled and limited way.

The scholars noted that the demands for a new ruling bargain were caused by a number of factors. The general public in many Middle East countries suffered similar economic and social grievances in relation to unemployment, corruption, inequality, and crony-capitalism. Additionally, there is a unique youth factor, where a growing population bulge exists for many Middle East and GCC countries. Within this segment of society are many young, educated, unemployed, and increasingly frustrated people whose aspirations, economic opportunities, and political liberties have been curtailed. Many of these young people have access to communication technologies in order to voice their frustrations on both national and international levels. Despite regime restrictions placed on the internet at the height of social unrest in Egypt, for example, social media played a pivotal role in circumventing state control and leading to unauthorized mobilization of the masses.

Other topics discussed include the rise of Islamic parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and the polarization of societies along Islamist-secular lines; the emerging forms of relationship between state institutions like the military and police with different forms of civil society; the new forms of codifying the ruling bargain through recently formed laws, constitutions, and judiciary processes; as well as individual case studies related to the similarities and differences between Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, among others.

Finally, the participants argued that it was too early to draw conclusions regarding the outcome of any of these uprisings and how recent upheavals will shape future social or political relations in the Middle East. With the fall of old regimes, many past restrictions have been lifted and new forms of electoral processes and vehicles of political expression will need to be placed effectively within existing state structures. At the conclusion of the CIRS initiative, the chapters will be collected into an edited volume to be published in the coming year.



Participants and Discussants:

Ziad Abu-Rish, University of California-Los Angeles
Abdullah Al-Arian, Wayne State University
Saïd Amir Arjomand, Stony Brook Institute for Global Studies
Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Jason Brownlee, University of Texas-Austin
John T. Crist, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Marie Duboc, American University in Cairo
Mark Farha, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
John Foran, University of California, Santa Barbara
Bassam Haddad, George Mason University
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Doha Center
Manata Hashemi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Nader Hashemi, University of Denver
Thomas Juneau, Department of National Defence, Government of Canada
Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Bahgat Korany, American University in Cairo
Russell E. Lucas, Michigan State University
Quinn Mecham, Middlebury College
Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Gerd Nonneman, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Dwaa Osman, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Nadia Talpur, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Nadine Sika, American University in Cairo
Dirk Vandewalle, Dartmouth College
Fred Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Flora Whitney, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
Mohamed Zayani, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications