The Arab world’s monarchies have fared considerably better than their republican counterparts in withstanding the democratic demands of the current region’s vocal protest movements. They have been able to do so in large part through a blend of institutional flexibility and political dexterity that enables monarchs to enjoy power without responsibility while deflecting pressure onto intermediate institutions that have responsibility without power, writes Mokhtar Benabdallaoui (left). Nevertheless, the monarchies should draw the lesson that encouraging political participation, especially among the young, while initiating gradual reform and good governance, is in their long-term interest.
Before January 2011, Arab autocrats deflected and defused public discontent over internal decay, corruption, and repression by portraying themselves as defenders of Arab sovereignty and dignity, by directing attention to such pan-Arab causes as the liberation of Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and by blaming unrest on foreign conspiracies and saboteurs.
But it is undeniable that the region’s uprisings are organic, indigenous movements, and that Arabs citizens are increasingly demanding public accountability and good governance. The main message of the protests is that rulers can no longer govern absolutely or in perpetuity. The protest movements have also been distinctively inclusive: while they have lacked inspiring leaders and a common ideology, they have been supported by all social classes and sectors, mobilizing secularists, Islamists, leftists, and liberals.
Despite their similarities and roots in the primal demand for dignity, there are many differences between the protest movements unfolding across the region: Tunisia and Egypt, have, to varying degrees, experienced political transition; some, such as Bahrain, remain at an impasse; others, such as Libya, Syria and Yemen have resulted in serious human and material casualties or civil war. In Morocco and Jordan the protest movements have stalled or dissipated after gradual government reforms.
Given the varied outcomes of protest movements with comparable origins, one of the most interesting distinctions is the stark difference between the fate of the region’s monarchies and republics.
Every regime that has fallen to the Arab awakening has been a republic – ironically, the form of government that appeared the most robust and resilient across the region. By contrast, only a few protesters in the monarchies have called for their outright collapse and replacement, with most demonstrators calling for constitutional reform, even in Bahrain where the confrontation pitted the Sunni regime against a largely Shiite protest movement.
With the exception of Bahrain, the Gulf monarchies have not faced the sort of pressure that regimes confronted in lower-income Arab countries. While economics and vastly higher standards of living help explain the lack of widespread discontent, the Gulf monarchies do lag behind in terms of civil and political freedoms. Yet these monarchies did not need to offer significant political or constitutional reforms, opting instead for buying off discontent by providing financial subsidies and debt forgiveness to those largely excluded from the benefits of oil revenues and government largesse. Nor did the Gulf States hide their opposition to the largely cosmetic reforms proposed by the monarchs of Morocco and Jordan; rather, they have adamantly opposed even incremental changes to their political systems.
Of course, the majority of Arab monarchies are no more democratic than the deposed republican regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Corruption and abuse are rife within both systems and, apart from the wealthy Gulf States, monarchies register similar rates of poverty, unemployment, and social inequality.
So why have monarchies survived intact, even as protesters call for their reform and not their downfall? Is it due to political legitimacy deriving from the monarch’s status as a religious authority, as in Morocco? What explains the limited popular mobilization in some countries? And will protest movements and demands for reform spread to monarchies in the future?
In theory, monarchs are insulated from the daily concerns of their subjects, while republican regimes are supposed to rule with the consent of the governed and be responsive to citizens’ concerns. When protests erupted, however, the republican leaders responded with threats, violence, and oppression; while monarchies reacted in a more subdued, even self-critical fashion.
For example, less than three weeks after the start of demonstrations in Morocco, King Mohammed VI gave a speech on March 9, 2011, proposing reforms that exceeded some protesters’ demands. Furthermore, the extent of human casualties and material damage resulting from protests against the monarchies paled in comparison with the destruction and human costs incurred during demonstrations against republican rule.
It was in large part the institutional flexibility of the monarchies and the political dexterity of the monarchs themselves that allowed them to divide and weaken the opposition, neutralize protests, and avoid the bloodshed and feelings of outrage that drove a wedge between rulers and citizens in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Monarchies remained credible to many of their people because of their advanced degree of administrative institutionalization, including their ability to delegate certain powers to elected bodies and depict themselves as the legitimate authority in their country. These institutions, such as parliaments and government bureaucracies, represent the first tier of public affairs management, which monarchies have successfully and consistently scapegoated when necessary.
In other words, the region’s monarchies have been able to retain their credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of most citizens by delegating limited powers to elected bodies, such as consultative councils or largely toothless parliaments, thereby creating an institutional buffer-zone between monarch and citizenry. In short, these institutions have responsibility without power, while the monarchs’ ability to deflect popular discontent by scapegoating these intermediate bodies means that they enjoy power without responsibility.
Although the functions and responsibilities of these intermediate bodies differ from country to country, they are generally involved in governmental decision-making, wielding limited legislative and executive powers. But during periods of unrest, these organizations and their leaders serve both as a veil and a safety valve, providing an outlet towards which monarchs can channel public discontent.
Two weeks after protests erupted in Jordan in January 2011, for instance, King Abdullah fired Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai, whose government was blamed for the problems plaguing the country. He was replaced by Maaroof al-Bakhit, who previously served as prime minster from 2005 to 2007. When protests continued, al-Bakhit was blamed for widespread corruption, which led to his resignation in October 2011. This type of cosmetic change allows monarchs to present an image of commitment to transparency and reform, helping to assuage public anger, while maintaining a firm grip on the levers of power.
But despite this ability to avoid real reform by deflecting and defusing discontent, the monarchies that have so far managed to elude social and political upheaval cannot remain immune from growing pressures for change. As the UN Arab Human Development Report noted, money alone will not solve the problems of the Gulf monarchies, and the region’s priorities are changing as the younger population becomes better educated, less tribal, more integrated, and less sectarian.
One of the major lessons that Arab monarchs—and the region’s other leaders —can draw from these movements is that encouraging political participation, especially among the young, while initiating political reform and gradually applying principles of good governance, is in the regimes’ long-term interests. These actions will help improve citizens’ lives, promote some semblance of public engagement, and ultimately enhance political stability.
Only genuine reform will allow these regimes to survive the next test of their legitimacy. Otherwise, the number of protesters will be too great, the mechanisms of control too weak, and the sheer force of the demonstrations too overwhelming for the regimes to withstand.
*Dr. Mokhtar Benabdallaoui was until recently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. A professor of Islamic studies at Hasan II University in Casablanca, he is also founding director of the Center for Humanities Studies and Research, a Casablanca-based NGO that carries out a broad range of activities under the auspices of the Civic Forum, including civic education workshops, publication of a quarterly journal, and conferences on democratic reform.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the National Endowment for Democracy.