The End of History in the Middle East
November 22, 2021
In the summer of 1989, a young political scientist set Washington aflutter with the bold proclamation that, with the West’s victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, history as the world knew it may have just ended. Francis Fukuyama saw in communism’s collapse the “total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” He viewed liberalism’s triumph as “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Many sitting Arab governments believe that they now have arrived at a similar point of clarity, but they have settled in a different place. Still reeling from the Arab Spring, they are converging on a model that combines authoritarianism with a social safety net, strict limits on religious expression, a more liberalized social space, and an invigorated private sector. It might be called the “GCC consensus,” but its practice reaches from Tunisia to Jordan and beyond.
The GCC consensus was a response to a real set of problems. While radicalism was a minority force in the Arab world in the early part of this century, it was also a growing one, exacerbated by youth who spent aimless years between the end of their schooling and their entry into the workforce. Jihadi groups not only offered young people a salary and sense of belonging, but they spoke to the estrangement and alienation that many young people felt. Weak economies bred despair, as many more youth sought government employment than governments could provide. Throughout, the religious establishment was an uncertain partner in counter-radicalization. In many places, it not only accepted intolerance but actually encouraged it. With the energy transition looming, broader economic conditions seem poised to grow more difficult.
Part of this new consensus is a commitment to get serious about young people. Many regional governments have increasingly sophisticated social media operations, enlisting influencers and sending out positive stories that engage youth. They reportedly also have invested in polling, focus groups, and sentiment analysis of social media, gauging the impacts of what they say and do and calibrating their efforts. Presumably, security services also monitor social media and electronic communications, as well as internet use. They are policing this space with increasing energy.
In addition, several governments have adopted a policy that almost looks like coercing social tolerance. The religious police in Saudi Arabia have been neutered, and the government has produced and promoted public concerts, movie theaters, and outdoor gatherings. President Sisi in Egypt has gone out of his way to embrace the Coptic Church. The United Arab Emirates is building a complex that will house a mosque, church, and synagogue in Abu Dhabi, and it invited the construction of the Middle East’s first Mormon temple on the Expo 2020 site after the Expo is over. Governments throughout the region increasingly seek to script mosque sermons. Visible opposition to all of these moves is scant.
One way to see these actions is that they are long overdue. In this accounting, conservative forces were ascendant for a half-century in the Middle East, undermining pluralism to the extent it existed and imposing their views on new generations. In the process, the Middle East fell into violence and turmoil, many of the most promising young people sought emigration, and economies languished. Political Islam revealed itself to be a dead end, and ponderous state bureaucracies expanded well beyond the point of sustainability. The new moves will make governments more agile and the states they lead more resilient.
But another way to see these moves is that they merely seek to replace antiquated forms of authoritarianism with a more modern-looking ones. In this analysis, the new systems are no more resilient or sustainable than the old ones. And as various forms of economic rent diminish—not least the hydrocarbon revenues that have sustained the region for decades—cracks will swiftly emerge. The underlying problems have gone nowhere, conservatives have gone nowhere, and the conservatives’ ideas still have appeal. Governments continue to deprive people of agency in their own lives. Meanwhile, leaders continue to reserve to themselves the responsibility to self-police and check their own excesses. Rather than promote resiliency, these more modern systems seek to preserve the very mechanisms that have proven so catastrophic in the social, economic, and political development of the Middle East.
The truth is likely to lie somewhere between these two extremes. It is surely true that Arab states too often smothered their economies, and they ceded important space to religious forces that bullied their way into social prominence. Some of the new moves are necessary and welcome. And it is also true that states’ efforts to remain in control threaten to strangle innovation and protect flawed practices from revision. Governments overreach when there are no guardrails; the ranks of aspiring “philosopher kings” swelled in the twentieth century, but they mostly produced excesses that led to failed systems. Mussolini, Stalin, Peron, Khomeini, and Chavez all fell under the spell; China only flourished when it abandoned the path of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Regional governments need to understand that adaptability and flexibility, rather than mere strength, will determine the success of their countries. As the last three decades have shown, no system—not Soviet communism, nor Fukuyama’s Western liberalism—is resilient without constant maintenance. History did not end in 1989, nor will it end now. Humility in governance is just as important as power.
Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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