Following the End of the Cold War, authoritarian regimes were globally challenged and the so-called “Third Wave of Democratisation” in the 1990s, demolished various dictatorships, most notably in Latin America and East Asia. However, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa resisted the change and gripped on power for over four decades. Many Western and Arab literatures emerged to analyse this phenomenon and the traded issue question why and how authoritarianism existed in this region for so long?. Authoritarianism is a form of government in which the ruler is an absolute dictator and excessive user of power. It also describes a form of social organisation characterised by total submission to a political authority under repression and coercion in a highly hierarchical system . The definition of the “MENA”, an academic term which refers to the region of the Middle East and North Africa, has been somehow controversial. It generally includes Israel and Arab- Muslim states of the region. Yet, broader definitions may also include Non-Arab Muslim states such as: Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite the Western efforts to promote democracy in the region, authoritarianism has proven to be far more complex and resistant to democratisation. A country is said to be democratic when people and the government are connected together in terms of the input and output dimensions of governance. The term is related to Abraham Lincoln’s famous definition: “The government of the people, by the people and for the people” . Above and beyond, democracy embraces individual, political, civil, social, economic and environmental rights. Rather than promoting these principles, Arab leaders developed hybrid regimes using new strategies to adjust both internal and external pressures.
Since the 1960s, Lebanon has remained the only liberal model in the Arab world. Many scholars questioned why Arabs failed to promote democracy though they share the same culture, religion and language. Some believe it has to do with Islamic religion. Although Islam sets the rights and duties of its believers and holds an extent of freedom, it is seen by Muslims, themselves, that their religion is incompatible with democracy. They argue that god is the only source of authority, including political authority, therefore, god’s rule, not man’s, should govern the society. Relatively, when comparing liberal Islamic states in Asia such as: Malaysia and Turkey to those in the MENA, one can conclude that authoritarianism is not necessarily related to Islam. Nevertheless, this does not deny the role of Islam in influencing publics, and leaders in the Arab world succeeded over the years in controlling populations using Islamic Sharia. The Arab mind is, in fact, characterised by the rule of Islamic spirit and this strong attachment to religion gave birth to extremist groups that used deviant interpretation to formulate religious doctrines in order to encourage terrorism and anti-Semitism. Accordingly, literature reveals that Arab populations are not only victims of political authoritarianism, but also religious authoritarianism who seek to restore the Islamic Caliphate and try to consolidate values of intellectual terrorism by directing public minds towards one common enemy: the West and Israel. Indeed, clerics ,mainly in Al-Azhar, succeeded in directing public attention towards the Palestinian case, while dictators used this hostility to root their authority in the system. Besides Islam, culture is seen to have a significant role in shaping an authoritarian rule. Kedourie (1992: 103) describes the Arab society as being: “accustomed to autocracy and passive obedience”. An explanation of the Arab cultural approach has been provided by Hisham Sharabi’s Theory of Neo-Patriarchy “1987”. He traces back Arab authoritarianism to the old tribal life which was based on blind loyalty and mutual destiny.
Besides, authoritarianism in the MENA existed for long due to series of tactics that leaders have been using over the years. Primarily, they introduced social reforms, which were seen in the emergence of non-Governmental Organisations since the 1990s. Arab regimes recalibrated the consequences of these openings after using them to attract foreign aid donors and investment at a moment of financial crisis. Gradually, states worked on imposing regulations over such organisations and strongly controlled them by mixing coercion with NGO’s functions in order to become osculated with the society and forbid any sort of political opposition. For example: Under government pressure, the Human Right League in Tunisia suspended it activities since 1992 . Similarly, the appearance of Arab first ladies in politics was seen as a tricky method; Asma al-Assad of Syria, Queen Rania of Jordan, Susab Mubarak of Egypt, Mozah of Qatar , have all profiled themselves by starting and supporting NGOs campaigning for every criticised aspect. This strategy of controlling social activities and meanwhile empowering civil society, replaced the old methods of repression. Although they are still present in some states, the majority prefer to enrol citizens in debates related to government reforms, meanwhile, narrow the space in case the pressure mounts. Political reforms have also been promoted and leaders focused more on electoral reforms. They have also included Muslim Parties in politics, yet with limits, in order to show a face of religious representation in society and to avoid a similar tragedy to that of Algeria in the 1990s. Even though they may allow pluralism in elections, they ensure their winning position through fixed elections. Oppositionists, in particular, become the first target and may end up prisoners, asylum seekers, and exiles deprived from their national identity. Peculiarly in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak ordered the imprisonment of both political figures Saad Eddine Ibrahim and Ayman Noor . Regimes also use state of emergency law to control the public and avoid protests. This is an effective method to break up opposition groups and spot any dubious associations. State of emergency is a concept commonly associated with authoritarianism than with democracy to legitimate military control and continue the use of repression . Countries under this law include: Syria, Israel, and Egypt, among others.