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People living in the region – except for Egypt and Tunisia – were asked about their ‘demonstrating habits’ by Arab Barometer interviewers at the beginning of Arab Spring (the interviews were conducted at various times, between Autumn 2010 and Summer 2011, in the listed countries). Results show that the most rebellious people live in Sudan and Yemen, followed by Lebanon and Palestine. Yet, even in these countries ca. 75% of the adult population has not participated in any protest (between 2007-2010/2011).
arab barometer wave II, q5022

 

Mainstream literature dealing with the Arab Spring demonstrators’ motivations and contemporary history of the Arab Spring analyzes the ‘explaining factors’ from various perspectives, putting emphasis on the middle class and structural transformation, the socio-economic hardships such as increasing food prices and high unemployment and the desire for regime strange or the importance of internet-based technological development. Looking at the opinion polls, however, the Arab uprisings have been widely interpreted as uprisings against political tyranny over freedom and public participation as well as against the prevalence of human rights abuses.

Further reading: Brynen Beyond the Arab Spring; Mona Christophersen, ‘Protest and reform in Jordan. Popular demand and government response, 2011 to 2012’ Fafo-report 50 (Oslo: Fafo, 2013); Sobhi Samour, ‘The Promises and Limitations of Economic Protests in the West Bank’ in Kjetil Fossheim (ed), Arab Spring. Uprisings, Powers and Interventions (New York, Berghahn, 2014).

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Neither peaceful demonstrations, not violent actions can be explained without keeping in mind that ‘revolutions cannot do without the word “justice” and the sentiment it arouses. (…) People feel that government is just or unjust, legitimate or illegitimate (…) by what it does. If its actions (…) violate their basic values, they may conclude, (…) that “a government without justice is a great robbery”’. [1] People’s views and perceptions are needed to understand both their relation to power (obedience, legitimacy among others) as well as the relations between foreign aid and legitimacy. Negative perceptions on their governments’ performance and their ‘illegitimate’ foreign alliances will lead to decreasing feeling of community between the masses and the elites as well as decreasing legitimacy of the regime. Even if measuring legitimacy is difficult, the Arab Barometer may help us understand how people think about their own obligations to obey. When (in 2010 or 2011, check Arab Barometer codebook) asked about the necessity of support to be provided to their governments (even if they do not agree with it), ca 40-60% of the respondents in most countries were ready to show (belief in the necessity of) obedience:

arab barometer wave II, q216

 

Michael C. Hudson, investigating the origins of legitimacy in the Arab world, points to the fact that “Islam was a complete social system; membership (…) created a certain brotherhood above the immediate ties of kinship. It also conferred a stability, an equilibrium, on society as a whole, even to the point of supporting the passive acceptance of wrongs committed by the ruler who nonetheless deferred (theoretically) to the sanctity of the Shari’a.” [2]

Sources and further reading: Arab Barometer, wave II (2010-2011, question 216): http://www.arabbarometer.org/instruments-and-data-files; other (see biblio data in earlier posts): [1] Citing Eckstein and Gurr (1975) Razi emphasizes that it is people’s “positive or negative judgment of what is perceived” about the behavior of the regime that must be investigated to know the level of legitimacy. If the majority of the population is more or less satisfied with the government’s performance and actions in areas of “identity, participation, distribution, equality and sovereignty according to the norms they believe in, there is no crisis of legitimacy.”  Razi, ‘Legitimacy, religion’, 70.; [2] Michael C. Hudson (1977): Arab Politics. The search for Legitimacy. New Haven: Yale University Press, p50.

Recalling the descriptive – empirically supported – understanding of legitimacy, even authoritarian regimes can enjoy certain level of collective support. It must be kept in mind, however, that neither performance (providing public goods and services, good governance), nor popularity equals to legitimacy.[1] While legitimacy in general is viewed as a source of stability in social systems, political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government would suffer collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular regimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential elite or by external powers. Indeed, regime stability is a ‘function of the ongoing ability of the actors within the system to mobilize resources to perpetuate a legitimate system.’[2] This ‘ability’ has been supported by foreign aid in the Middle East for decades.

Legitimacy in the Middle East cannot be understood without referring to the region’s historical interaction with external powers on one hand and the internal sources of legitimacy on the other one. Colonialism, the mandate period (League of Nations), independence movements and the gradual process of decolonialism added various layers (nationalism, ideology) to the traditional concept of legitimacy being based mainly on religion and tradition. Even if it has been considered surprising that ‘legitimacy in the nondemocratic Arab world has not been studied in any encompassing manner for more than 30 years’ with the exception of Hudson’s Arab Politics: the search for legitimacy,[3] the role of religion and nationalism were proposed to be studied in order to demonstrate the significance of legitimacy for regime maintenance (stability) at the beginning of the 1990s.[4] Not only modern nationalism, but religion also has clearly influence political attitudes on such matters as identity, concept of justice, the nature of a legitimate political system, obedience, obligation and rights, to mention only a few.

According to Schlumberger, there are four components being the main sources of domestic ‘nondemocratic’ legitimacy in the Arab world: religion, tradition, ideology and the provision of welfare benefits to their populations. Welfare benefits – material or economic legitimacy are –seen as a main source of nondemocratic legitimacy. It cannot be understood without the ‘rentier state’ approach that is based on the conviction that ‘even limited resources from abroad can buy an enormous amount of legitimacy’.[5] Regime legitimacy is maintained either by ‘political petrolism’ (using oil income or financial transfers from oil-rich neighbours to buy legitimacy with subsidies and government jobs) or by Western foreign aid, which effectively prevented destabilization by enabling Arab governments to provide welfare benefits to their populations. Schlumberger concludes that religion plays a less important role than either traditional or material legitimacy, whereas ideology (nationalism, Islamism, globalization and neoliberalism, democracy-promotion and their unique combination alike) has become more and more relevant category. By delegitimizing ruling elites emerging societal actors draw attention to the ‘reciprocal nature’ of legitimacy and its procedural, non-static character too.[6]

 

Sources and further reading: [1] A government can be unpopular, yet, legitimate if the ways of exercising power is considered valid. Wheatheford ,‘Mapping the Ties’, 261.; [2] Blackwell Encyclopedia; [3] Cited by Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles’, 233.; [4] Religion and nationalism serve as main sources of macroloyalty, whereas the family, clan, various sects, associations, occupations constitute the main sources of microloyalty. These latter, in the absence of strong and shared religious or nationalist values may generate social conflicts. Razi, ‘Legitimacy, religion’. On identity in the Middle East: Bernard Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (New York: Schocken, 2001); cited by Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles,’ 245.; Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles’.

‘Any words of consolation or press interviews with family members seem nothing more than an intrusion on their deep sadness and great pain,’ writes Asma Al-Ghoul, a Gaza-based columnist for Al-Monitor Palestine Pulse, upon summing up her report about the tragedy of the Hamad family. This sentence tells much more about the reality of (post)modern conflicts than updates in newspapers, human rights reports, political analyses, twitter feeds, facebook shares, blog posts or even articles in referred journals will ever be able to reveal.

Let us see the supply side first. What does the press do? It sends its journalist and photographers to the region to report on the events, daily life and daily death, among others. Sometimes it pays for the information, other times it ‘just’ reports. What does the academia do? It provides lengthy explanations about international humanitarian law, reminds to the importance of human rights law, summarizes briefly the historical context, and tries to analyze the contemporary events. What does the activist do? Raises funds to save lives, organizes demonstrations and distributes as many pieces of information about brutality as possible. The supply side of the play called ‘understanding’ is performed by various artists: journalists and photographers, university professors and researchers, political analysts and political activists. We are confined to explain what is going on in the Middle East – in any other parts of the world – but we are unable to prevent suffering, to ease the pain of the individual or to bring back a father to his son. We can produce tons of pages with reports and explanations, but still, we are unable to prevent the son to repeat the mistakes of his father. Let this mistake be about having a coffee at a wrong place in a wrong time, firing rockets or bombing as response to rockets.

And the demand side? The audience? We readers – sometimes simultaneously writers/authors – are sitting in comfortable armchairs buying stories of sufferings without risking our daily routine or lives. We not only watch and monitor what is going on, we not only prosecute, sentence, judge or acquit people living far from us. We are also consumers, rational decision makers. We can choose between channels and websites based on our prompt preferences. And today’s choice does not influence tomorrow’s decisions. Depending on our ‘tastes’ we can prefer a burning fuel station in Ashdod or a mourning family in Gaza over sports today, while opt for the world cup final over Palestinian rockets and Israeli bombings the day after. We can choose and we, indeed, choose. We pay for the ‘adventure’ let it be a football match or the suffering of a family in the Middle East. But even the globally conscious – showing solidarity with a Palestinian child losing his father, a Palestinian mother losing her child or an Israeli family being affected by unpredictable rockets – will never be able to give them back their prior lives. Only those, living in close proximity, Israelis and Palestinians, will be able to find solutions for their problems and find ways for consolation, provided that they choose living together, at least, next to each other.

Norwegian version was posted in Aftenposten (July 18 2014): Forklaring uten å kunne gjøre noe.

http://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/debatt/Forklaring-uten-a-kunne-gjore-noe-7640186.html#.U8jNi_mSz1Y

Why do we obey if the state is far from being democratic or respecting our political, economic, human rights? As noted by Schlumberger (2010) and Sedgwick (2010) people tend to obey, even if the ‘normative’ qualities (listed in the previous post) are completely or partially missing. Indeed, the widely discussed normative approach excludes the non-democratic political systems by assuming that non-democratic regimes are inherently without legitimacy and as such they depend on repression to a large extent. [1] Recalling the descriptive – empirically supported – understanding of legitimacy, even authoritarian regimes can enjoy certain level of collective support. It must be kept in mind, however, that neither performance (providing public goods and services, good governance), nor popularity equals to legitimacy. [2] While legitimacy in general is viewed as a source of stability in social systems, political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government would suffer collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular regimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential elite or by external powers. Indeed, regime stability is a ‘function of the ongoing ability of the actors within the system to mobilize resources to perpetuate a legitimate system.’[3] This ‘ability’ has been supported by foreign – military and development alike – aid in the Middle East for decades.

Sources and further reading: [1] Sedgwick, M. (2010) Measuring Egyptian Regime Legitimacy. Middle East Critique 19 (3): 251-267, p252; Schlumberger, O. (2010) Opening Old Bottles in Search of New Wine: On Nondemocratic Legitimacy in the Middle East, Middle East Critique 19 (3) 233-250; p233; [2] A government can be unpopular, yet, legitimate if the ways of exercising power is considered valid. Wheatheford ,‘Mapping the Ties’, 261.; [3] Blackwell Encyclopedia: Legitimacy.

The question raised in the last post (how social groups can be influenced by foreign power) becomes interesting in the very moment when the concept of democracy enters the scene. Throughout the decades it has become a sort of synonym for political stability – stability here means the management of orderly change and not simply the maintenance of status quo[1] – and as such something to be promoted and supported worldwide by means of development aid channeled to governments and civil society organizations alike.

The democracy-related normative approach of legitimacy is slightly different from the descriptive-empirical understanding summarized above. The distinction is needed in order to understand the role legitimacy can play in non-democratic regimes known, among others, for using violence in more authoritarian ways against their own population and within their territory. The normative concept of legitimacy holds that ‘some objective notion of what is right, justifiable or legitimate exists’ and assumes certain conditions such as ‘acceptability or justification of political power or authority’.[2] The ‘legitimate being’ of democracies can be described by such qualities as having a constitution or basic laws, equality of citizens before the law, voluntary obedience to law, separation of executive, legislative and juridical powers, political pluralism and mass participation,[3] competition of political parties for votes, political and civil liberties, and also human rights and freedom of speech. These features are built on a normative interpretation of political legitimacy: if the conditions for legitimacy are not met, power is exercised unjustifiably or in illegitimate ways – and their commands do not entail any obligation to obey.’ While the Arab Spring demonstrators aspired to attain normative legitimacy, the stability of the authoritarian regimes depends on descriptive understanding of legitimacy.

Sources and further reading: [1] Razi, G. H. (1990) Legitimacy, Religion and Nationalism in the Middle East. The American Political Science Review 84 (1): 69-91, p78.; [2] Bruce Gilley, The Right to Rule. How States Win and Lose Legitimacy (New York: Columbia Press, 2009); Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles’, 235.; [3] The opposite of participation can be described as ‘alienation’ (M. Stephen Wheatherford, ‘Mapping the Ties That Bind: Legitimacy, Representation, and Alienation’ The Western Political Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1991): 251-276) or ‘marginalization’ (social exclusion, following Albert O. Hirschman,Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), but it would be too simple to say that non-participation in political life is the opposite of legitimacy. See Sedgwick, ‘Measuring Egyptian’, 253.

Legitimacy can be understood as a ‘state of appropriateness’ ascribed to an entity (actor, system, structure, process, action) stemming from its integration with institutionalized norms, values and beliefs. ‘Collective support’ and obedience are considered to be important elements of legitimacy: they refer to people’s beliefs about political authority and their own obligations. This descriptive (empirical) approach reflects Max Weber’s understanding of legitimacy: ‘the basis of every system of authority, and correspondingly of every kind of willingness to obey, is a belief, a belief by virtue of which persons exercising authority are lent prestige’.[1] Legitimacy is widely understood as popular acceptance, obedience and recognition of the authority of a regime, whereby authority has political power through consent and not through overt coercion.[2] Regime authority always depends on the combination of legitimacy and organized coercion. In Weber’s account it is the state which as a community ‘successfully claims authority’on the legitimate use of physical force. The monopoly of violence is ensured via the process of legitimization by means of which the citizens accept that only the state can apply force, which made Rustow define political stability as the function of legitimacy of institutions and personal legitimacy of rulers.[3] When legitimacy vanishes entirely, the regime loses the means of coercion,[4] which leads to destabilization. Social conflicts – uprisings, (attempted) revolutions and civil wars alike – can be explained by weakened legitimacy. A political system will be destabilized, when ‘discontented social groups come to feel that it is acceptable to engage in disobedience and violence’[5] against the regime perceived to be illegitimate. The question is, how various social groups – broadly understood: political parties, military establishment(s), civil society organizations, etc – are influenced (and financed) by foreign powers.

Sources and further reading: [1] Weber, M. (1964) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Edited by Talcott Parsons. New York: Free Press, p382; [2] Weber, The Theory of Social, 124. In Weber’s account, the ‘ability’ ensuring legitimacy can be of three types: traditional, charismatic and rational-legal, all of which has distinct sources of authority; [3] Dankwart Rustow, A World of Nations: Problems of Political Modernization. (Washington: Brookings, 1967): 27 and 157; cited by G. Hossein Razi, ‘Legitimacy, Religion and Nationalism in the Middle East’, The American Political Science Review 84, no. 1 (1990): 69-91; [4] Sedgwick, M. (2010) Measuring Egyptian Regime Legitimacy. Middle East Critique 19 (3): 251-267.; [5] Cited by Theda Scocpol, States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979): 25.