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Money, Loyalty and Autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa

New research explains the Arab Spring’s “modest harvest”

Posted: November 6, 2013

Optimistic hopes of democracy sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were always overreaching. In the wake of popular uprisings across the region, autocrats were replaced in only four of 14 countries, and even there long-term democratic prospects remain tenuous.

In new research, published in last month’s Journal of Democracy, Jason Brownlee, and Tarek Masoud of Harvard and Andrew Reynolds of UNC-Chapel Hill, provide a regional explanation for why some regimes fell and most endured. Their article, “Why the Modest Harvest,” offers a window into their book, forthcoming from Oxford University Press, The Arab Spring: The Politics of Transformation in North Africa and the Middle East.

For MENA autocrats wishing to survive popular revolt, Brownlee and his coauthors narrow the “must-haves” down to two key goods: money and loyalty. More specifically, regimes with either oil wealth or an established hereditary succession were able to survive revolts. Regimes with no major oil revenue or without an instance of the smooth transition of power from one member of the ruling family to another were not able to withstand challenges to their rule. Oil wealth translates into the means to buy off the population or pay for its repression, while smooth hereditary succession indicates the military’s loyalty to the executive.

Between 2010 and 2012, either oil wealth or hereditary rule were sufficient to preserve authoritarian regimes, unless outside powers intervened. This explains why Qadhafi’s regime fell in Libya, despite significant oil wealth. Libya’s regime change was imposed by foreign powers, and the analysis suggests that absent the NATO-directed Operation Unified Protector, Qadhafi would have survived.

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