The demise of the Arab strongman?

Authoritarianism and the future of the Middle East

Authored by: Pietro Marzo , Francesco Cavatorta

Routledge Handbook of International Relations in the Middle East

Print publication date:  April  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9780415317283
eBook ISBN: 9781315229591
Adobe ISBN:


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The figure of the Arab strongman is often associated with the political culture of the region and has been central to explanations for the resilience of authoritarianism despite processes of democratization taking place across the globe since the mid-1970s. The Arab uprisings have challenged both the paradigm of authoritarian resilience and the grip of the strongmen on political power. The demise of a number of Arab regimes seemed to highlight that ordinary Arab citizens had finally seen the merits of democratic governance and had eschewed their reliance on firm authoritarian leadership. Post-uprising politics, however, did not lead to the democratic promised land, and the figure of the strongman has since reappeared forcefully. In some countries, the strongman never left the scene, in some others it made a comeback following a period of democratic instability, and in others both domestic and international forces still hope for its emergence in order to end civil conflicts. This chapter reflects on the resilience of authoritarianism in the Arab world and how it links with arguments about the necessity of strongmen to rule over complex and divided societies. At the heart of the chapter is the examination of an interesting paradox. On the one hand, surveys and empirical studies suggest that ordinary Arab citizens have a very favorable opinion of democracy and believe that democratic governance is the best system to solve the socio-economic problems facing their countries. On the other hand, the same citizens believe that security concerns can only be dealt with through the strong hand of a ruler. In addition, international pressure also periodically shifts from supporting democracy to buttressing strongmen, complicating the domestic game even further.

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