University of Washington

Heydemann Lecture audience

Three years later: Steven Heydemann, U.S. Institute for Peace, discusses authoritarian governance since Arab uprisings


March 5, 2014

In 2011, after the autocratic rulers in four Arab states were ousted (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen) in the midst of popular protests, there was a sense of euphoria, said Steven Heydemann speaking on the topic of “Authoritarian Governance and the Arab State in an Era of Mass Politics.”

Steven HeydemannSince then, however, researchers have begun to ask why the uprisings have resulted in such a “modest harvest” for democracy. The euphoria that followed initial uprisings has been followed by bleaker assessments, he said. Protesters who originally had hopes of freedom now face despair.

Heydemann serves as special advisor for Middle East initiatives at the United States Institute for Peace. His lecture on March 4 at the University of Washington was sponsored by the UW Jackson School of International Studies and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.

Heydemann said the success of the Arab uprisings took many researchers by surprise, including himself. “What can we learn from the protests about the future of governance in the Arab world?” he asked.

Leading up to the uprisings, Heydemann said, protests in countries such as Egypt had increased sharply as early as 2008. But regimes did not respond to escalating grievances. Heydemann said this might have been because of overconfidence in their abilities to suppress and contain protests.

Heydemann chats with studentsAfter 2011, however, Arab states have increased spending on social wealth to help citizens.
Heydemann said two new models of authoritarian governance have emerged since 2011. The first, which he called “A.G. 2.0,” is characterized by sharply restraining civil societies: expanded controls on media and communications technologies, tightened laws concerning media content, and a shift of economic and diplomatic ties away from the West.

The second model, of which Syria is an extreme example, is the emergence of oppressive and exclusionary authoritarian governance. Heydemann sees this model as darker and deeply troubling.

In response to a question about how long the civil war in Syria can continue, Heydemann said there are several factors that are likely that prolong violence in Syria, including:

  1. The regime’s disregard for conventional economic indicators
  2. The regime is receiving supplies from regional allies, including Russia.
  3. The regime has transformed economic management narrowly around sustaining its military efforts

Heydemann with JSIS Director Resat Kasaba“I would not be surprised if we had another decade of conflict,” Heydemann said. He said the average duration of a civil war is about four years and that external interventions can increase duration by 100 to 150 percent.

Another audience member asked if drought in countries such as Syria and Egypt were a destabilizing factor. Heydemann focused on Syria, saying that there was no question that environmental degradation brought environmental refugees to the areas in Syria where the uprising first broke out. “Their difficulty in securing social welfare support from the regime, I think, certainly amplified the sense of alienation and contributed to a willingness to participate in protests. And remember these were initially peaceful protests,” he said.

By Kristina C. Bowman,