FEATURED ARTICLE by JILLIAN SCHWEDLER
The idea that Arab monarchies enjoy greater legitimacy and stability than their neighbours should finally be put to rest
The idea that Arab monarchies enjoy greater legitimacy and stability than their republican neighbours should finally be put to rest. Protests in Jordan, Morocco, and Bahrain may not have yet reached the scale of those in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria, but the weekly gatherings have persisted for months and promise to not go away any time soon. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman have also seen protests and are likely to see more in the coming months.
The notion of monarchical exceptionalism rests on two premises, only one of which has any basis in reality. The first premise is that monarchies that allow for some degree of political participation – notably Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait – can tolerate a much broader space for legal political dissent than can the authoritarian republics precisely because they do not have to pretend that their authority to rule stems from electoral victories.
The failed regimes of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Saleh, like the floundering one of Assad, were forced to go to extraordinary lengths to “win” elections that reaffirmed their popular support. Of course no citizen of these repressive regimes believed that these victories were real. But the electoral farce was needed to maintain the pretence of popular support, and that required that opposition groups – whether legalised as parties or operating independently – were consistently repressed through tactics ranging from electoral engineering and ballot-box stuffing, to massive arrests and imprisonment, to the assassination of the leaders of competing parties (notably the assassination attempts on hundreds of Yemeni Socialist Party leaders in the early 1990s).
Monarchies, by comparison, can allow opposition groups to flourish as long as elections can be engineered to produce pro-regime assemblies (even though those parliaments have little real power to legislate). Indeed, promoting pluralist political spheres has worked as a means for monarchs to monitor as well as channel opposition forces.
While far from meaningful democratic spaces, the spheres of political opposition were significantly more tolerated in Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait than they were in any of the republics.
The second and false premise is that monarchies enjoy a greater degree of legitimacy than did the single-party republican regimes, particularly when they claim their authority to rule on religious grounds (direct blood descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad) rather than on spurious electoral victories. As a result, Muslims must necessarily accept the legitimacy of their rule.
This argument has found renewed life among pundits and some academics, and is a favourite of the Obama administration, which is eager to find reasons to defend its support of the Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other monarchies. But how do we know legitimacy when we see it?
In autocratic settings, we have good reason to suspect that popular expressions of adoration of the ruler are motivated by self preservation – to fend off the attention of repressive security apparatuses and government officials whose job is to ferret out all political dissent. We certainly didn’t believe that Saddam was as beloved as Iraqis expressed while he was in power, so why should we conclude that the same about the authoritarian monarchies whose repression has been well documented? We should not, as there simply is no evidence that these monarchies really enjoy broad popular support.
Protests in these kingdoms are met with pro-regime counter-protests, to be sure, but these crowds remain small. Even if we believe that pro-regime crowds really adore their monarchs and accept the legitimacy of their rule, it is notable that these counter-protesters often have to be manufactured and brought in for the occasion.
Even the carefully crafted narratives put forth by the regimes are crumbling. Jordan’s King Hussein did enjoy a degree of popular support, but King Abdullah and Queen Rania have been the subject of widespread criticism and contempt from day one. As the king toured the country last week following the pomp celebrations of Army Day, Coronation Day, and the anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt, the crowds in the supposedly loyalist city of Tafileh greeted the king’s motorcade with rocks and bottles, rather than with roses and blown kisses.
Transjordanian Tafileh, with no Palestinian population to speak of, has long been viewed as part of the regime’s traditional base of support. But with more to lose than Jordan’s majority second-class Palestinian population, Transjordanians have long been at the forefront of dissent in the kingdom. So far Jordanian protesters have not been calling for an end to the monarchy, but the ongoing protests, combined with the attack on the royal motorcade, leaves little room for the claim that the monarchy enjoys widespread popular legitimacy.
Protests in the region’s monarchies have been persistent, and not always limited in scope. With few isolated exceptions, protesters there have not been calling for an end to the monarchies, but that probably has little to do with popular support for the ruling families than concerns about what the alternatives might look like or the regimes’ unwillingness to go down without a fight, particularly given that the wealthy Gulf monarchies would likely provide considerable support. Jordanians and Moroccans may dream of following the paths forged by Tunisians and Egyptians, but they certainly fear even more the current fates of their neighbours in Yemen, Libya, and Syria. This explains the reluctance to call for the overthrow of the monarchies, but it would be foolish to conclude that those calls will never emerge. The political map of the entire region is irreversibly changing, and no one wants to be entirely left behind.
And the monarchs are clearly panicking, as they should be. The Gulf Cooperation Council (of Sunni monarchies) is seeking to expand its membership to the non-Gulf monarchies of Morocco and Jordan (what, no invitation to Yemen, despite its far greater proximity to the Gulf than either Morocco or Jordan?). Jordan has already sent troops to Bahrain to help quell the (Shia) protests there. But more importantly, this week saw back-to-back announcements from Morocco’s King Muhammad VI and Jordan’s King Abdullah announcing significant (if limited) expansions of powers to the popularly elected parliaments. The monarchs – all of them – have gotten the memo, they just need to heed it: everything is on the table, and superficial reforms will no longer suffice. No regime is immune from demand for substantive change, meaningful representation, and greater dignity for the quarter million people in the region. Monarchies, get thee on the right side of history.
Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Faith in ‘Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen’ (Cambridge 2006).