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Opposition in the Middle East and North Africa*

  • Jean Leca


ONE OF THE VERY RARE OVERVIEWS OF OPPOSITION IN THE ARAB states was published by Professor Lisa Anderson in 1987. The very title set the tone: ‘Lawless Government and Illegal Opposition’ (emphases mine), as well as the opening quotation, ‘A government which is not beholden to any law ceases to be legitimate’, by the famous Sayyid Qutb, one of the prophets of radical Islam (as it came to be named) who was executed by Nasser's government. Opposition was meant to combat a tyrant (a lawless government meaning an unjust government, unjust because disregarding the laws and the religious Law) and to restore Justice, Law and Order. Admittedly, Professor Anderson's purpose was much broader: she would stress the close relationship between the exercise of political power, and particularly the modern state as the organizational framework of political life (the independent variable, so to speak) and, on the other hand, opposition as a response or reaction to the state and the government.



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1 Anderson, Lisa, ‘Lawless Government and Illegal Opposition: Reflections on the Middle East’, Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 40, No. 2, Spring 1987, pp. 219–32.

2 On Sayyid Qutb see for example: Yvonne Haddad., ‘Sayyid Qutb, Ideologue of Islamic Revival’, in Esposito, J. (ed.), Voices of Resurgent Islam, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983, pp. 6798; Olivier Carré, Mystique et Politique. Lecture révolutionnaire du Coran par Sayyid Qutb, Frère musulman radical, Paris, Presses de la FNSP/Editions du Cerf, 1984; and Ahmad Moussalli., Radical Islamic Fundamentalism. The Ideological and Political Discourse of Sayyid Qutb, Beirut, American University of Beirut, 1992.

3 Gellner, Ernest, Conditions of Liberty. Civil Society and its Rivals, London, Penguin Books, 1996, pp. 22–3.

4 That does not mean that the opposition turns to underground, and usually violent, activity faute de mieux because every other avenue is closed: this widely shared Whiggish view (so persistent within the Western academic communities) simply overlooks the fact that some oppositional groups (albeit not all) may share in the same outlook as the hated rulers as to what politics consists of. This may explain why the same forces that unleash social upsurges and are conducive to social mobilization, thus leading to a (provisional?) democratic opening, could prove to be a hindrance to that very solution since they may also prevent stable democratic practices from taking root. ( Hudson, Michael, ‘After the Gulf War: Prospects for Democratization in the Arab World’, The Middle East Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer, 1991, pp. 407–26). That may lead to the vicious circle of authoritarian repression, supported by some democrats, to block the anticipated victory of a popular opposition suspected of being undemocratic (on this, and other dilemmas see Leca, Jean, ‘Democratization in the Arab World: Uncertainty, Vulnerability and Legitimacy. A Tentative Conceptualization and Some Hypotheses’ in Ghassan Salamé (ed.), Democracy without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World, London, Tauris, 1994, pp. 4884).

5 Tilly, Charles, ‘War Making and State Making as an Organized Crime’ in Peter Evans. et al. (eds), Bringing the State Back In, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

6 See the elegant yet embarrassed assessment of Eickelmann, and Piscatori, Dale James, ‘A Changing Political Geography’, Muslim Politics, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1996, ch. 6.

7 As did Roy, Olivier (in the title of his book, rather than in his argument), Olivier Roy., L’échec de l’islam politique, Paris, Le Seuil, 1993.

8 See Salamé, Ghassan (ed.), op. cit, 1994.

9 For a very careful and useful analysis of the contextual meanings of ‘fundamentalism’ see Arjomand, Saïd Amir,‘Unity and Diversity in Islamic Fundamentalism’ in Marty Martin. and Scott Appleby (eds), Fundamentalism Comprehended, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1995 and Kramer, , ‘Islamist Notions of Democracy’ in Beinin, Gudrun Joël and Stork, Joe (eds), Political Islam. Essays from Middle East Report, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997, pp. 7182.

10 Anderson, Lisa, op.cit, p. 229.

11 A word of warning is in order here: most of the so‐called ‘secular’ rulers adhered (and most of the time with the utmost candour and sincerity) to the idea that Islam is the common culture of the ‘Arab nation’; besides, that a good society is a Muslim society where good Muslims practise their faith and abide by the (religious) Law (understood as a principle of interpretation and not, or not always, as a positive law). Their real ‘secularism’ (what their Islamicist foes called ‘clandestine secularism’) was that they did not feel bound to consult religious clerics in the rule‐making process and that the reverse should take place (the clerics and religious intellectuals should consult the political elites before issuing a public statement about public affairs). Thus they paved the way for both an authoritarian political process where all authorities should follow the rulers’ guidance, and an autonomization of the sphere of ‘legislative politics’ (and not only ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘palace politics’ which had always been largely autonomous) to the extent that the rule‐making activity was the province of rulers, qua rulers (‘the power of the sword’) and was not entrusted to men with superior religious knowledge or piety (‘the power of the pen’ or of ‘the saints’) which could lead to the recognition that rule‐making could be the province of citizens, qua citizens (and not law‐abiding believers) since after all autonomous rulers are (logically) opposed by autonomous citizens.

12 See Belaid, , ‘Role of Religious Institutions in Support of the State’ in Dawisha, Adeed and William, I. Zartman, Sadok (eds), Beyond Coercion: the Durability of the Arab State, London, Groom Helm, 1988; and Azmeh, Aziz Al, ‘Wahhabite Polity’, Islams and Modernities, London, Verso, 1993. On the role and rhetoric of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, between subservience, advice, rebuke and rebellion, see Madawi Al‐Rasheed, ‘God, the King and the Nation: Political Rhetoric in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s’, Middle East Journal, Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer 1996, pp. 359–71 and ‘La couronne et le turban: l’Etat saoudien à la recherche d’une nouvelle légitimité’ in Basma Kodmani‐Darwish and May Chartouni‐Dubarry, Les Etats arabes face à la contestation islamiste, Paris, Masson/IFRI, 1997; and Hrair Dekmejian., ‘The Rise of Political Islamism in Saudi Arabia’, Middle East Journal, Vol. 48, No. 4, 1994, pp. 627–44.

13 The points are emphasized by Gellner, Ernest, Muslim Society, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981, and Zubeida, Sami, Islam, the People and the State, London, Tauris, 1993.

14 Anderson, Lisa, op.cit., pp. 232 and 229–30.

15 For a brief and excellent exposé of the various brands of orientalism in politics see Sadowski, Yahya, ‘The New Orientalism and Democracy’ in Beinin and Stork, op. cit., pp. 3350.

16 These oppositions have not disappeared, especially when they are backed by strong ‘ethnic’ groups (Kurdistan, Southern Sudan, Algerian Kabylia), but in most of the cases they do not shape the political space as used to be so with the Iraqi communists (in 1964–65 and 1979–80), the Tunisian ‘Ben Salahists’ (in 1969–70), the Sudanese communists (in 1971), the Saudi Nasserists in 1969, etc.

17 The lack of cohesion of the Islamist and Shi’a opposition in a context heavily dominated by Syria accounts for the coexistence within a single organization of totalitarian principles of organization and participation in electoral politics (As’ad Abu Khalil, ‘Ideology and Practice of Hizbollah in Lebanon: Islamization of Leninist Organizational Principle’, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, 1991 and Assaf Kfoury., ‘Hizb Allah and the Lebanese State’ in Beinin and Stork, op. cit., pp. 136–43). There is nothing new in such a pattern, actually.

18 Kedourie, Elie, Politics in the Middle East, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, ch. 6.

19 Ghassan Salamé, ‘Sur la causalité d’un manque. Pourquoi le monde arabe n’estil donc pas démocratique?’, Revue Française de Science Politique, Vol. 41, No. 3, 1991, p. 339.

20 It is worth recalling that in 1929 King Ibn Saud disbanded the Ikhwan, the military religious brotherhood of Bedouin warriors and defeated the radical elements with the help of the Royal Air Force.

21 The assassin of King Faisal and numerous pro‐Iraqi enemies of the king were linked to the Shammar tribes who fought against the current dynasty until the 1930s. The ‘Nasserian’ Union of People of the Arab Peninsula was an organization almost exclusively tied to these tribes. Ghassan Salamé, ‘Political Power and the Saudi State’ in Berberoglu, B. (ed.), Power and Stability in the Middle East, London, Zed Books, 1989, pp. 7089.

22 Salamé, Ghassan, ‘Sur la causalité d’un manque…’, op.cit., 1991, p. 333.

23 Linz, and Stepan, Alfred Juan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. Southern Europe, South America and Post‐Communist Europe, London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, p. 272.

24 Juan Linz. and Alfred Stepan., ibid., Table 1.1. 14.

25 In Lebanese domestic politics, Hizbollah has proved to be less violent and more accommodating than the Algerian groups on either side.

26 William Zartman, I., ‘Opposition as Support of the State’ in Dawisha and Zartman, op. cit., 1988, pp. 6187.

27 Norton, Augustus Richard (ed.), Civil Society in the Middle East, 2 Vols, Leiden, Brill, 1995.

28 Moore, Pete W., ‘The International Context of Liberalization and Democratization in the Arab World’, Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1994, pp. 4366.

29 Hinnebusch, Raymond, ‘State and Civil Society in Syria’, Middle East Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring 1993.

30 Perthes, Volker, ‘Economic Liberalization and the Prospects of Democratization: The Case of Syria and Some Other Arab Countries’ in Ghassan Salamé (ed.), Democracy Without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World, op. cit., pp. 243–69; and Hinnebusch, Raymond, ‘State, Society and Political Change in Syria’ in Augustus Richard Norton (ed.), Civil Society in the Middle East, op. cit., Vol. 20.

31 Henry, Clement M.,The Mediterranean Debt Crescent – Money and Power in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1996.

32 Layne, Linda L., Home and Homeland: The Dialogues of Tribal and National Identities in Jordan, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1994.

33 Norton, Augustus Richard, ‘The Future of Civil Society in the Middle East’, Middle East Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1993.

34 Friedrich, Carl, Man and its Government, New York, McGraw Hill, 1963, p. 57.

35 I am drawing on the fast‐growing literature on ‘governance’. See for example, among many others, Kooiman, Jan (ed.), Modern Governance, New Government – Society Interactions, London, Sage, 1993 and James March. and Johan P. Olsen, Democratic Governance, New York, Free Press, 1995.

36 The various ontologies underlying this political theory are explored in Mansbridge, Jane, Beyond Adversary Democracy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983 and Beyond Self Interest, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990.

37 The main differences between the liberal constitutional view and the Islamic constitutional one lie first in the problem of established religion when religion is perceived as constitutive of the political community (‘Islam is the religion of the State’) and as embodying a specific positive law; secondly in the identification of lawful ‘minorities’ (are non‐Muslims protected communities or equal citizens part of the demos and how about the ‘renegades’?) and the meaning of a ‘political community’.

38 On the Syrian process, see Alain Chouet., ‘L’espace tribal alaouite à l’épreuve du pouvoir. La desintegration par la politique’, Maghreb‐Machrek, Vol. 47, Jan.‐March 1995, who insists on the dual strategy of the Syrian rulers, maintaining this ‘tribal’ alawi asabiyah in the higher circles and dissolving the other communities by cutting their members off from their now powerless traditional elites and ‘equalizing’ their resources. This interesting mixture of tribal and patrimonial rules accounts for the lack of effective opposition to the Syrian regime (apart from the Islamist opposition, of course). This analysis draws heavily on the framework provided by Michel Seurat., L’état de barbarie, Paris, Le Seuil, 1989.

39 Michaud, Jacob Black, Cohesive Force. Feud in Mediterranean Societies, Oxford, Blackwell, 1975. Opposition may even be tolerated outside as in the makhzen–siba model where the ‘dissenters’ (from the territory of siba) who do not pay taxes and do not recognize the authority of the ruler still consider they belong to the same umma as the people from the makhzen (incorporated into, and submitted to, the coercive authority of the Palace).

40 Silvia Tellenbach., ‘La chum dans les nouveaux règlements des Etats du Golfe’ in Hervé Bleuchot (ed.), Les institutions traditionnelles dans le monde arabe, Paris, Karthala/IREMAM, 1996.

41 Rosenthal, Erwin I. J., Islam in the Modern National State, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1967.

42 Al‐Haj, Abdullah Juma, ‘The Politics of Participation in the Gulf Cooperation Council States: The Omani Consultative Council’, Middle East journal, Vol. 50, No. 4, Autumn 1996, pp. 559–71.

43 Bendor, Gabriel, ‘Political Culture Approach to Middle East Politics’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, 01 1977.

44 Lisa Anderson., ‘Democracy in the Arab World: A Critique of the Political Culture Approach’ in Rex Brynen, Bahgat Khorany and Paul Noble (eds), Political Liberalization and Democratizaton in the Arab World. Volume I. Theoretical Perspectives, Boulder, Colo., Lynne Rienner, 1995, pp. 77–92.

45 Antoun, Richard, Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1989.

46 On Yemen, currently one of the most fascinating cases since it displays plurality, strong but imperfect asabiyahs, stalemate of forces and ideological thrusts, see Dresch, , ‘The Tribal Factor in the Yemeni Crisis’ in Jamal, S. Al Suwaidi, Paul (ed.), The Yemeni War of 1994. Causes and Consequences, London, Sage, 1995, pp. 3355; Paul Dresch. and Haykei, Bernard, ‘Stereotypes and Political Styles: Islamists and Tribesfolks in Yemen’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4, November 1995; and Franck Mermier., ‘L’Islam politique au Yemen ou “la Tradition” contre les traditions?’, Maghreb‐Machrek, Vol. 155, Jan.‐March 1997.

47 Peck, Malcom C., ‘Eastern Arabian States: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman’ in David Long. and Bernard Reich, (eds), The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, Boulder, Colo., Westview Press, 1995, p. 140.

48 Crystal, Jill Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 167.

49 For an overview, see Roger Owen., ‘The Practice of Electoral Democracy in the Arab East and North Africa: Some Lessons from nearly a Century’s Experience’ in Ellis Goldberg, Resat Kesaba and Migdal, Joel S. (eds), Rules and Rights in the Middle East – Democracy, Law and Society, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1993.

50 Luciani, Giacomo, ‘The Oil Rent, the Fiscal Crisis and the State’ in Salamé, 1994, op. cit., pp. 130–55.

51 Moore, Pete W., op. cit.

52 Dekmedjian, Hrair, op. cit., p. 632.

53 Waterbury, John, ‘Democracy Without Democrats? The Potential for Political Liberalization in the Middle East’ in Salamé, 1994, op. cit., p. 29.

54 Heydemann, Steven, ‘Taxation Without Representation. Authoritarianism and Economic Liberalization in Syria’ in Goldberg, Ellis, Kesaba, Resat, Midgdal, Joel S., (eds), Rules and Rights in the Middle East, op. cit.

55 Al Sayyed, Mustafa Kamil: ‘A Civil Society in Egypt?’, Middle East journal, Vol. 97, No. 2, Spring 1995 and ‘The Concept of Civil Society and the Arab World’ in Brynen, Rex, Khorany, Bahgat and Noble, Paul, 1995, op. cit., pp. 151–47.

56 Representatives (MPs) may play the role of the religious establishment, i.e. defend their constituency, smooth things over, petition, etc., which is not insignificant.

* I am very grateful to Loulouwa Talal, PhD Student in Political Science at the Paris IEP, for gathering the necessary primary and bibliographical material.

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Opposition in the Middle East and North Africa*

  • Jean Leca


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