United They Stand? A Study of Authoritarian Responses during the Arab Spring

Julien Morency-Laflamme and Anja Brunner

Abstract: This article seeks to analyse why mass protests during the Arab Spring of 2010 did not always result in the toppling of authoritarian leaders and why in some cases it actually led to the reinforcement of certain authoritarian regimes. In attempting to understand this puzzle, most scholars have concentrated on the impact of populist movements but have overlooked the importance of the incumbent regime’s divisions and the character of its relationship with opposition forces. Drawing on O’Donnell and Schmitter’s theory on transitions “from above”, this research demonstrates that authoritarian responses to mass protests were conditioned by the existence of divisions within the ruling circle itself. We argue that the only transitions to culminate in the establishment of an electoral democracy were those in which mass protests succeeded in provoking rifts between softliners and hardliners within the authoritarian elites and in which pro-reform forces subsequently negotiated new rules of governance with opposition forces. We also distinguish between latent crisis, when tensions within the regime exist but are contained, and overt crisis, when the unity of the ruling bloc is broken. We demonstrate our hypothesis by comparing events in Bahrain and in Egypt, two cases that led to very different political patterns and outcomes following the emergence of popular protest movements. In the case of Egypt, soft-liners managed to get the upper hand and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was toppled, while in Bahrain the monarchy could count on the support of a majority of the ruling class that was largely opposed to political liberalization and ready to quell the opposition coalition.

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