The authoritarian state.. The journey of Arab regimes from fragile constitutionalism to violent repression

The playwright “Britold Brecht” has an expressive saying that “the real intellectual is a reflection of the ruptures of his time.” Perhaps this saying is a true expression of the intellectuals and academics whose thesis deals with the historical crisis of the Arab East. Almost simultaneously, between the late eighties to the mid-nineties, under the pressure of the deteriorating reality and the racist orientalist discourses. They came out with the most important books that analyzed the Arab political crisis, after the book “The Arab Ordeal” by “Burhan Ghalioun” and “The Amplification of the Arab State” by Nazih Al-Ayoubi, one of the richest and richest books came out by the Arab thinker and Kuwaiti academic “Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb” under Title “The authoritarian state in the Arab Mashreq“.

Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb is considered one of the most prominent Arab intellectuals and sociologists. He has a number of publications in this field. He lived as a true intellectual concerned with his reality and the issues of his society, rejecting easy answers and employing his true passion for knowledge in the search for the true and deeper roots of the crisis of the East. In his aforementioned book, he explained the structure of the authoritarian state in the Arab Mashreq, and how it weakened development and human life in their societies, which we highlight in the following lines.

Khaldoun Al Naqib

The state in the Arab Mashreq

Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb described the modern political authority in the Arab Mashreq in a new way, as he called it an “authoritarian state” similar to the modernizing state of Burhan Ghalioun. Al-Naqib comments on this, explaining that terms such as “totalitarian state” or “Bonapartism” and other terms are “less accurate descriptions than the authoritarian state we are talking about,” noting that the term Bonapartist state appeared for the first time in the writings of Marx and Engels “to explain the success of Louis Bonaparte. In the formation of a semi-dictatorship state that transformed the conflict from a struggle between classes to a struggle between an authority above the forces of society and between society itself, after the intensification of social conflict in France after the revolution,” a context that is very different from the context in which the Arab authoritarian state appeared.

Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb walks with Burhan Ghalioun a further distance, explaining that he chose the authoritarian state because it differs from the old traditional or pre-modern sultan state, as it is a bureaucratic state in the first place, and derives its legitimacy from its huge organizational capabilities, “that is, from its superior ability to coordinate infrastructures society”, and then exploits that legitimacy and those capabilities to “penetrate civil society, at its various levels and institutions, and make it an extension of its authority, thus achieving a monopoly on the sources of power and authority in the public space, and this is the essence of authoritarian rule.”

In the introduction to the book, we also see a similarity between Al-Naqeeb and Nazih Al-Ayyubi in their tendency to deal with the colonial moment as a foundational moment for the political problem in the Arab Mashreq. It was largely the result of a disjointed political process imposed from the outside.” This is what we find credible in Khaldoun when he refers to “the Arab society’s inability to establish the modern democratic state, due to the irrational development that required its formation…, so it became a distorted model for the modern bureaucratic state as it is in the West.” .

Against the background of this theoretical foundation, Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb begins to explore the roots of the emergence of the authoritarian state in the Arab Mashreq, in Egypt, the Levant, and Iraq, to ​​present an analytical narrative that divides the history of the Levant into two main eras: First, the revolutionary period beginning in 1916, and secondly, the stage of the collapse of civil rule and the beginning of Military rule that began in the middle of the last century.

The revolutionary stage of the Arab East

Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb begins with what he called the revolutionary stage, which began in 1916 when the peoples of the Arab Mashreq revolted against the “Ottoman tyranny” during the Great Arab Revolt, inaugurating a revolutionary era that included the major countries of the Levant, Egypt, the Levant and Iraq. The Syrian people in the same year called for the national conference that declared independence in March 1920, in addition to the Iraqi people’s revolution in July 1920.”

These revolutions came to open the horizons of modern civil mobility in the Arab Mashreq, where the main motive for their outbreak was the call for independence, the right to self-determination, and the establishment of representative constitutional monarchies. These demands ranged from the call for decentralized federal rule to political and legal reform and modernization under the Ottoman Sultanate, as was evident in the first Arab conference in 1913, and then ended with national independence and representative constitutional governments.

These modern political demands were the embodiment of the projects of living social forces with their own perceptions of themselves and their interests, namely the notable category of large landowners and merchants from the local population of the regions of the Arab East. This group had a constitutional liberal orientation, liberal in that it sees the state as a group of objective technical and legal institutions that represent its interests as a local social force that pays taxes. Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb describes this group, saying: “In Egypt, they were in the National Party and then in the Wafd Party, after the momentum gained by the process of Egyptianization of large agricultural property in the countryside (who were in the process of turning into feudal lords), honorary officers, city merchants and notables belonging to The Covenant Party, the National Party and the Ennahda Party.In Syria, they emerged from among the merchants of Damascus and Aleppo in particular, and the landowners in other regions of the honorary officers.And constitutional because, in its struggle with the remnants of the sultan’s rule (the Ottoman and the Khedive) it took upon itself the task of forming a social contract between the political and executive authority and among the local population, not as subjects, but as free citizens with a right to political representation.

However, this liberal constitutional orientation was born in a crisis. Because the social forces that stood behind this trend were exhausted in their struggle with the traditional autocratic monarchy regimes over the constitution and democracy on the one hand, and with the colonial powers over national independence on the one hand. At the same time, its class and social boundaries deprived it of resolving the conflict on any front, as these struggles contributed to these forces’ ignoring the social problems that began to explode rapidly in the first half of the twentieth century, when they distracted them from the growing class differences and the reality of the concentration of wealth and power. In their hands, and on issues of social justice, and it seemed that the social forces that advocated the constitution and independence were complicit with the status quo, as it appeared in the Wafd’s experience and the decline in its popularity in the aftermath of World War II.

With the accumulation of the crisis, the civil constitutional liberal forces emerged as a class independent of the concerns of the general public in the Arab Mashreq, and the political field became in the eyes of the masses of the East, as described by Eugene Rogan, a Pashawati political field (from “Pashawat”, plural “Pasha”), which It hastened the disintegration and division of the political class itself, and the increase in polarization among its members, which led to the failure of the constitutional liberal trend, and the erosion of its legitimacy as a system of government and a social contract between the authority and society, but the most important failure was the failure of the liberal project as a national independence project, and that was the most dangerous point at this stage. From the history of the Arab East.

The turning point that deepened from the crisis of constitutional liberalism was the alliance of large sectors from within the ruling political class with colonialism and Western capitalist interests over time, then the defeat of the Arab armies in the Palestine War in 1948, which accelerated the judgment of the liberal experience in the Arab Mashreq with death, and opened the door Faced with the rise of the new revolutionary trend that eliminated civil rule in the Levant.

The demise of civil rule

The stage in which Eastern societies live, according to what Al-Naqeeb wrote at the time of the book’s publication in the early nineties, is characterized by the dominance of armies or the military over the political system. This resulted in the difficulty of building a state based on institutions and principles of democracy, and thus a new type of tyranny emerged based on the authoritarian bureaucratic state. Civil rule collapsed in the Arab Mashreq all at once, as military coups continued in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Syria against the previously existing quasi-constitutional forms of civil rule, but this movement did not come from a vacuum.

The new social forces supporting those coups were the rising middle classes in the Arab Mashreq who saw the Nasserist and Baathist military regimes as an expression of their interests and desires. The coups that seized power belonged most of their officers to the middle class, and most of them are of rural origin. In the end, these revolutions of authoritarian statism triumphed over the constitutional liberal trend, the countryside over the city, and the government that interferes in the lives of its citizens over the government that limits its powers.

Governments formed by military coups took measures to reclaim land, and carried out reforms that contributed to the creation of new classes, and at the same time, the liquidation of agricultural feudalism and the large capitalist aristocracy, and the expansion of the bureaucratic and administrative apparatus and control of all political and economic activities under national and progressive slogans and policies aimed at achieving security, stability and justice Social.

But things did not stop there, Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb says: “But it quickly became clear that these slogans were false, and that their implicit goal was not only to justify their seizure of power, but also to liquidate all constitutional and democratic institutions in the country, and it became clear that the military institution did not derive its legitimacy. From a great popular support when it came to power in the Arab countries, however, its arrival left people satisfied and accepting, as they wanted to achieve development in its various dimensions after the failure of liberal forces to achieve any progress.

These radical and progressive policies themselves were the founding moment of the authoritarian state, according to Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb, as it became clear that the military regimes were unable to achieve security and stability due to the flaw in the military’s vision, which sought to strengthen the state’s intervention on a large scale in the economy and society, and kill the creative spirit of society civil; This made the state hostile to the forces of society itself, and fueled a state of implicit and overt violence.

The new military elite developed a vision that “the reason for the loss of security and instability… is the multiplicity of opinions, the different tendencies and the proliferation of parties and organizations…. Therefore, in order for security and stability to be achieved, the parties must be dissolved, and if they must exist, they will be gradually stifled and stifled, in the interest of the ruling party.” Or the organization supported by the military. The result of that disastrous vision was the elimination of democratic freedoms and constitutional guarantees in the Arab countries and popular control, and then the establishment of political regimes as authoritarian regimes.

The fifties and sixties of the last century constituted a watershed and tragic stage in modern Arab history. Arab armies and bureaucracies succeeded in achieving great victories at the expense of civil society in the Arab Mashreq. First, through full military control over the power structures within the state, and the use of the organized power of the state and its administrative and organizational legitimacy to eliminate all political organizations, then control over other sources of power represented in trade unions and other professional federations; This led to an extremely cruel monopoly on all sources of power and wealth, and the formation of a legal arsenal that serves its interests, especially after expanding the public sector, curtailing the private sector, and canceling individual initiatives.

Khaldoun explains that it was this defining stage that established in the mind of the Arab man that “military coups were not a temporary phenomenon,” and that the authoritarian military regimes had a single goal, which is the need to reproduce their legitimacy by adopting the policies of the state of exception and working to dismantle civil and civil society more than Its reliance on strengthening the power of society to reinforce the rules of the state, rather than authoritarianism.

In the end, that authoritarian state in conflict with its society failed to build solid and sustainable political institutions with real social roots, and opened tragic and catastrophic paths for the future of Arab Mashreq societies, including corruption, nepotism, military defeats, repression and torture in prisons, and manipulation of the lines of ethnic and sectarian divisions. This fate was merciful to Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb. He passed away in mid-2011 before he saw that authoritarian state become more ferocious in the face of the revolutions of its society in an unprecedented way.



  1. The Authoritarian State in the Arab Mashreq, Khaldoun Al-Naqib, Center for Arab Unity Studies.
  2. The Problem of State Modernization in the Arab Mashreq “A Reading of Theoretical Literature”, The Arab Democratic Center.
  3. The Arabs: A History , Eugene Rogan, Basic Books.

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