Albrecht, Holger, ed.: Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Political Opposition under Authoritarianism.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Lassiter, Unna I.
Pub Date: 09/22/2011
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Fall-Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 86 Source Issue: 3-4
Topic: NamedWork: Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Political Opposition Under Authoritarianism (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Albrecht, Holger
Accession Number: 279722817
Full Text: Albrecht, Holger, ed. Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Political Opposition under Authoritarianism. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2010. x + 252 pages. Cloth, $69.95.

Contentious Politics in the Middle East, edited by Holger Albrecht, a political scientist at the American University of Cairo, was published before the protests and toppling of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt but is impossible to read without thinking about what its conclusions can mean for the future of the region. With chapters by junior and senior political scientists, historians, and regional specialists from the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East, this work focuses on authoritarian Arab states where political legitimacy has rested on state stability at almost any cost, and this in countries where large protests have since erupted (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen). The book also covers Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco, but examinations of Palestine and Iraq are absent.

Given that parameter, the book provides a corrective to the perception that Muslim lands are not places of democracy. Its structuralist approach uncovers evidence for why strong opposition parties have not advanced democracy per se in the region, where in fact nation-states have seemed stable. To remain in power, regimes have used deception, repression, and coercion. In response to national and international pressure, they have begrudgingly integrated opposition parties into their political machine. Here Albrecht usefully differentiates between types of political opposition based on their influence and access to power. Middle East governments have also adopted neoliberal economic liberalization projects (e.g., Tunisia's tourism sector). This is not much discussed, which is unfortunate because these projects lulled the international community into hoping that globalization would rapidly improve opportunities in the region. Islamist groups, while effective ideationally, have been pragmatic in their relationship with their respective governments, as explained in Parts Two and Three, and have not challenged them. And the United States has also played a role in fracturing the region's political opposition, by suppressing the Left there during the Cold War and, after 9/11, by pitting secular groups over religious ones through preferential funding (a question remains over the influence of diasporic remittances).

How authoritarian governments negotiate with opposition groups is both the focus and strength of this book. While we have overestimated the extent to which these negotiations may result in democratic progress, it is also true that the opposition too often begins to resemble the governments that 'tolerate' them only because it serves their existential ends. Indeed, today these reforms are deemed as vastly insufficient by some of the countries' citizens whose patience has worn thin. And this is where the value of the book's insights diminishes because it is unlikely that the groups that negotiated with the regimes (and on which the various authors focus) will be given the reins for that very reason, despite the fact that they stand to be the most organizationally ready to govern. It remains to be seen how and to what extent they can reconstitute their political legitimacy and identity to govern, or if others will eclipse them and fill the current power vacuum. Meanwhile, in countries where political power has not been challenged much, we must wait to see how the political opposition is rearticulated anew for power consolidation.

Contentious Politics in the Middle East is meticulously edited and presents thoughtful input from each case study, particularly those by Amin Allal and Florian Kohstall concerning governance in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, and Bassel Salloukh on Lebanon after Syria. Although all signs of revolt were present (and noted across the case studies), few could have predicted the sustained protests that emerged. This book was not written to foretell of this moment, but rather to explain why it had not yet occurred. As such, it provides invaluable insights into the potential new leaders, whether they will operate as rivals (as the authoritarian regimes had orchestrated), or whether their current struggle will help them redefine their national and democratic identity that has eluded them. Although somewhat limited in its focus, this text is richly-layered and a welcome contribution to the study of political and social science on the Middle East.

Unna I. Lassiter, Ph.D.

Instructor of Geography

California State University, Long Beach

Long Beach, California
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