Arab Fractures: Citizens, States, and Social Contracts


Long-standing pillars of the Arab order—authoritarian bargains and hydrocarbon rents—are collapsing as political institutions struggle with the rising demands of growing populations, says a new report from the Carnegie Endowment. Pervasive socioeconomic deficiencies, polarization, and repression have resulted, leading to unprecedented state disintegration, particularly in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, according to Arab Fractures: Citizens, States, and Social Contracts, launched this week by Carnegie’s William J. Burns, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

These forces are in turn fueling massive human displacement and geopolitical power plays. If any semblance of order is to return after the conflicts subside, citizens and states must forge new social contracts that establish accountability and energize systemic political and economic reform.

There is a crisis of trust between governments and citizens. Authoritarian bargains, whereby regimes trade social services and government jobs for citizen quiescence, have fractured. These social contracts began eroding as inflated budgets and bloated bureaucracies could no longer keep up with population growth.


Polarization in Arab societies can be divided into two broad categories.

  • The first is ideological, unfolding between secular and religious forces and exemplified by the differing post-2011 experiences of Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, the military autocracy has attempted to persuade the public to accept the loss of pluralist politics and personal freedoms, in exchange for stability and security. But repressive measures—such as wide-scale human rights abuses, the passing of undemocratically spirited laws, and the unchecked prerogatives of military and security institutions—have exacerbated long-standing social divisions and induced more violence….
  • A second, more virulent, category is political polarization, which has accompanied political turbulence in ethnically and religiously divided societies. A powerful political tool, polarization can provide scapegoats on whom to pin socioeconomic failings and against whom to mobilize core constituencies. In places such as Iraq and Syria, partisan rhetoric has sometimes been radicalized to the point of legitimizing political or sectarian violence, creating fertile ground for extremism and terrorism. The results have varied from an upsurge in communal tensions in Bahrain and Lebanon to civil wars and state collapse in Iraq and Syria. 

While the picture is grim, there are building blocks in place, concludes the report, whose authors include Michele Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:

  • Although human development levels in the Arab world remain lower than in most other regions and some recent gains are being jeopardized by numerous conflicts, the Arab region currently enjoys higher levels of literacy and improvements in women’s educational achievement.
  • Further, despite unrelenting pressure in many Arab countries, civil society has matured considerably, demonstrating that the spirit of the Arab uprisings has not been entirely vanquished—though civic actors have struggled to translate this resilience into political influence. A few countries, particularly Tunisia, and to some extent Morocco, have begun to accept the necessity of updating state-citizen relations. At least some Gulf leaders are beginning to recognize that the old model is fraying, though it remains to be seen if royal families are willing to allow their citizens to play a meaningful role in governance.


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