Book Review: Inside the Arab State by Mehran Kamrava

In his latest book, Inside the Arab State, Mehran Kamrava joins others who are still looking to interpret the Arab Spring that began in 2010-2011and to decipher its one success in Tunisia and many failures elsewhere. The book is well-researched and expertly written. It tries to explain the dynamics of the Arab state and how it fared during the uprisings. As a professor and the director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s Doha campus, Dr. Kamrava has vast experience and is well-situated to provide incisive analysis of the intricate details of power and rule in the Arab world.

Inside the Arab State provides the reader with an inside look at state-society relations in the Arab world and how the Arab state maneuvers to accommodate its citizens or challenge their demands. As Kamrava writes, the book focuses “on the institutional makeup and composition of Arab states and how they sought to establish coercive and ‘ideological apparatuses’ enabling them to rule over society” (p. 2). Using historical institutionalism as a heuristic device, he posits that “critical junctures” pervade the life of states and their institutions. In the Arab world, he argues, “…critical junctures provide a window of opportunity for state leaders to craft institutions and institutional arrangements that enable them to rule over society” (p. 3).

Influencing how Arab leaders dealt with the Arab Spring are two interrelated dynamics concerning the life of institutions and the capacity of states to use them to control their societies. One is that institutions mature on their own when performing their functions despite state leaders’ agency and power. The other is that an inevitable gap develops between a state’s coercive capacity and its ideological apparatuses. When the latter suffer from poor legitimacy and lethargy, coercion becomes necessary as a tool for control, as is evident in the use of police services and the armed forces. Kamrava suggests that these two interrelated dynamics were at the heart of how the Arab Spring developed, how the states dealt with it, and how some uprisings had completely different outcomes from others.

As one of the “critical junctures” in Arab history, Kamrava sees the Arab Spring as an overdue outgrowth of frustrated social movements inspired “by demands for the rights of citizenship” (p. 44). These movements were classified according to three result-governed categories. The first category comprises those movements that were co-opted by the state and fizzled early on, like the protests in Morocco and Jordan in the first few months of 2011. The second points to movements that succeeded in toppling entrenched autocrats—for example, in Tunisia and Egypt at the beginning of 2011—when the state’s coercive apparatuses decided not to protect the leaders. The third category is where the state confronted activists with violence and brutality because its coercive tools remained loyal to the leadership, as happened in Bahrain and is still ongoing in Syria.

Inside the Arab State is composed of an introductory chapter laying out the question the author seeks to explore and the argument he proposes and five chapters on states and their institutions as well as their relationships to their societies. Chapter 2 contains the author’s theoretical analysis of states and institutions, proposing that these have an initial phase, a consolidation phase, and a correction phase to address problems of growth. In the Arab world, Kamrava accurately contends, a fourth phase began roughly in the 1980s and 1990s in which the Arab state developed an unshakable institutional atrophy that entrenched an authoritarian mode of governance, and this carried it to the threshold of the 2010-2011 uprisings.

Chapter 3 examines how the initial protests––which appeared uncoordinated and spontaneous at the beginning––became revolutions and political acts that occurred at a time of institutional weakness in the states of the uprisings. Chapter 4 looks at the ways the Arab state responded to the challenge of the social movements by using the armed forces to control the post-uprising stage and how leaders reimposed their authority. Chapter 5 details how the states and leaders were able to use and preserve the potency of three ideational considerations in state-society relations––those of citizenship, legitimacy, and religion––to perpetuate their rule.

Chapter 6 is devoted to the Arabian Peninsula, made up of what could be considered a most coherent set of Arab states that possess generally common attributes—despite some differences—and which exhibit a universal application of politics and rule dictated by their rentier status. Chapter 7 serves as a concluding summation of the previous material in the book, which is very packed and informative. At 23 pages, the bibliography is a most impressive collection of books, articles, and online tracts that are universally up to date and relevant; however, they end in 2016, presumably when the author began writing the book.

While Inside the Arab State provides a rich, well-reasoned, and cogently structured analysis of state-society relations in the Arab world, Arab institutions, and the Arab Spring, it falls short in two important respects. First, despite examining institutions and their manipulation by Arab leaders, the book does not delve deeply into the machinations of the much-vaunted “deep state” that was able to survive the revolutions of early 2011. The book does not contain much coverage of how the different organs of the repressive Arab state operationally responded, day to day, to the challenge of the Arab Spring. For example, how did the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces arrive at the decision to let President Hosni Mubarak fall? Were there differences of opinion among its members? Was the corporate interest of the armed forces the only paramount concern? These questions and others pertaining to other states’ responses warrant some analysis.

Second, the discussion of economic factors influencing state development and functions was largely absent from those states outside the Arabian Peninsula, although the author provided a good look at the economic interests (or lack thereof) of some military institutions. It is a truism that all Arab states have differing degrees of rentierism––most acutely in the Gulf, Algeria, Libya, and Iraq––that influences how they deal with their societies. Not examining this in more depth in the states that are poor in hydrocarbon resources and depend on aid, workers’ remittances, and loans from international organizations limits the scope of analyzing how they maintain hold on power. Perhaps most important in this respect is the absence of an evaluation of how the rentier states of the Gulf have been able to influence the trajectory of events in their less endowed Arab neighbors such as Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Morocco.

Despite these two shortcomings, Inside the Arab State remains a worthy addition to the literature on the political science and sociology of the Arab world, state-society relations, institutionalism, and comparative government, among others. As political scientists reexamine what spurred the Arab Spring, what it wrought, and how the Arab political order fights change, Kamrava’s book will continue to be a good example of required, informative, and incisive scholarship.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

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