The end of Arab monarchical exceptionalism

Jillian Schwedler writes:

The idea that Arab monarchies enjoy greater legitimacy and stability than their republican neighbours should finally be put to rest. Protests in Jordan, Morocco, and Bahrain may not have yet reached the scale of those in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria, but the weekly gatherings have persisted for months and promise to not go away any time soon. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Oman have also seen protests and are likely to see more in the coming months.

The notion of monarchical exceptionalism rests on two premises, only one of which has any basis in reality. The first premise is that monarchies that allow for some degree of political participation – notably Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait – can tolerate a much broader space for legal political dissent than can the authoritarian republics precisely because they do not have to pretend that their authority to rule stems from electoral victories.

The failed regimes of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Saleh, like the floundering one of Assad, were forced to go to extraordinary lengths to “win” elections that reaffirmed their popular support. Of course no citizen of these repressive regimes believed that these victories were real. But the electoral farce was needed to maintain the pretence of popular support, and that required that opposition groups – whether legalised as parties or operating independently – were consistently repressed through tactics ranging from electoral engineering and ballot-box stuffing, to massive arrests and imprisonment, to the assassination of the leaders of competing parties (notably the assassination attempts on hundreds of Yemeni Socialist Party leaders in the early 1990s).

Monarchies, by comparison, can allow opposition groups to flourish as long as elections can be engineered to produce pro-regime assemblies (even though those parliaments have little real power to legislate). Indeed, promoting pluralist political spheres has worked as a means for monarchs to monitor as well as channel opposition forces.

While far from meaningful democratic spaces, the spheres of political opposition were significantly more tolerated in Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait than they were in any of the republics.

The second and false premise is that monarchies enjoy a greater degree of legitimacy than did the single-party republican regimes, particularly when they claim their authority to rule on religious grounds (direct blood descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad) rather than on spurious electoral victories. As a result, Muslims must necessarily accept the legitimacy of their rule.

This argument has found renewed life among pundits and some academics, and is a favourite of the Obama administration, which is eager to find reasons to defend its support of the Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other monarchies. But how do we know legitimacy when we see it?

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