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In the early twentieth century a paradigm of authoritarian resilience – or ‘Arab exceptionalism’ – displaced the teleological march toward democracy prophesied by transitologists. However, the uprisings starting December 2010 necessitated a drastic reassessment of the applicability of theories of regime transition and survival to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). After discrediting dominant theories of political transition, this paper evaluates the utility of Bratton and Van de Walle’s[1] 1994 typology of neopatrimonial regimes in explaining the Arab uprisings. Despite the need to adapt the model to account for specificities of the region, it is argued that B&V’s model has significant explanatory value and scope for explaining the origins and broad characteristics of the uprisings.





Patrimonial regimes are those in which a leader maintains authority via personal patronage, as opposed to ideology or rule of law; with the distinction between public and private interests significantly blurred (Weber, 1968). Neopatrimonial regimes, then, are those regimes in which these patrimonial characteristics “pervade a formal political and administrative system” (B&V, 1994: 458; Eisenstadt, 1973). Neopatrimonialism, according to B&V, was the “distinctive institutional hallmark” of African regimes (1994: 458). It is argued here, in line with Hertog, that MENA political economies were – at least in the early 20th Century – “classical case[s] of neo-patrimonialism” (2012: 12), as opposed to the corporatist regimes of Latin America or the authoritarian populism-cumcorporatism of some earlier Arab leaders (Dahi, 2011).








The Inadequacies of Existing Theories


Modernisation Theory


Modernisation theory has had a central role in studies of democratisation, with antecedents in Weber’s historical sociology (1930), and codified by Lipset (1959). Its most central tenet is that social and organisational changes brought about by economic development are propitious to democracy (Diamond et al., 1989). The most important social changes differ from author-to-author, but education and urbanisation are common factors. As such, if modernisation theory were to be a useful existing political theory in explaining the Arab uprisings, we would expect to see revolutionary participants primarily motivated by democratic ends (Dahl, 1971). In line with the emphasis on education, we would also expect those protesting for democratic values to represent a younger cohort of the opposition, should an intergenerational pattern be observed.


However, a study of participants in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings (Beissinger et al, 2012) left these expectations of modernisation theory unfounded. Participants who defined the struggle as one for democratic values (civil and political freedoms) tended to be older, while protestors under the age of 25 expressed their primary concerns as economic, and secondarily corruption (ibid., 21). Furthermore, levels of religiosity or secularism[2] had little significance in explaining who participated in protests. As such, aside from other compelling critiques of modernisation theory, this study reveals its inadequacy in explaining the Arab uprisings.





Another dominant theory is that of the transitology school, which represents an almost teleological assumption that societies are on a march toward democracy. Transitology assumes that the underlying conditions of a transitional country, such as its level of economic development, political history, or institutional legacy bear no major influence in the onset, process, or outcome of the transition (Carothers, 2002). Instead, transitologists generally place emphasis on the willingness and ability of political elites in explaining political transitions, focussing for example on elite pact-making (O’Donnell et al, 1986; Przeworski and Limongi, 1997).


The transitologist’s focus on elite agency is insufficient in explaining the Arab uprisings. For example, Huntington’s ‘liberal reformers’ vs. ‘standpatters’ (1993: 137) model, or those elite actors identified by Haggard and Kaufman (1995), are difficult to locate in the societies rocked by the uprisings; most likely because neopatrimonial regimes generate an insider-outsider cleavage (B&V, 1994: 463) as opposed to the intra-elite cleavages that characterise the transitologists’ explanations of transition. Furthermore, far from the inevitability of democratisation, authoritarian rulers were using liberalising measures in a bid to strengthen their nondemocratic regimes (Pace and Cavatorta, 2012): somewhat at odds with the transitology literature.



Authoritarian Resilience


At the turn of the millennium, the ‘end of history’ thesis implicit in transitology was displaced with theories, specifically related to the MENA, of authoritarian resilience or

‘Arab exceptionalism’: democratic inevitability replaced by futility (Valbjørn & Bank, 2010). The Arab uprising has called into question these theories as, despite authoritarian persistence in many of the countries, democratic consolidation has taken place in Tunisia and to a lesser extent Egypt, and a civil society has been ‘awakened’ (Cavatorta, 2012) among publics often portrayed as supine in the Western gaze.


Having briefly discussed the inadequacies of the aforementioned theories of political transitions, the paper will now introduce an existing theory that this author believes is of most utility.



The General Implications of Neopatrimonialism on Political Transitions


In a significant departure from the transitologist’s assumptions, in their study of neopatrimonialism in sub-Saharan Africa B&V claim that institutional legacies, particularly the de jure ‘rules of the game’, are of utmost importance to explaining transitions from neopatrimonial regimes. This constitutes what Karl calls ‘structured contingency’ (1990): a focus on the meso level between structural determinism and individual choice (Taylor, 1989).


B&V identify that transitions from neopatrimonial regimes are most likely to be driven by forces outside the state, representing a key difference to the aforementioned theories, particularly those of transitology in which the intra-state agency of elites is foregrounded. It also chimes with the experience of the Arab uprisings, in which social protest – a source outside of the state – drove the (attempted) transitions. The uprisings started in Tunisia with popular, nonviolent street demonstrations following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi (Chalcraft, 2016). This form of public, nonviolent protest continued to be the hallmark of the Arab uprisings, and even in cases such as Libya where the opposition were militarised and patterned by tribal alliances, the driver of Gaddafi’s regime collapse still originated from outside of the state.


Economic grievances have been cited as a key cause of the Arab uprising by a number of scholars (such as Campante and Chor, 2012; El-Meehy and Bouyssou, 2013). This is not incompatible with B&V, who argue that neopatrimonialism itself is often the cause of these grievances (cf. Callaghy, 1984; Sandbrook, 1986). This is a plausible assumption when we examine the modern history of the societies involved in the uprisings; many of which have seen a marked move away from authoritarian populism, and toward a postpopulist phase distinguished by more neopatrimonial forms of rule. This structural change in the regimes shrunk the formerly broad social bases of the neopatrimonial leaders (Hertog, 2012; Guazzone and Pioppi, 2009), such as in Egypt, where the pan-Arab socialism of Nasser is contrasted with the crony capitalist networks of Hosni Mubarak, and his son Gamal (Anderson, 2011).


The way in which this narrowing of social bases – or in B&V’s parlance, ‘integrative formulae’ (1994: 483) – across the MENA republics is necessarily understood in the aforementioned context of authoritarian populism. In this context, the relative deprivation (cf. Gurr, 1970; Farooq et al., 2017; Cammett and Diwan, 2013) and exclusion under leaders such as Ben Ali is exacerbated by its comparison to the relatively inclusive corporatism of earlier national leaders such as Bourguiba[3] (Ehteshami and Murphy, 1996:



Thus, we can understand some modernisation theory-esque arguments, such as those that forefront lack of opportunities and economic grievances (such as Zurayk and Gough, 2014; Campante and Chor, 2010), through the lens of neopatrimonial political economies. Even if neopatrimonialism does not generate insurmountable economic inefficiencies (Kelsall, 2011; Altenburg, 2011), the form of governance per se can provoke resentment, due to its exclusivity and the conspicuous consumption of, for example, ‘the Family’ in Tunisia (Anderson, 2011; Cavatorta and Haugbølle, 2012); especially in times of economic hardship.


Finally, B&V also say that we should expect to see transitions from neopatrimonial regimes revolving around the struggle to establish legal rules, given their subordination or sheer lack under such regimes (B&V, 1994: 466). This is generally founded and is discussed below, especially in the case of Tunisia.




Evaluating the Utility of B&V’s Subtypes of Neopatrimonial Regimes


While neopatrimonialism has been described as a ‘master concept’ (B&V, 1994: 472), for analytical purposes B&V disaggregated regimes subtypes, which though displayed distinctly in Figure 1 are “neither rigid nor immutable” (ibid.: 472), and can intersect and overlap. B&V observe differing patterns of political transition in each subtype, the core argument being that “contemporary political changes are conditioned by mechanisms of rule embedded in the ancien regime” (ibid.: 454).



Figure 1: Reproduced from B&V, 1994: 471


Using case study literature and Svolik’s dataset (2013; Appendix I), I have classified[4] key MENA states according to B&V’s subtypes (Table 1). There were no settler oligarchies or multiparty polyarchies (both of which are not neopatrimonial regimes (B&V, 1994: 472)) in the classification of the countries below, confirming that neopatrimonialism is present across the republics involved in the Arab uprisings.


Table 1: Categorising the eight regimes according to B&V’s typology


Tunisia Plebiscitary one-party

Egypt Competitive one-party

Libya Military oligarchy

Yemen Competitive one-party

Syria Plebiscitary one-party

Bahrain Monarchy*

Algeria Military oligarchy

Saudi Arabia Monarchy*


*Monarchy was added as a regime type, for it didn’t exist in B&V’s original typology.



Plebiscitary One-Party Systems


These regimes are somewhat inclusionary, with electoral turnout rates regularly exceeding 90 percent (ibid.: 477). However, competition is extremely low, with elections serving as ritual endorsements for the regime, and opposition parties forbidden.


Both Tunisia and Syria fall within this subtype. A cursory glance at Svolik’s (2013) dataset makes it immediately clear why the Assad regime has been classified as such, with the Ba’ath party allowing no opposition. Tunisia has had a long history of singleparty rule (Murphy, 1999), and Ben Ali’s earlier entertainment of opposition parties was more rhetoric than reality (Angrist, 1999). In fact, any serious contenders were exiled, and only small parties were allowed (Stepan and Linz, 2013; Svolik, 2013); the reality behind the ‘cosmopolitan facade’ was a neopatrimonial one-party system under which freedom of expression and political parties were repressed (Anderson, 2011: 3).


According to B&V, in these regimes we should expect national conferences to be an institution of importance to the transition. However, given that these conferences are “patterned on […] traditional village assemblies” (B&V, 1994: 477), it is likely that their importance is culturally-specific to sub-Saharan Africa. Besides this, B&V argue that despite the de facto exclusion and repression of meaningful opposition, within these regimes there is a small amount of political space: just enough for the emergence of a nascent opposition (ibid.: 478).


In Tunisia, a somewhat unified opposition did emerge, with disparate groups meeting regularly up to eight years prior to the revolution (Stepan and Linz, 2013: 13). Despite the plebiscitary, one-party nature of the regime, the institution of party-based elections – however non-competitive – provided the structure within which the opposition organised: corroborating B&V’s typology. Moreover, the Tunisian revolution supports B&V’s claim that in neopatrimonial regimes, struggles for transition will revolve around the (re)establishment of legal rules, as lawyers played a prominent role both during and after the uprisings (Gobe and Salaymeh, 2015).


In Syria, however, opposition has remained weak and fragmented, perhaps due to its heterogeneous population and the stoking of sectarian conflict by Assad’s regime (Phillips, 2012: 40). Contrary to Ba’athist rhetoric of unity, the regime’s predominantly Alawite armed militias – Shabiha – sought to intensify the spectre of ethnic violence; and today Syria remains in a civil war fought along sectarian lines. Regardless, opposition did emerge in Syria via the Local Coordination Committees and other groups which organised under the Syrian National Council (SNC). Therefore, despite the weakness of the opposition, and their inability to birth a successful political transition in Syria, a structured one emerged nonetheless. Further, the SNC’s ‘National Consensus Charter’ emphasised legal issues such as judicial independence. Therefore, the events in Syria are not incompatible with B&V’s model, despite the lack of a successful transition.



Competitive One-Party Systems


Competitive one-party systems are just as inclusive as the plebiscitary subtype, but with greater competition at the mass level (B&V, 1994: 482), distinguishing them from military oligarchies. A degree of pluralism is tolerated, sometimes allowing “significant opposition […] on the fringes of the single party, in the press, and in various civic associations” (483). Egypt and Yemen both meet the mpgov and opposition classifications in Svolik’s dataset

(2013), meaning more than one party participates in government, and at least one seat in the legislature is controlled by an opposition party; and for other reasons not able to be listed here[5] have been assigned to this subtype of neopatrimonialism.


We would expect transitions from this subtype to take place where a confident opposition moves directly to an election, generally under the existing institutional arrangements (B&V, 1994: 483). Further, the response of the incumbent leader should depend on whether they are of the first- or second-generation, with the former more likely to accept, and the latter to reject, the challenge of multiparty elections (ibid.: 484).


Generally, chances of democratisation are greater under this subtype than others, due to the institution of intra-party competition which structures political participation and contestation. Therefore, the fact that Egypt made some steps toward greater democratisation, as opposed to other regime types such as military oligarchies, suggests explanatory value in this regard. Further, there is usually sufficient agreement regarding the rules of the political game for an election to be held. This latter point is evidenced in the fact that, despite the rigidity of elections, the opposition in Egypt only boycotted one election, in 1990, out of eight organised by the regime (El-Ghobashy, 2012: 148).


Initially, the generational distinction does not seem to be borne out in the Egyptian case, as first-generation Mubarak announced his intention not to seek re-election and resigned as president in February 2011. However, the fact that Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal, was perceived by many to be the de facto leader (Zahid, 2010; Brownlee, 2008) is important to the analysis of events. It was only after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings that Gamal announced that he would not run for president in the 2011 elections. If we make a more nuanced appraisal of the leadership of Egypt and acknowledge the power vested in Gamal (the potential second-generation leader), then B&V’s generational distinction can partially explain why Mubarak refused the electoral challenge.


Similarly, Saleh announced that he would neither run for re-election, nor transfer power to his son Ahmed. While Saleh’s family held key positions in the regime (Knights, 2013) and some speculated that his son would succeed him, it is not as compelling that this was perceived as a de facto second-generation leadership as in the case of Gamal Mubarak. The fact that Saleh is a first-generation leader is therefore at odds with B&V’s typology of neopatrimonialism, in that he refused to meet the opposition’s demands for Yemen’s first round of democratic elections. Perhaps this was because Saleh, having installed loyalists and family throughout state institutions (Phillips, 2011) which survived after his personal downfall (unlike in Libya, for example), was confident that his regime could continue beyond his Presidency (Ottaway, 2011). In other words, though he perceived his personal political legitimacy as too weak to face election, the state institutions he had imbued with his own influence and patronage networks (Alley, 2010), remained.


Despite this, the opposition formed the Joint Meetings Parties (JMP) in 2002, however it was stymied by intra- and inter-party divisions, and was largely ‘bypassed’ by uprising participants (Durac, 2011). Nevertheless, it demonstrates, as hypothesised by B&V, that the small amount of political space afforded to oppositions under competitive one-party systems has been sufficient to allow the emergence of a party-based opposition, in this case meeting for around eight years before the uprisings; as had been the case in Tunisia.


B&V also argue that during transitions from such regimes, if things do not ‘proceed smoothly’, there is an increased likelihood of ethnic tensions and ‘ethnic demagoguery’ (1994: 484). This has certainly been the case in Yemen, where Saleh attempted to position himself as the only way for Yemen to prevent all-out sectarian conflict, a tactic also employed by Assad in Syria (Jasser, 2012).



Military Oligarchies


These exclusionary regimes involve no elections, nor genuine popular participation. Though often led by a personalist, highly-visible leader, there is a greater level of diffusion of power than in a personalist dictatorship, with decision-making usually residing among a committee or junta (B&V, 1994: 479). Political parties and elements of civil society are banned, but, as in the case of Ethiopia and Congo (and, Libya’s Jamahiriya), the military may establish ‘people’s committees’ to spread messages (ibid.: 479-480).


Both Libya and Algeria were classified as military oligarchies, with Algeria being the most precise case. Geddes et al (2014) classify Gaddafi’s Libya as a personal form of rule, and distinguishing it from the personal dictatorship subtype was difficult; though B&V themselves note that “combinations of personal dictatorship with military or single-party structures [are] quite common.” (1994: 472).


In these regimes, managed transitions from above are most likely, due to the regime’s monopoly over coercion (ibid.: 481). This was not borne out in Libya, with popular opposition and a military fragmented along localised, tribal lines – as well as Western intervention – constituting the vehicle of Gaddafi’s overthrow (Barany, 2011; Vandewalle, 1998). Perhaps this reflects the proximity of Gaddafi’s regime to that of a personal dictatorship, at least in the perceptions of the Libyan public. If this were the case, bottomup opposition to Gaddafi, unified around the single goal of overthrowing him (evidenced by the post-revolutionary vacuum: Boduszyñski and Pickard, 2013), would be expected; and as such we can still gain utility from B&V’s model by being cognisant of the oftenoverlapping nature of their subtypes.


In the case of Algeria, we would expect a closer adherence to B&V’s model given the greater congruence between regime and analytical subtype. This was the case, with President Bouteflika making concessions such as promising to deepen constitutional and political reform and lifting the nineteen-year state of emergency; both top-down tactics that we would expect to see a military oligarchy do in times of wavering legitimacy (B&V, 1994: 480).




Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are both monarchies, and experienced regime continuity throughout the uprisings. This represents a key area of explanatory deficit in B&V, given the lack of monarchies in the region they studied. A theorisation of why monarchies maintained their regimes is necessary, though space here does not permit it. It is expected that explanatory value will lie predominantly in the integrative formulae of the monarchies, which have strong legacies of elite integration as opposed to the wavering bases of support that has characterised the republics (Hertog, 2012: 9). Furthermore, and more in line with B&V, one may argue that it is their lack of pluralist political legacies that explains the absence of regime change in monarchies.




Discussion and Conclusions


B&V’s (1994) expectations of transitions from neopatrimonial rule, outlined in section 2.0, have significant explanatory value in explaining the character of the Arab uprisings, most notably: their popular nature; their eruption in times of economic crisis; and their coalescence around legal issues and the removal of the regime-leader. Beyond these broader claims, in loosely classifying eight MENA regimes according to B&V’s typology (with the addition of monarchies), and then comparing the political transitions of each to the expectations of their model, the further explanatory value of the disaggregation of ‘neopatrimonialism’ has been demonstrated; particularly with regard to which countries experienced uprisings, and their broad characteristics.


While some countries have strayed from the expectations of the model, this has largely been due to the inability, inherent in the ‘master concept’ status of neopatrimonialism (ibid.: 472), to classify cases distinctly. In other cases, such as in Libya and Yemen, the strong influence of sectarian conflict and ethnic tensions has stymied transition, though this was somewhat predicted by B&V (ibid.: 484).


B&V’s model requires adaptation for closer application to the MENA, most notably in its absence of monarchies. Furthermore, to better explain outcomes – which has not been the focus of this paper – a closer attention to the degree of military institutionalisation (cf. Bellin, 2012) may be fruitful, though in B&V’s 1994 model this evaluation has been reserved for the study of military oligarchies (contrast B&V 1997: 244-49). Instead, it is argued here that extending this measure to all regimes may provide utility in explaining the success or failure of transitions in the MENA, and is compatible with a focus on neopatrimonialism.


This paper has shown that while much of the seminal literature on political transitions is inadequate in explaining the Arab uprisings, there do exist theories of political transition that, when adapted, can offer explanatory value and groundwork for future models. It has been demonstrated that B&V’s 1994 model of neopatrimonial regimes and political transitions is one such theory.





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Appendix I


Relevant parameters from Svolik’s (2013) dataset for the eight countries studied.


  military executive legislative party mpgov opposition
Tunisia civilian elected >75% largest party >75% of seats multiple 0 1
civilian elected >75% largest party >75% of seats multiple 1 1
Libya personal selected by a small, unelected body unelected or appointed banned N/A N/A
personal elected >75% largest party >75% of seats multiple 1 1
Syria civilian one party or candidate one party or candidate per seat single 0 0
Bahrain civilian unelected nonpartisan banned N/A N/A
civilian elected >75% largest party >75% of seats multiple 1 1
civilian unelected none banned N/A N/A
Saudi Arabia


Binary Values:

mpgov: does more than one party participate in the government?

opposition: is at least one seat in the legislature controlled by an opposition party?

[1] Herein ‘B&V’.

[2] In accordance with modernisation theory we would expect secular elements of society to with democratisation struggles.

[3] Excluding his latter years.

[4] Roughly, for analytical purposes, cf. B&V, 1994: 472.

[5] Including Mubarak’s “reluctant but real tolerance of a raucous and unruly press” (Anderson, 2011: 4).

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