Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa (book review)

One of the topics that certainly makes a mark on this year’s academic research, public engagement and publishing trends is the critical engagement with new social movements, forms of protest and so-called revolutions-and how to predict, analyze and contextualize their impact on social change.

Paolo Gerbaudo’s book, but also recently published monographs by David Karpf and Zeynep Tufekci are some of the key titles on my ‘read & review’ shelf right now. 

Even though all of them deserve a nuanced analysis some of the key findings point in a similar direction: ‘We’ were too quick to talk about social media revolutions. Movements need to combine online and traditional protest strategies for longer-term impact. Short-term activism and activities may not lead to medium-term sustainable, inclusive change. Building or fostering democratic, accountable systems is…complicated. And traditional social, political and economic structures are surprisingly (?) resilient as hashtags trend, demonstrations form on facebook and movements exchange messages on WhatsApp. These trends emerge across case studies from diverse places such as the Ukraine, Turkey, Egypt, North Africa as well as Occupy tents in London or New York City.

There were a couple of reasons why I selected Frédéric Volpi’s Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa for review.
First, Volpi is looking at Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia-four diverse societies and political systems that experienced very different ‘revolutions’/revolutions in 2011. 

Second, he is adopting a macro-analytical perspective and is less concerned with ethnographic details of ‘the streets’. And quite frankly, the third reason was that books published by Hurst are usually interesting, readable and well-edited contributions to shape my own thinking and teaching.

‘None of these outcomes are particularly novel in terms of long-term institutional equilibria, nor are they particularly surprising’
I am happy to say that the book managed my expectations very well! Maybe a bit unusual for a book review, I will start with a ‘spoiler alert’ as we fast forward to the penultimate page of the book:

In democratization and revolution studies, the outcomes of the Arab uprisings can be placed in already well-established categories. We have successful transition processes leading to democratic consolidation, as in Tunisia. We have entrenchment of liberalized autocracies, as in Morocco. We have situations of authoritarian status quo, as in Algeria. And we have situations of state failure and conflict, as in Libya. None of these outcomes are particularly novel in terms of long-term institutional equilibria, nor are they particularly surprising as historical occurrences for these polities. The Arab uprisings point to a set of processes that led from one known institutional model-in this case, more or less open authoritarian regimes-to other institutional equilibria (p.172).
As you can imagine, much more is happening in the book before Volpi arrives at his final conclusions. 
One of the key strengths of the preceding narrative is how well the author finds the balance between four different countries and their trajectories. The book offers just enough insights into each country to provide a framework for discussion without blurring the boundaries on ‘North Africa’ or ‘MENA countries’ that often dominate contemporary discussions.

Why didn’t we see the revolutions coming?
Many political scientists have been challenged by claims that they were unable to predict the turmoil in the countries in question. They have been also been tasked with predicting the future: What will happen next-and when will we have Western-style democracies that will serve their population and help ‘us’ with the ‘war on terror’ or the ‘refugee crisis’?

In all cases, protest episodes end in a formal return to institutionalized politics, usually in the shape of an electoral democracy-be it as a substantive system of governance or as a front for continuing authoritarian rule (p.5).
So right from the beginning we are reminded that there was neither a historical vacuum, nor that substantial ‘globalized’ or ‘globalizing’ external forces had major influence, a point I will return to at the end of my review. What mattered in the end often depended on more or less spontaneous elite decisions, i.e. what happened in the ‘second stage’:
The first stage corresponds to the implosion of the ruling authoritarian system. (…) The second stage corresponds to the reconstruction of practices and discourses around the demands of the protestors and counter-propositions of the regime (…). The third stage involves the reconstruction of routinized behaviors in and by this new system of governance (p.7).
Volpi’s analysis clearly challenges any notion of path dependency and I will try to highlight in the following paragraph how different the revolutions evolved in the four countries-despite a similar window of time, geopolitical proximity and global climate.

In Algeria, the revolutionary potential somewhat failed to gain wide-spread momentum:
The reversion to ‘normality’ was the result not so much of the Algerian regime using the ‘correct’ combination of repressive and cooptative measures to diffuse unrest, as of behavioral and ideational shifts that unfolded without sufficient speed and directionality. As a result, new arenas of contention and protest dynamics failed to become self-reproducing (p.87).
More prominently, the Libyan regime disappeared, but it is important to note that it was not simply an anti-Gaddafi ‘implosion’ of the country, but that there competing narratives and struggles going on that ultimately created the singular mediatized story:
Protestors developed local self-help networks in order to cope firstly with repression, and then in order to deal with the withdrawal of the security forces and the progressive shutdown of state institutions and public services. (…) These local rearticulations of power-outcomes of protests that developed relatively independent of one another-began to create an ideational and material challenge for the regime at the national level (p.92).
And in Tunisia old and new media worked together-probably a not-so-surprising reminder that ‘Twitter revolutions’ never really existed:
In informational terms, the (new) media helped raise the profile of the revolt and articulate a perspective that countered the official version given by the regime at home and abroad. As before, a combination of old and new media outlets proves most effective at conveying counter-discourses (p.101).
The transformations in Tunisia are also a reminder that state institutions rarely exist as a unified whole and that ‘the government’ can be very strategic how it uses ‘the army’ or ‘the police’ to (dis-)engage with protests:
Instead of trying to prevent protests as much as possible, the security forces targeted those protest actions that the regime found most subversive of the authoritarian status quo (p.124).
And finally Morocco where the King seemed to have found a way on how he used the positive aspects of the conflict to strengthen ‘reformed’ institutions:
The identities and behaviors of the actors of the uprising had co-evolved with those of the regime to produce a situation in which they could coexist and conflict with each other within the symbolic and institutional order imposed by a ‘reformed’ monarchy (p.152).
An interesting question then is how important the security sector is in predicting the outcomes of protests-and how ‘we’ can ensure it from all too easily becoming part of transitional problems as we have seen in many instances in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
In Algeria and in Morocco, the early winding down of the unrest ensured that that cohesiveness of the security forces was not tested in the same way that it was in Tunisia and Libya (p.164).
Revolutions as if states mattered
For scholars and policy-makers alike, the ability to explain routine politics becomes the main objective of the analysis. The political causality of extraordinary episodes is discounted, and so are the interactions at work at the time (p.154).
As I mentioned in the beginning of my review, Volpi’s analysis relies on internal developments. French involvement in Algeria or American meddling in Libya do not seem to play a major role; I wonder whether we tend of overstate such external forces-or whether there is a level of external support that may not be easy to pin down; nevertheless, external factors let alone strategic regime change may play a smaller part as events unfolds quickly ‘on the ground’.
Things could indeed have happened otherwise, and other continuities could have been showcased (p.173).
The book suggests that events were very much driven locally-and although they happened in neighboring countries very little indicates that it can be justified to talk about a ‘global protest wave’ or ‘global movement’.

As you can imagine from my rather long review, I thoroughly enjoyed Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa

It provides plenty of food for thought and discussion and will certainly make a very good introductory text for students before they start discussing the countries, societies and revolutionary dynamics in more detail. Volpi’s book also makes a very important contribution to the emerging debate on how ‘we’, particularly in academia, need to continue with nuanced and careful analysis as mediatized events gain momentum and sound bites replace complex reflections. 
Especially the political science and international relations community also needs to admit how limited their power of prediction really is when contested spaces are re-negotiated.

Learning from my interactions with journalists, my only point of critique is that the text is at times quite dense and requires a willingness to engage with academic language. 

But the book should spark enough interest to discuss these issues with the author and bring his analysis into mainstream debates.

Volpi, Frédéric: Revolution and Authoritarianism in North Africa. ISBN 978-1-84904-696-1, 232pp, 25.00 GBP, London: Hurst & Company, 2017.


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