Albrecht, Holger, ed.: Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Political Opposition under Authoritarianism.

Author:Lassiter, Unna I.
Position:Book review
 
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Albrecht, Holger, ed. Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Political Opposition under Authoritarianism. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2010. x + 252 pages. Cloth, $69.95.

Contentious Politics in the Middle East, edited by Holger Albrecht, a political scientist at the American University of Cairo, was published before the protests and toppling of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt but is impossible to read without thinking about what its conclusions can mean for the future of the region. With chapters by junior and senior political scientists, historians, and regional specialists from the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East, this work focuses on authoritarian Arab states where political legitimacy has rested on state stability at almost any cost, and this in countries where large protests have since erupted (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen). The book also covers Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco, but examinations of Palestine and Iraq are absent.

Given that parameter, the book provides a corrective to the perception that Muslim lands are not places of democracy. Its structuralist approach uncovers evidence for why strong opposition parties have not advanced democracy per se in the region, where in fact nation-states have seemed stable. To remain in power, regimes have used deception, repression, and coercion. In response to national and international pressure, they have begrudgingly integrated opposition parties into their political machine. Here Albrecht usefully differentiates between types of political opposition based on their influence and access to power. Middle East governments have also adopted neoliberal economic liberalization projects (e.g., Tunisia's tourism sector). This is not much discussed, which is unfortunate because these projects lulled the international community into hoping that globalization would rapidly improve opportunities in the region. Islamist groups, while effective ideationally, have been pragmatic in their relationship with their respective governments, as explained in Parts Two and Three, and have not challenged them. And the United States has also played a role in fracturing the region's political opposition, by suppressing the Left there during the Cold War and, after 9/11, by pitting secular groups over religious ones through preferential funding (a question remains over the influence of diasporic remittances).

How authoritarian governments negotiate with...

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