State and Society in the Maghreb

By Mednicoff, David | African Studies Review, April 2005 | Go to article overview

State and Society in the Maghreb


Mednicoff, David, African Studies Review


STATE AND SOCIETY IN THE MAGHREB Lise Garon. Dangerous Alliances: Civil Society, the Media and Democratic Transition in North Africa. London: Zed Books, 2003. 205 pp. Bibliography. Index. $69.95. Cloth. $27.50. Paper.

Stephen J. King. Liberalization Against Democracy: The Local Politics of Economic Reform in Tunisia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. 176 pp. Bibliography. Index. $44.95. Cloth. $21.95. Paper.

With the greater scrutiny given to Arab states and societies by U.S. officials and citizens after 9/11, one would hope that the market would be expanded for thoughtful books analyzing politics in Arab North Africa. Indeed, the two books reviewed here are examples of a recent emphasis by Arab academic specialists on trying to understand the resilience of nondemocratic governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Lise Garon and Stephen King adopt two distinct analytical and methodological strategies to present important and complementary conclusions about contemporary authoritarian stability in North Africa, with an emphasis on Tunisia. Garon's study compares the broad political patterns of the three major North African (or Maghrebi) regimes in order to construct a general argument. King, on the other hand, looks in much more depth at a small Tunisian community as a way of illustrating the general through the particular. If neither study is entirely satisfactory in framing and addressing basic questions of why nondemocratic Arab political systems remain powerful, the problem is due more to the difficulties of finding an ideal balance between specialized academic studies and general analyses of Arab politics than to the weaknesses of the volumes themselves. This essay aims to contextualize the difficulty of publishing books such as Garon's and King's, in addition to discussing their individual arguments.

Witnin the field of political science, and to some extent, the social sciences more generally, studies of Arab countries have been in a precarious situation. The turn in recent years toward political science methodology that emphasizes rational choice models of individual behavior and quantitative survey research data has contributed to the impression that Arab politics offers little generalizable theory to the discipline as a whole. To a large extent, however, this impression has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arab societies have been expected to conform to Western models or respond to Western questions. In particular, a major focus of American political science has been the failure of Arab political systems to become democratic, as opposed to how these systems have functioned in their own terms, or whether Western involvement in the Middle East might have some connection to Arab social dynamics.

The gulf between understanding Arab politics and society in terms of its disappointments to Westerners versus its own processes has only widened as Arab countries have been more prominent in the American media since 9/11. Indeed, the belief of some political actors in Washington that the United States can bring democratic stability to Iraq and perhaps to the region as a whole can easily have as its corollary the assumption that it is unnecessary to account for how closed and unpopular regimes have survived when it may be possible to replace them. Thus Arab states and societies are an increasing focus of discussion in the United States, but this discussion can neglect how the states and societies actually function.

Academic specialists in Arab politics have dealt with this situation by putting forward a variety of new and interesting studies that insist that Arab authoritarian regimes be studied not strictly in terms of how they fail to fit Western political models, but in terms of what has characterized and sustained them as they are. The journal Comparative Politics recently devoted an issue to a rich range of studies that look in a variety of nuanced ways at how and why Arab political systems have endured. …

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