Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

The International Dimensions of Authoritarian Regime Stability: Jordan in the Post-Cold War Era

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

The International Dimensions of Authoritarian Regime Stability: Jordan in the Post-Cold War Era

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

EXPLAINING THE RESILIENCE OF authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa has become an urgent question for comparative political scholars. (1) Few Arab political regimes pass democracy's most basic electoral litmus test--inclusive contestation and public participation in free, fair, and regular elections for offices of executive authority--much less its more substantive requirement, the enshrinement of civil liberties within legal safeguards immune to raison d'etat and other constitutional subversions. (2) Whereas much of the political science literature has explained the historical lack of regional democratization by pointing to domestic-level variables, such as Islamic culture, oil rents, socioeconomic development, and state coercion, we argue that international factors are central in understanding the endurance of Arab authoritarianism in the post-Cold War era. In a context of economic crisis and political liberalization, external support from foreign powers can strengthen the capacity of regime incumbents to maintain tight control over the democratic reform process, foreclosing the possibility of opposition victories in their struggles to capture larger slices of state power and hence ensuring continuity in the autocratic system.

Our essay utilizes the case study of Jordan to explore the explanatory link between international support and domestic regime stability. We argue that the ruling monarchy's cessation of the democratic reform program that commenced after the 1989 financial crisis is directly related to rising levels of external assistance provided by the United States and its allies. Against a backdrop of economic adjustment and civic unrest, the overarching objective of Jordanian state elites during the 1990s was to ensure that political liberalization did not spiral into an uncontrollable democratic opening that would require the surrender of decision-making privileges to an ascendant political opposition. For the US and its allies, the prospect of executive power turnover from the conservative state apparatus to a potentially hostile, Islamist-oriented ruling alternative ran counter to long-term strategic interests that required Jordan to play a vital role in American political projects across the region. When the monarchical regime signed its peace treaty with Israel in 1994 at the height of political liberalization, the U.S. and its allies began to deliver substantial amounts of diplomatic sponsorship, economic aid, and security assistance. For Western powers, sustaining the peace treaty with Israel took precedence over any desire to deepen the nascent democratic reform agenda in Jordan, since the most vocal democratic groups in the kingdom also happened to oppose the accords. For the regime, the intromission of such international support lowered the cost of domestic repression and fulfilled key political needs. By eroding the uncertainty clouding the ruling elite's political choices while also reinforcing its fiscal capacity and security sector, external assistance enabled the regime to constrict opposition mobilization without fear of international repercussions. This effect intensified after late 2001, as ready cooperation with Washington's "war on terrorism" amplified the geopolitical importance of Jordanian stability to the U.S., which gave Amman access to unparalleled volumes of economic and military support. Simultaneously, the regime continued to backslide away from its democratic reform promises. Now, nearly 20 years after its genesis, Jordan's political liberalization remains in limbo at best; at worst, it has ended.

A single-country case study cannot pose universal causal generalizations about Arab authoritarianism, a task that requires multiple cases and much more space. But one case can nonetheless generate new insight by serving as a heuristic analysis, one that inductively furnishes new theoretical knowledge about existing empirical relationships. …

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