Modern History and Politics-over-Stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East

Article excerpt

Over-stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East, by Nazih N. Ayubi. London: I.B. Tauris, 1995. xiii + 459 pages. Bibl. to p. 495. Index to p.514. L45.

Every decade or so in the field of Middle East politics a book of singular importance appears. This is such a book. Studying it-and it deserves close study-we realize what an enormous loss Middle Eastern studies suffered with Nazih N. Ayubi's untimely death in 1996. This reviewer knows of no recent work that displays the theoretical breadth and depth, the analytical sophistication and the empirical richness of Ayubi's final, and genuinely magnum, opus.

The dust-jacket describes this book as a "textbook"; that is far too modest. Rather, it is a sustained theoretical meditation on the dynamics of contemporary Arab politics. From the pun in its title to the 35-page bibliography, this study is an intellectual delight. Among its many virtues is its seamless integration of Arab scholarly perspectives with those of the more familiar Western writers. Ayubi's nuanced attention to the meanings and etymology (be it Arabic, French, German, Italian, Spanish or Turkish) of key concepts like state, civil society, pluralism, democracy (in varying degrees), the public and private spheres, and corporatism is not a demonstration of erudition for its own sake, but rather serves to clarify the debate on these issues which, as we all know, can get bogged down all too often in definitional swamps.

Ayubi begins with a masterly summary of the "debate on the state" in contemporary political science. His most useful contribution here is his discussion of the non-individualistic conceptions of the state developed in Islamic thought and by contemporary Arab political scientists. He previews the argument to come by laying out his thesis that the Arab state today is weaker than it seems because it is suffering from a crisis of "hegemony." His preference of "hegemony" to "legitimacy" (the latter term in his view being too tied to Western liberal values) reflects the influence of Gramsci. Politics in Arab societies is "not characterized by an orderly process of aggregating demands but by acts of capturing the state and acts of resisting the state" (p. 25). Then follows a pair of historical chapters delineating the origins of the Arab-Islamic state and state-formation in the modern era, with its Western colonialist imprint. Another pair of chapters considers, first, the dissonance between national-communal (panArabist) and territorial conceptions of the Arab state and, second, the explanatory significance (and interrelationships) of "political culture" and "political economy" factors on state political behavior. Ayubi then presents two chapters that compare the "radical populist republics" and the "conservative, kin-ordered monarchies." In the concluding chapters, Ayubi turns his analytic searchlight on four key processes that drive contemporary Arab politics: civil-military relations, bureaucratic growth, economic liberalization and stirrings in civil society. …

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