The “Old” Populist Social Contract and the Arab Uprisings

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPresentation


The wave of authoritarian-populist (PA) regimes established in the Arab world in the 1960s/70s legitimized themselves by a combination of nationalism, developmentalism and populism, incorporating a tacit “social contract” with their constituents. The reneging on this contract by what became “post-populist” regimes a half century later goes far to explaining the Arab Uprisings.
PA regimes, with initially little popular support, needed, as part of their struggle to consolidate power at the expense of the old oligarchy and other rivals, to incorporate the middle and lower classes into a cross-class “populist” coalition. They firstly represented themselves as nationalist regimes seeking to break dependency on Western “imperialism” and defend the Arab cause. Their economic project was built around state-led investment in Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI), infrastructure and hydraulic agriculture, on the expectation that a “big push” would initiate economic take-off and a break out from the Arab World’s position in the global economic periphery. Crucially, the third leg of their project was a populist social contract in which their putative constituencies were offered social-economic benefits in return for political support. This included free education and state employment for the middle class in the bureaucracy; job security for workers in nationalized industries; land reform for peasants; and subsidized food for the urban poor. The project had an initially positive impact in combing growth with raised living standards, reduced inequality, and considerable upward mobility. So incontestable did citizen entitlements appear at this time that the conservative monarchies imitated the republics, once the 1970s oil boom enriched them, in delivering welfare to citizens (albeit not imported labour).
Authoritarian populism was made possible by developments at the global level: bi-polarity enabled political projection and economic assistance from the Soviet bloc; developmentalism corresponded with the Keynesian era of global economic expansion in which the power of finance capital was balanced by labour and the regulatory state. However, by the eighties, Keysianism had been superseded by neo-liberalism, originating in the globalization of Western finance capitalism; this was itself in good part a function of the oil price boom and the oil monarchies’ recycling of petrodollars to US/UK banks and government bonds. Neo-liberal ideology achieved hegemony and IFIs became enforcers of structural adjustment in the periphery.
This global turn was paralleled by the exhaustion of the statist-populist development model in MENA. ISI dictated expensive imports of machinery to produce manufacture goods for home market consumption; this and the falling prices of agricultural exports created balance of payments difficulties. The combination of high investment and redistributory policies dictated by populism depleted savings and capital accumulation. Populism, pro-natalist, plus free higher education encouraged population explosions and bulges of educated youth who could not be absorbed into employment. High military expenditures and lost wars further diverted resources from investment. By the 1970/80s, stagnation and debt made MENA states vulnerable to the demands of IFIs.
The response to pressures from without and vulnerabilities within took a particular form in the Arab world. Just as the brief global hegemony of socialism had legitimized attack on the oligarchy and populist redistribution in MENA, so now the norm promoted by global finance capital—unrestrained self-enrichment—was reflected in elite behaviour at the MENA level. The demands of IFIs for privatization was used by regime elites and crony capitalists to acquire public sector assets; and the parallel pressures for structural adjustment legitimized enforcing austerity on the masses: in essence regimes started to renege on the populist social contract. Unwilling to revise the contract to offer political rights in return for acceptance of austerity, the Arab republics changed their social base to a “post-populist coalition” –the new state elites and crony capitalists allied to foreign investors--and sought to manage the loss of mass support through techniques of “authoritarian upgrading—various mixtures of co-optation and divide and rule. The Arab Uprising was a direct consequences of regimes’ reneging on the populist contract; republics bore the burst of the Uprising while monarchies survived in part because the greater oil resources and smaller populations of many of the latter enabled them to sustain the contract. The Uprisings were about demands for a new kind of contract--in which legitimacy would be contingent on democratic rights and social justice as well as government responsibility for securing the basics of life; as such their demands were by no means irrelevant to the rentier states..
Period23 Feb 2018
Event titleIn Quest of a New Social Contract: How to reconcile stability and development in the Middle East and North Africa
Event typeWorkshop
LocationBonn, GermanyShow on map


  • social contract
  • Arab uprising
  • Middle East
  • political economy
  • neo-liberalism