Rethinking Social Contracts in the MENA Region

By Steven Heydemann
Submitted to Session P4746 (A new social contract for the MENA countries: Concepts, challenges and opportunities, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
All Middle East;
Debates about possibilities for constructing new social contracts in the post-2011 MENA region tend to reflect flawed, normative assumptions about how social pacts are constructed and maintained. As a result, research on post-uprising MENA political economies has largely overlooked the extent to which new, exclusionary social contracts have already begun to take shape in MENA since 2011. Drawing on examples of these post-uprising social contracts, the paper will argue that what is needed as a corrective is to de-couple our conception of a social pact from the normative and the discursive frameworks in which we’ve embedded them, and broaden our understanding of the term in ways that leave open a much wider and more encompassing sense of how social pacts are formed and consolidated than has been the norm in our field.

Conventional narratives about social contracts emphasize their role as mechanisms address deficits in governance, overcome obstacles to development, respond to dysfunctions of neo-liberalism, correct failures of rule of law, and provide frameworks to expand inclusion, pluralism, and participation. These benign social contracts are widely seen to emerge through inclusive processes of consultation and bargaining whether explicit or implicit that rest on egalitarian notions of citizenship and of equal rights of all citizens to the benefits of social policy.

What the conventional narrative overlooks, I will argue, using empirical examples from the region, is that the process of forming new social pacts is already quite advanced. However, these are not social pacts that embody inclusive, participatory, or democratic qualities: just the opposite. These new social contracts represent the attempts of regimes to unilaterally restructure – from the top down -- what we often referred to as the populist-redistributive authoritarian bargains of the post-independence period in the form of exclusionary, narrowly nationalist, repressive, and predatory authoritarian bargains based on quite illiberal conceptions of citizenship and of state-society relations. Regimes have adopted strategies that are gradually transforming the institutional, social, legal, and regulatory underpinnings of governance in the Middle East to enable them to contain and manage high levels of social mobilization among marginalized segments of MENA societies, to reduce social and economic demands on the state, to prevent economically disruptive forms of political mobilization, and to equip regimes with the legal and regulatory capacity to prevent or punish any form of political behavior that regimes define as a threat to social and economic order.