The State of Democracy in Western Asia

Western Asia is the most authoritarian region in the world and is marked by stark economic and social disparities

Key Findings

  1. The trend of personalized authoritarianism, in which concentrated power and control over state resources are in the hands of a small group of elites, has been on the rise in Western Asia, albeit in different forms. This was evident in significant developments in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 2022 and has allowed political and economic elites to undermine and prevent the establishment of effective countervailing institutions.

  2. Authoritarian practices have intensified in Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, and have evolved to include the use of new surveillance and cybertechnologies, which have produced dangerous patterns of coercion.

  3. Authoritarianism in Western Asia has endured partly because of the economic and security interests of foreign powers, meaning they offer only selective support for democracy and human rights, as seen in Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.

  4. Yet, social resistance continues to flourish, as seen recently in Iran and Israel. Mass protests have taken on new forms and continue to challenge entrenched power structures, although their levels of success vary. Popular mobilization’s potential to act as a check on executive power offers a glimmer of hope.

Introduction

Western Asia is the most authoritarian region in the world and is marked by stark economic and social disparities (IMF 2023). In recent years, long-standing patterns of authoritarianism have become even more entrenched, largely through personalized centralization of power and intensified repressive practices. In fact, Western Asia exhibits a higher level of authoritarianism than in the period before the Arab Uprisings, with the majority of countries ranking below 100 in various categories of the GSoD Indices. In 2022, the population in 9 of the 14 Western Asian countries lived under regimes with low levels of performance in Rights, Rule of Law and Representation (Figure 3.1).

Against this backdrop, CIs have had little chance to develop. Courts and legislatures are regularly co-opted by powerful executives, and several countries do not hold elections for executive leadership. ‘Strongmen rulers’ across the region support each other and have long relied on their countries’ vast natural resource wealth to maintain the status quo and avoid any international accountability for human rights violations. At the same time, governments have largely failed to address weak growth rates, high level of government debt, high unemployment and inflation. Economic and social disparities have thus continued and grown, exacerbating conflict (Gatti et al. 2023; Amnesty International 2023). Even in countries such as Israel and Lebanon, which have historically been stronger than others in the region in terms of democratic growth, instability threatens the gains. Palestine stands out for having experienced significant declines in the Rights and Rule of Law categories overall, as well as the related factors of Access to Justice, Freedom of Expression, Freedom of the Press, Political Equality, Gender Equality and Judicial Independence (Figure 3.2). Qatar experienced modest improvements in Representation, while Iraq and Lebanon are notable for the pause in their progress. Since 2012, the war in Yemen has prompted significant declines across all GSoD indicators. Also notable is Israel, which experienced significant declines in Access to Justice in 2022. Still, it remains the only country with high levels of democratic performance across most categories, although the GSoD Indices do not measure Israel’s undemocratic actions in Palestine.

Still, one hopeful sign is mass demonstrations, which have continued to mark the region in 2022 and 2023. People’s growing anger, especially with regard to socio-economic difficulties, offers some openings for positive reform. Moreover, despite challenges, civil society in some countries continues to campaign for change. Sustained and widespread mobilization is necessary to bring about significant transformation, as governments often resort to repression and limited reforms to preserve their power (O’Driscoll et al. 2020).

Unlike for many other regions, GSoD data for Western Asia show very little change over the last five years (Figure 3.3). In many cases, however, the last decade is marked by important variations. This section therefore focuses on both 5-year and 10-year trends.

The most populous countries in the region perform at a low level in Rights, Representation and Rule of Law in 2022

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023; United Nations Population Division. World Population Prospects: 2022 Revision.

Trends of democratic performance in Palestine

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023.

Distribution of scores in categories of democratic performance in Western Asia

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023.

The state of democracy

Representation

The space for inclusive governance and political competition in Western Asia remains limited, with 65 per cent of countries in the region performing at low levels in Representation. Intra-regional variation is stark: the top Western Asian countries in the rankings for Representation are Israel (ranked at 38) and Kuwait (102). Kuwait rose six places between 2021 and 2022, following the general elections held in September 2022 (although results were annulled by the Constitutional Court in March 2023) (DW 2023). Concurrently, Iraq (106) dropped four places compared with 2021, with significant declines in Effective Parliament following the year-long political deadlock that resulted from the contested 2021 elections. Significant declines in Iran in Credible Elections, Effective Parliament and Elected Government reveal a deterioration in the legitimacy of electoral processes and representative institutions since 2017. While there were advances in Qatar over the last five years, they were due solely to the holding of the country’s first legislative elections in 2021 and do not necessarily represent meaningful change, especially since the elections were marked by non-inclusive participation (Al Jazeera 2021).

Rights

More than half the countries in the region have low scores in Rights, with Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen among the bottom 50 globally. In the global rankings for Rights, only Israel (ranked at 37) and Kuwait (99) are positioned above 100, with relatively large falls observed in Jordan (down 13 to 100) and Israel (down 7 to 37). Civil Liberties, in particular, has seen major declines in the last five years and the regional average for the category is among the lowest in the world. Shrinking civic space is a concern; significant declines have occurred in Freedom of Expression, Freedom of the Press, and Freedom of Association and Assembly since 2012.

These declines have taken place amid a rise in digital authoritarianism. Leaders across the region have used technology to silence political opposition and popular mobilization through surveillance, censorship, disinformation and information manipulation (Lynch 2022; Jones 2023). It is noteworthy that, despite the scores for Rights in Western Asia being among the lowest in the world, the region has high levels of performance in Basic Welfare (Figure 3.4). This is largely due to its abundant oil wealth, which has been instrumental in maintaining autocratic rule and preventing events similar to the Arab Uprisings.

Distribution of Rights performance across factors in Western Asia, 2022

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023.

More than 70 per cent of countries exhibit low performance in Political Equality. Equality between genders continues to be a challenge, with the Gender Equality factor performing well below the global average across the region. Saudi Arabia has seen some advances in this regard, but the gains are marginal in a context where women’s rights activists continue to be jailed (HRW 2019a; The Economist 2023).

Israel remains the only country with high performance in Rights in the region, although it has seen a significant decline in Access to Justice between 2021 and 2022. This decline takes place amid controversial judicial reforms that critics say will allow significantly increased government control over the Supreme Court (Hudson 2023). Concurrently, significant declines in the Rights category in Palestine since 2017—including in Access to Justice and in Political Equality—are concerning, especially in the context of generalized declines in the other top-level categories of Participation and Rule of Law.

Rule of Law

Although Rule of Law did not see any major movements in the last five years, the regional average for the category has been consistently in decline over the last decade (Figure 3.5). Power and wealth have become increasingly centralized and personalized, with regimes undermining checks and balances and the rule of law to clamp down on opposition (Ruiz de Elvira, Schwarz and Weipert-Fenner 2018). This has been done through top-down reforms designed to preserve the power of a regime within existing governance structures, institutionalized repression and corruption (Frantz et al. 2021; Transparency International 2023). Since 2017, Palestine (ranked at 127) and Syria (171) have seen significant declines in Rule of Law, and between 2021 and 2022, both countries fell seven places in the Rule of Law rankings.

A notable example of the aggrandizement of power is Saudi Arabia, where Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated power by taking over political and economic responsibilities traditionally held by other members of the royal family. This has included the Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution, a somewhat independent agency formerly under the Ministry of Interior (HRW 2019c; Rahman 2020). In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu returned to office in December 2022, despite being embroiled in multiple corruption cases. Since then, he has pushed for reforms that would allow him to escape those cases, effectively erode checks and balances, and benefit his far-right government coalition (Nai and Toros 2020; Ferber 2023; Eisen, Patel and Smith 2023).

Changes in Rule of Law in Western Asia 2012–2022

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023.

Participation

There have been no significant changes in the region’s performance levels in Participation since 2017. Approximately 70 per cent of countries in Western Asia are among the bottom 50 globally (Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen), and there are no high-performing countries in 2022. Israel fell three places in the rankings for Participation (to 38), while Palestine (ranked at 133) dropped eight places over the past year. Israel’s new government introduced a bill that has raised concerns about its potential to curtail the work of NGOs and civil society. The bill proposes imposing high taxes on foreign funding received by NGOs, and many believe this could severely impact their ability to operate. Critics argue that the bill is an attempt to silence dissent and curtail the work of organizations critical of Israeli policies (Freedman 2023; FMEP 2023; Middle East Eye 2023; OHCHR 2023c). Jordan also fell in the rankings for Participation in 2022 (down 16 places to 119), following various efforts by the government to suppress dissent and curtail the activities of CSOs (HRW 2022b).

Performance in Participation over time in Western Asia

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023.

Citizens’ limited participation in decision-making processes is identified as a key challenge for democracy in the region as evidenced in the stagnation of this category since the 1980s (Figure 3.6). More than a decade after the Arab Uprisings, popular grievances remain unaddressed across the region, as space for civil and political participation has become increasingly restricted. At the same time, social resistance continues to exist and flourish, as seen in recent events in Iran and Israel. Mass protests have taken on new forms and continue to challenge entrenched power structures, although their levels of success vary. This type of civic engagement is described in detail in Section 3.3.2.

Countervailing institutions

In many Western Asian countries, the separation of powers exists in law but not in practice. Powerful executives dominate the political landscape, often influencing decision making in other branches of government and blocking the development of independent agencies and other non-state forms of checks on power. Even where reforms have been embarked upon, such as in Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Syria, they have been manipulated to work in favour of ruling executives (Maboudi 2022). Courts and parliaments have played a central role in propping up autocratic rule. At the international level, CIs are also largely ineffectual, often because the region’s leaders are necessary allies for other countries’ geopolitical security interests.

Over time, this has left a mark on the populace. Recent public opinion data reveal widespread dissatisfaction with post-Arab Uprisings outcomes (Yildirim and McCain 2019; Cordesman 2020). CIs related to the rule of law are especially weak, with corruption a particular challenge (see Figure 3.8). Indeed, the regional average for Absence of Corruption has long hovered around the boundary between low and mid-range performance, as leaders use oil wealth to build patronage networks and centralize power (Haas 2019; Frantz et al. 2021). This eroded public trust in government and weakened institutions. In 2022, a regional survey found that 87 per cent of the population considered corruption to be widespread, including in state institutions—with legislators and government officials seen as the most corrupt by 44 per cent of people in Western Africa (Kukutschka and Vrush 2019; Arab Opinion Index 2022).

Category performance levels before and after the Arab Uprisings compared with 2022

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023.

Absence of Corruption scores in Western Asia, 2022

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023.

Supranational institutions as countervailing institutions

Many countries in Western Asia have long been indispensable allies for much of the rest of the world, primarily because of their substantial oil reserves, geostrategic location and their role in anti-terrorism efforts. As a result, international bodies have failed to act as effective influences with regard to democratic growth; instead, strategic political interests have often trumped pro-democracy priorities and human rights concerns (Sever 2018; Ardemagni 2022).

There has been notable resistance, for example, to holding the Saudi Arabian Government accountable for flagrant human rights violations, and a US veto in the UN Security Council has limited justice for Palestinians and a murdered Al Jazeera journalist (Amnesty International 2022b; Al Jazeera 2023b). Western governments have made generous financial contributions to repressive regimes, including Iraq, Syria and many others, in the name of fighting terrorism (Stimson Center 2018; Radwan 2020). Some have also stepped in to help, as governments in the region have increased their focus on security and the military in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings (Lamont and van der Harst 2015). China and Israel have contributed to digital repression through the diffusion of relevant tools and technologies to authoritarian regimes (Shtaya 2022; Chack 2023; Gering 2023).

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations have especially benefited from the new, emerging multipolar global order and increased oil and infrastructure investment from Eastern powers. Improved relations and engagement with countries such as China and Russia have further reduced the incentives for GCC countries to implement good governance (Ghafar 2022; Webster and Pelayo 2023).

Three of the main regional bodies (the League of Arab States, the GCC and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) have also failed to act as democratic influences, choosing instead to support each other in the quest to preserve power, and failing to prioritize public interests (Freer 2022). Indeed, these bodies have supported each other in various ways (including financial and military help) to repress protests and silence dissent (Hinnebusch 2018; Blaydes, Hamzawy and Sallam 2022). Recent normalization of relations with Syria, despite its notorious human rights violations, highlights a long-standing willingness to disregard accountability and justice in favour of elite interests and the maintenance of the status quo (Al Jazeera 2023a; Faucon and Said 2023; Freer 2022).

Domestic institutions as countervailing institutions

Political systems in the region are characterized by strong executive authority, significant electoral personalism, fragile institutions and inadequate oversight mechanisms that impede democratic consolidation (Figure 3.9). This centralization of power is further exacerbated by the trend of power personalization and the capture of state institutions, as seen in countries such as Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. The rise of digital authoritarianism hampers the effectiveness of domestic institutions and accountability mechanisms, as well as civil society (Lynch, Schwedler and Yom 2022; Barnes-Dacey, Geranmayeh and Lovatt 2018; Dana 2021; Aldoughli 2022). Despite these challenges, public participation provides hope. Iran and Israel have been sites of notable social unrest, with protests that exemplify a deeper quest for freedom and equality. The potential for popular mobilization to work as a check on executive power offers a glimmer of hope for the region and is a focus for this report’s policy recommendations.

Scores in factors relating to CIs in Western Asia in 2022

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023.

Limited space for representative governance

Since the Arab Uprisings, Western Asia has seen some increased political competition and a greater focus on electoral reform. However, incumbent regimes have manipulated the legal framework governing elections, political parties and civil society to co-opt opposition actors and block any meaningful change. While some regimes have made limited concessions to project an appearance of political competition, true power-sharing and open competition remain restricted.

In Jordan, a series of constitutional amendments that were meant to strengthen public representation and government accountability restricted the parliament’s ability to oversee royal appointments, thereby consolidating the power of King Abdullah II. Subsequently, in 2022, changes granted the monarch authority to appoint and dismiss members of the ministerial cabinet and the Senate and to dissolve parliament (Karmel 2022; Maboudi 2022). Moreover, new laws introduced in 2022 have raised concerns about the risks of potentially marginalizing small parties and candidates with limited resources. Certain political parties and independently elected trade unions were dissolved after members expressed opposition. The establishment of the secretive General Security Council has also led to concerns about accountability and transparency (Merhej 2022). According to a report by Human Rights Watch, this is part of a broader pattern of repression, in which authorities have used various laws to suppress political dissent (HRW 2022b).

Similarly, 2023 amendments to the electoral law in Iraq, proposed by the ruling Coordination Framework political bloc, sparked widespread protests, amid concerns that these would allow larger political factions to manipulate the electoral system and consolidate their power. Despite the fact that the current law was passed in response to nationwide protests in 2019, which had demanded more independent political actors, the new amendment could suppress these independents and smaller parties, thereby consolidating the power of larger political factions (International IDEA 2023a; Tuna Aygün 2023; Al-Monitor 2023).

While concentrated executive power is a primary hindrance to effective representation, parliamentary inefficiency is also a significant challenge. The inability to form a stable coalition has perpetuated a cycle of elections and caretaker governments across Western Asia, further exacerbating inefficiencies. In Iraq and Lebanon, for example, political deadlock has delayed or blocked legislation and much-needed economic reforms. In Lebanon, an unprecedented ‘double executive vacuum’ after a year-long political deadlock left the country without an elected president or prime minister (Khatib and Wallace 2021); Reuters 2022) Also, the ethno-sectarian power-sharing systems are dominated by leaders able to paralyse government institutions over conflicting policies or reform. They are inherently prone to deadlock and have contributed to unresponsive governments (Sallon 2022; The World Bank 2022)

In Kuwait, although the National Assembly is essential for checking the executive and has more independence and influence than in other Gulf monarchies, the system often results in political deadlocks, repeated dissolutions of parliament and snap elections. Between 2022 and 2023, for instance, Kuwaitis experienced an election recall, the reinstatement of a previous legislature and a rerun election. Unsurprisingly, Kuwaitis were frustrated by this, and voter participation was relatively low (59 per cent) (International IDEA 2023b; Times Kuwait 2023). This scenario illustrates the ongoing political crisis and inefficacy in Kuwait’s parliament. Despite some opposition victories and increased female representation, the 2023 vote did not bring about significant change or resolve the long-standing political stalemate. The tension between the legislative and executive branches, worsened by the lack of recognized political parties, leads to inefficacy. The crown prince’s repeated dissolutions of parliament have escalated the crisis and frequent political disputes have caused discontent among Kuwait’s elite. This highlights the critical need for better cooperation between Kuwait’s parliament and cabinet to promote stability and progress (Yom 2022; Al Jazeera 2023c; Bishara 2023).

In Israel, parliamentary efficacy is hindered by deadlock. Since 2019, there have been five elections, all a result of the inability of the country’s political parties to form stable coalitions because of ideological differences and personal conflicts (Kingsley 2022). Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party has been able to lead a coalition since winning the 2022 election, proposed reforms have been very controversial and reflect deep-seated societal divisions. Some of the tension is due to a proportional representation electoral system, which allowed Netanyahu to win despite garnering almost the same number of votes as the opposition. This political crisis has significantly undermined public trust and confidence in democracy, institutions and political leaders. Moreover, since the formation of the new government in December 2022, characterized as the most far-right and religiously conservative in the country’s history, the growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox community and its alliances with right-wing parties have made tensions worse (Oren and Waxman 2023; Chotiner 2023; Times of Israel 2023; Krämer 2023).

Weaponized judiciary

Another major hindrance to democratic consolidation in the region is ineffective judicial systems, which have been unable to act as effective CIs and guarantors of rights (Al Zumai 2022). The integrity of these judiciaries is compromised by political interference, corruption, clientelism and executive-influenced appointment processes. A primary example is Jordan, where recent constitutional amendments have subverted the courts’ independence by granting King Abdullah II the power to appoint key judicial figures (Haas 2019; Davis 2022; Al Naimat 2022).The monarchy has since employed the judiciary to suppress dissent and maintain the status quo. Jordanian authorities have passed restrictive laws, used judicial harassment and conducted arbitrary arrests and detentions to curtail the activities of civil society (HRW 2022b).

Similarly, while judicial independence is guaranteed by law in Qatar, the Emir effectively controls the judiciary by appointing all its members (OHCHR 2020; Al Meezan n.d.). Recently, a Qatari criminal court imposed life sentences on several citizens for their participation in peaceful protests, thereby highlighting the lack of judicial independence (GCHR 2022). Recent reforms in Bahrain have strengthened the monarchy’s ability to dissolve opposition and legitimize state violence. Dissidents face inhumane treatment, including mass arrests and torture, while the courts turn a blind eye to such abuses (El Yaakoubi 2020; Amnesty International UK 2022). Similarly, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia has implemented judicial reforms under the guise of delivering a more liberal, accountable and equitable justice system. However, these changes have instead facilitated widespread human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, sham trials and limited investigations (HRW 2019b, 2021, DAWN 2020; Rashad 2021). Iran also falls short in providing fair trials, due process rights and humane prison conditions. Iranian courts often rely on illegally obtained evidence and disregard allegations of torture, while restricting access to legal counsel (HRW 2022a).

The few success stories (such as Kuwait’s Constitutional Court overturning a law criminalizing transgenderedness) have been exceptional (Amnesty International 2022a). The regional norm is that courts (like other potential state CIs) are subverted and end up fulfilling the role of guarantor for authoritarian leaders and regimes. Even where overall democratic performance has improved, persistent institutional weaknesses have been noted. For example, while Lebanese law provides for an independent and impartial judiciary, in practice the courts have been subject to political influence. This has been evidenced in the Beirut blast investigations, which have been hampered by the lack of an independent judiciary and persisting political interference (OHCHR 2023b).

A concerning trend about the justice system across Western Asia has emerged in 2022 and 2023, with an uptick in human rights violations across the region, notably in executions in Bahrain, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the judiciary has played a crucial role in enforcing repressive cybercrime legislation, which is increasingly misused by governments to silence dissent and exacerbate autocratic practices.

Deepening repressive practices and the rise of digital authoritarianism

The advent of digital technologies has had a profound impact on societies across Western Asia, facilitating both public empowerment and government repression (Lamensch 2021). While social media and messaging apps have enabled activists to communicate, organize themselves and expose instances of abuse by state authorities, the same technologies have also been weaponized by governments for censorship, surveillance and intimidation, leading to arrests and imprisonments (Lynch 2022; OHCHR 2023d; Rosson and Anthonio 2023; Maboudi 2022). All the countries that experienced protests have seen a decline in at least one of the factors of Civil Liberties (Figure 3.10).

Shrinking civic space across Western Asia amid increased surveillance and harassment of journalists with limitations on Freedoms of the Press, Expression, and Association and Assembly (arrows begin at 2012 value and end at 2022 value)

Note: Assoc. & Assemb. = Association and Assembly

Source

International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v7.1, 2023.

Digital authoritarianism has significantly altered the balance of power in Western Asia, reshaping both civil society and the media landscape. Governments across the region have leveraged cybercrime laws to suppress civic freedoms, curb free expression and control information access (Polyakova and Meserole 2019). Often justified under the guise of counterterrorism or combating ‘misinformation’, these laws have become tools for penalizing dissenters and journalists (Simon, Lauría and Flores 2023).

This has occurred in Bahrain, Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and United Arab Emirates, where regimes have adopted legislation to approve and expand the surveillance powers of the security agencies (Adami 2022). As scores in Civil Society have declined, leaders are increasingly using digital technology to bolster their control (Maboudi 2022).

In Saudi Arabia, such laws have been used to silence critics, as evidenced by a case involving a cleric who disappeared after criticizing government reforms (New Arab 2023). Meanwhile, Israel has seen continued attacks on journalists covering military operations in the West Bank, justified under the auspices of cybercrime legislation (Laine and Sanomat 2023). Jordan has also witnessed the misuse of cybercrime laws, with two journalists detained under such legislation (Zemelyte 2022). This followed the approval of a new cybercrime law by King Abdullah II in August 2023, despite widespread criticism of its vague and repressive nature (Al Jazeera 2023d; HRW 2023; Osman 2023). The law grants the government enhanced authority over online content, leading to a decline in freedom of speech and a shrinking of civic space (OHCHR 2023e).

In response to the protests ignited by Mahsa Amini’s death in 2022, the Iranian government has escalated its use of digital surveillance technologies for repression during 2023. Tactics have included large-scale Internet shutdowns and extensive social media censorship, employed to stifle dissent and control the narrative (Meuse 2023). Notably, the authorities have been able to monitor and manipulate protesters’ mobile communications, gaining an inside view of their activities (Biddle and Hussain 2022). Despite ongoing unrest and indications of governmental instability, the Iranian authorities persist in leveraging these digital technologies for repression, contributing to an expanding trend of digital authoritarianism (Alterman 2022; HRW 2022a).

The power of protest

The trend of digital authoritarianism is rising, but civic engagement remains a potent force for democratic accountability, acting as a safeguard against executive overreach. Protests have proven to be effective vehicles for expressing dissatisfaction and demanding change, even under authoritarian regimes. Since 2011, all countries in the region have experienced moderate or significant unrest, although the consequences of these events have differed, as has the government response (Haas 2019; Cordesman 2020; Blaydes, Hamzawy and Sallam 2022). In some states, authoritarian governments felt compelled to repress or suppress protests because of their potential to reduce the (admittedly limited) legitimacy of the regime. In others (motivated by the same concerns), leaders adapted political institutions to ensure that they could protect themselves against future uprisings.

In 2022 and 2023, Iran and Israel were notable for the severity of social unrest. In Iran, protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody. These demonstrations, which persisted for over six months despite severe government crackdowns, symbolize a deeper societal desire for freedom and equality. The movement has revealed the power of public protest as a tool for democratic expression, even in authoritarian contexts, and underscores the importance of public engagement in demanding accountability and pushing for reforms. Meanwhile, in Israel, protests erupted in response to proposed ‘legal reform’ aimed at weakening the Supreme Court. This reform, perceived as an attempt to impose a nationalistic agenda and undermine liberal values, has deepened societal divisions. As the government rushes legislation through amid escalating protests, Israel risks a constitutional crisis, potential economic damage and increased Palestinian violence.

In Jordan, public demonstrations have become a prominent form of expression and resistance. The successful repudiation of an unfavourable draft tax reform in 2018 (Schiffer 2018; Ryan 2022) set a precedent for using protests as a tool to voice public discontent. Protests have escalated recently due to worsening living conditions and perceived corruption (Al-Khalidi 2022). In late 2022, rising fuel prices intensified a cost-of-living crisis, sparking anti-government protests. The government responded with force, Internet disruptions and a ban on TikTok, as a way of suppressing political speech, which has raised concerns about freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

However, it is important to note that, while protests can spotlight societal issues, they alone are not sufficient. Other factors, such as functioning state institutions, the rule of law and a regime’s willingness to engage in dialogue and reform, are crucial for positive change. Therefore, to advance democracy in Western Asia, it is imperative to pair protest with other democratic mechanisms and institutions. A holistic approach is required to overcome these limitations and effect lasting change.

Conclusion

Western Asia is more authoritarian today than it was prior to the Arab Uprisings, due largely to the personalized centralization of power by post-2011 regimes and innovative repressive mechanisms aimed at preserving the status quo. Authoritarianism has expanded due to institutionalized coercion and CI capture, aided by top-down reforms. In addition to unchecked executive powers, authoritarianism has thrived as leaders use divisive strategies, manipulating ethno-sectarian and religious cleavages in society to depoliticize the citizenry, weakening civil society and opposition. Despite enhanced authoritarian practices, social resistance continues to exist. The Arab Uprisings remains ‘unfinished business’ as people’s frustrations and democratic aspirations have only grown stronger (Maboudi 2022). While unsuccessful in generating substantial governance reforms, the transformative potential of these movements should be fostered (Muasher 2018).

Case Studies

References