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​ACRPS Researcher

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies Seminar hosted Dr. Dana El-Kurd on Wednesday 6 May 2020, to present her research work on "Israel, the Hidden Factor in the Authoritarian Contagion in the Arab World". Convened in remote video conference in keeping with the need for social distancing imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the seminar was conveyed to researchers and the wider public through social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Dr. El-Kurd's presentation focused on the application of concepts such as "autocratic contagion" and "authoritarian learning" in the realm of democratic transformation.

El-Kurd noted at the outset a surge of research interest in "transitions to authoritarianism" given the process of regression to a state of accentuated tyranny that many countries in the Arab region underwent in the context of changes engendered by the Arab Spring protests, counter-revolution, and the aborted aspirations of Arab peoples for democracy. El-Kurd reviewed the renewal of theoretical interest in the concept of "authoritarian consolidation," a concept gaining impetus from within democracies themselves as a result of the rise to power of right-wing populist anti-democratic forces in several western countries, as well as from the intensified role played by countries entrenched in authoritarianism and tending to intervene in the affairs of others, such as China and Russia.

El-Kurd then turned to review Western literature, in which researchers have focused on the role authoritarian states have played to bolster despotism in Arab countries, while they neglect to consider what has and is being done in this regard by countries typically described as democratic. Here El-Kurd introduced the main theme of her research, namely the "blind spot" in scholarly vision that is represented by Israel – highlighting the Zionist state's role in promoting the wave of Arab regression from democracy to authoritarianism in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Israel is thus something of a hidden variable. El-Kurd's analysis then investigated a hypothesis: the stronger the relations Arab regimes maintain with Israel, the greater the tendency towards internal repression in these regimes.

In analysis of this Israeli role, El-Kurd examined the literature on "authoritarian diffusion," and presented what she considered to be evidence pointing to authoritarian learning and a state of mutual assistance between the Arab world's authoritarian regimes – and, in particular, cooperation between Arab countries and Israel in supporting tyranny. Prominent supporting evidence El-Kurd cited here is Israeli technical assistance aimed at enhancing Arab countries' techniques of subjugation and Arab purchase of Israeli repression and monitoring applications. Providing her assessment of the effects of this "authoritarian learning" on governance, El-Kurd noted the consequence of a diminishing potential for democracy in the Arab world.

One of El-Kurd's prominent findings is that the "authoritarian contagion" in the Middle East cannot be fully understood without understanding the ideological dimension; support from Gulf countries for counter-revolution in Egypt was driven by hostility to political Islam and specifically to the Muslim Brotherhood. In countries supporting this return of authoritarianism, the belief has prevailed that democracy will not only bring Islamists to power, but will also threaten what they view as the breakthroughs in modernization achieved by Gulf states regimes of absolute monarchy, breakthroughs unachievable through any other system of governance. The same perception exists on the part of many in Israel who consider democracy and Islamic political parties to be an ideological threat to the survival of the State of Israel. There is abundant evidence of the concerns on the part of Israeli policymakers viewing the victory of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt. As for the United States of America, El-Kurd suggested that for a sector of American policymakers, democracy in the region has become synonymous with instability: if democratic uprisings are allowed to succeed in Egypt – an important country – Egyptian foreign policy towards Israel will undergo major transformation. El-Kurd also concluded that authoritarian contagion in the region cannot be understood without understanding the roles played by Israel and the United States in facilitating intelligence cooperation and the deployment of instruments of repression. In the short term, in El-Kurd's view, these matters impact the human rights situation in the region; in the long term, they increase the region's polarization.

Discussions following Dr. El-Kurd's presentation centered upon the currently emerging dimensions of the on-going normalization of Arab relations with Israel in the areas of economy, technology and security, and how this is leading inexorably towards greater authoritarianism, additionally bolstering Israeli intransigence regarding any settlement and enabling Israel to continue its occupation and settlement policies –  now with Arab as well as the customary western support. The discussion also considered the topics of the Zionist state as constituting a structural source of tyranny in the Arab world's modern history, and the economic dimension of the linkage of despotism with normalization of Arab relations with Israel.