Book Reviews - Ellen Lust-Okar, Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents, and Institutions

Book Reviews

Ellen Lust-Okar, Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents, and Institutions

Faten Ghosn
University of Arizona
Lust-Okar, Ellen. Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents, and Institutions. New York: Cambridge, 2005.

1 In her book Structuring Conflict in the Arab World: Incumbents, Opponents, and Institutions, Ellen Lust-Okar investigates the conditions under which political opponents take advantage of economic crises to press their political demands. While many studies have attempted to explain the impact of economic crises on political reform by focusing on the nature of the economic crises, the strength of the civil society, regime type, and elite satisfaction, Lust-Okar argues that they have failed to predict when political elites are willing to push their demands for political reform as they do not take into consideration the structure of contestation. Therefore, the main argument of her book is that the structure of contestation, which determines who is and is not allowed to participate in the political arena, explains “both the dynamics of government-opposition relations and when liberalization is more and less likely to be stable.” (p. 5)

2 Lust-Okar maintains that there are three ideal types of contestation structures within nondemocratic states: first, inclusive, unified structure of contestation; second, exclusive, unified structure of contestation; and third, divided structure of contestation. (p. 38-40) In an inclusive, unified structure of contestation, all political opponents are allowed to participate in the formal political sphere but their participation is controlled by the incumbent elites. In contrast, in an exclusive, unified structure of contestation, no political opponents are allowed to participate in the system. The divided structure of contestation provides a middle ground between the former two types as it allows some political opponents to participate in the political system while excluding others. By focusing on the relationship between opposition groups and the incumbent elites, the relationship between competing opposition groups, and the incumbent elites’ ability to manipulate their relations (p. 22), we can predict the dynamic of opposition during prolonged economic crises.

3 According to Lust-Okar, an “opposition group’s inclusion or exclusion from the formal political sphere, and the structure of contestation within which a group acts, influences the incentives that the opponents face when deciding whether or not to challenge the incumbent elites.” (p. 68) In a unified structure of contestation, inclusive and exclusive, we find that as an economic crisis drags on the opposition is increasingly willing to challenge the government since they do not expect to be repressed more severely if they join with more radical groups to demand political reform. However, in a divided structure of contestation, the dynamics are quite different since some groups are allowed into the system while others are not. Included opponents that are allowed to challenge the regime pay lower costs for mobilization than illegal opponents do; however, their demands are constrained as they must seek balance between the restrictions of the incumbent elites and popular dissatisfaction. As a result, we are more likely to witness such groups mobilizing early on in an economic crisis in order to relieve popular pressure without creating an unstable situation that may be exploited by opponents outside the system. In contrast, illegal opponents face higher costs for mobilizing against the state, but they are also more capable of capitalizing on the rising popular discontent that usually accompanies prolonged economic crises.

4 To determine the dynamics under each structure of contestation, Lust-Okar utilizes formal models to build hypotheses and then combines them with case studies from Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt for validation and interpretation. By focusing on the structure of contestation in each of the cases Lust-Okar’s theory is borne out through the case studies. She shows how Jordan and Egypt under Nasir and Sadat had unified structures of contestation, and as a result, political opponents were more willing to challenge the incumbent elites as the crises continued. On the other hand, in Morocco and Egypt under Mubarak, there was a divided structure of contestation. In these cases, the legal opposition was unwilling to challenge the state as the economic crises dragged on.

5 Lust-Okar’s contribution in this book is threefold: first, she combines formal models with detailed case studies from the Middle East; second, she contributes to our understanding of the impact of economic crises on political reform; and last but not least, she focuses on the role of institutional rules that govern the opposition, demonstrating that political systems are independent of political regimes — a dimension that is usually overlooked in studies on authoritarian regimes, as the main assumption is that formal institutions make little difference in such regimes.

Faten Ghosn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Arizona.