Arab governments have, for the most part, claimed legitimacy based on Arab nationalism and persist despite being challenged by Islamicists. The oil-wealthy Arab states attempt to buy the loyalty of their people by providing them with goods and services, while precluding widespread political participation. Neither the poor nor the rich Arab countries have produced nation-states based on a broad base of political participation. As a result, the legitimacy of these governments will continue to be disputed throughout the state building process.
Aside from a large, organized and effective Islamicist opposition, many of these countries also face a potentially large, unstable, unorganized mass of discontented urban lower class. To further complicate matters, this group is apt to be mobilized by revivalist Islam or other radical organizations. The response of these governments to these real or potential threats has been attempts at appeasement through strategies such as food subsidies, and to divide and conquer the opposition, pitting one group against another.
It is entirely possible that one of these organized opposition forces may rise up and take power, or that the unorganized masses could bring about change by breaking down order over time. In fact, the main political question pertaining to this region today is whether its governments will broker a compromise between these opposing parties and others, or whether one of them will rise to power.
Most Middle Eastern governments are authoritarian. They are too weak to be considered totalitarian. While they do dominate the formal, public realm, they do not control the private sector. Tradition dictates a clear separation between the public and private spheres and non-interference in the latter on the part of the government. This tradition acts as a deterrent to totalitarianism. At the same time, this gap between the government and society at large prevents society from bending the government to its will.
Nevertheless, the demand on the part of society for formal political participation is increasing and will continue to do so. As it does, civil society, that crucial space between the family and the state, may germinate and grow. The emergence of human rights organizations throughout the Middle East is a clear indicator of this phenomenon.
Bill, James A. and Springborg, Robert. Politics in the Middle East. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, 2000