The social contract as a tool of analysis: Introduction to the special issue on "Framing the evolution of new social contracts in Middle Eastern and North African countries"
The term "social contract" is increasingly used in social science literature to describe sets of state-society relations -in particular with reference to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Nevertheless, the term has thus far remained insufficiently conceptualized and its potential to inform a systematic analysis of contemporary states has been underutilized. This article contributes to the filling of this gap. It defines social contracts as sets of formal and informal agreements between
... cietal groups and their sovereign (government or other actor in power) on rights and obligations toward each other. We argue that social contracts are partly informal institutions, which are meant to make state-society interactions more predictable and thereby politics more stable. Their effectiveness depends on their substance (deliverables exchanged between government and society), scope (the actors involved and the geographic range of influence) and temporal dimension (beginning, evolution, and duration). Social contracts can differ substantially in all three dimensions. This approach complements established theories of comparative politics and sharpens the perspective on state-society relations. It helps to (i) compare state-society relations in different countries, (ii) track changes within one country, (iii) find out when and why social contracts are broken or even revoked, (iv) uncover how external players affect state-society relations, and (v) analyze how state-society relations can be Pareto improved. Against this background, this article shows that after independence, MENA countries had quite similar social contracts, which were based on the provision of social benefits rather than political participation. We argue that they degenerated steadily after 1985 due to increasing populations and budgetary problems. The Arab uprisings in 2010-11 were an expression of discontent with a situation in which governments provided neither political participation nor social benefits, like employment. Since then, social contracts in MENA countries have developed in different directions, and their long-term stability is questionable. We address the question of how they can be transformed to become more inclusive and therefore more stable.