Roger Owen writes in The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life that he became interested in the subject in the spring of 2009, and soon after decided to write a book. It was virtually completed by the end of December 2010, “just as the first rumblings of opposition to President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia suggested that these systems of quasi-monarchical government were much more vulnerable to popular pressure than almost anyone had previously imagined.” Faced with the question of whether or not to amend his work to reflect the inchoate Arab Spring, Owen compromised: “I would adapt my manuscript to take account of the fall of two presidents, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; the tremendous pressure faced by three more, Bashar al-Asad of Syria, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya; and the announcement by Omar al- Bashir of Sudan that he would not seek another term as president when his present term expired in 2015. This meant, in effect, the end of the system that my book seeks to explicate as a particular form of modern Arab political practice.” Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya have of course since been removed from power. In Syria, however, Bashar al-Asad remains. With the massacre last week of over 100 villagers in central Syria ratcheting international outrage yet higher, an end to Asad’s reign may be growing closer. We offer below an excerpt from Owen’s book that outlines the common features of the system of Arab monarchical republics, which may also be seeing its end.
The systems of Arab presidents for life were many decades in the making, having their origins with the (mostly military) leaders who came to power from the late 1960s onward and soon learned how to construct the coup-proof regimes that would allow them to remain in offi ce for as long as they lived. From then on, only one Arab republican president, Abdul Rahman al-Iryani of North Yemen, left office more or less of his own free will when his term expired in 1974. Other unusual exceptions were Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr of Iraq and Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, who got pushed aside by ambitious subordinates, while two more, Gafar Nimeiri of Sudan and Chadli Bendjedid of Algeria, were removed by fellow military officers in 1985 and 1992, respectively.
As of 31 December 2010, the list of longtime presidential survivors included Muammar Qaddafi, who got rid of the Libyan monarchy in 1969; Ali Abdullah Saleh of North Yemen (1978–) and a United Yemen (1991–); Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (1981–); Zein El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia (1987–); and Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan (1993–). By then, just one—Hafiz al-Asad of Syria (1970–2000)—had managed to pass on power to his son, Bashar. But there was every reason to suppose that others, like Mubarak, Saleh, and Qaddafi, fully intended to try. Meanwhile, at least two of the Middle East’s remaining monarchies, Morocco and Jordan, had become significantly more presidential in their exercise of royal authoritarian power.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise to those who have read the long history of political republics, beginning with the emergence of powerful figures such as the Caesars of ancient Rome. Then, too, there are the cases of the two powerful leaders of the revived form of republicanism represented by the American and French revolutions, with George Washington fighting off the various influences suggesting that he become another type of monarch and Napoleon Bonaparte agreeing to become emperor in the interest of ensuring that the revolution could be continued on a permanent basis.
Nevertheless, it took some little time to understand how, in a roughly similar republican context, roughly similar pressures encouraged the leaders of the world’s newly independent states to take their first step in the process toward permanency by allowing themselves to serve on and on without thought of retirement. It remains true that, in the Arab world at least, the general rationale of such systems, their structures, their politics, and the ways in which they sought to legitimize themselves remain little researched and poorly understood. All this in spite of the work of a small group of academic researchers, mostly political scientists, who have begun either to explore the present political dynamics of individual Arab presidential security states such as Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia or to look comparatively at certain aspects of these same dynamics either across the Middle East or, in a few cases, across all or most of the former colonial world.
It is known, for example, that almost every Arab republic contained an interlocking, and relatively small, elite composed of senior army officers, bureaucrats, and cronies who had a vested interest in protecting both the regime and themselves by limiting and controlling the impact of Western-inspired political and economic reform. It is also becoming known that, in such systems, members of the presidential family were deeply involved in business themselves; that elections were managed in such a way as to secure a reasonable turnout and so to give the impression that they were exercises in pluralist competition; that opposition was co-opted or repressed; and that information about the major mechanisms of privatization and the award of state contracts was virtually unobtainable, leaving rumor as the only source of political information. Finally, some pathbreaking work is being done on the expansion of the role of many Arab armies in the direction of becoming monopolistic economic actors in their own right.
What, so far, has been lacking is any attempt to examine all these elements on a systematic basis as an example of a new form of rule, practiced intermittently across the non-European regions of the globe, but seen in its most concentrated form in the Arab world, where incumbent presidents all benefited from the same general context—oil revenues, Western support as bulwarks against Islamic extremism, and largely apathetic populations—and, to an increasing extent, from the type of demonstration effect in which ruling families and their advisers readily learned techniques of management from their Arab neighbors.
Looked at from this comparative perspective, the main features of the system, of its contradictions and laws of motion, become more clear. On the one hand, there were centralized structures of power based on a presidency supported by the army and the security services. On the other, a set of practices designed to legitimize the system, most notably the importance attached to the constitution and to managed elections, touted by the presidents themselves, in spite of all proof to the contrary, as providing authentic evidence of the people’s will.
Looked at in its entirety, [The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life] is an attempt to address some of the principal questions that the development of monarchical presidencies for life suggests. How did this sorry state of affairs come about? What were its laws of motion and likely consequences? And why did the situation in the Arab world, where the system became nearly universal, differ from that of Africa and other parts of the former colonial world where it proved much more difficult to establish?
Shakespeare is present in the human and family drama of it all: think of the Macbeths’ ambitious drive for power, and of Lear’s vanity and lack of imagination, making elaborate arrangements for the future rule of his kingdom only to disrupt them in his petulant old age. So too is Machiavelli with his advice that a ruler’s counselors should tell him only what they think he wants to hear.
Viewed from this perspective, it is politics and power that become, as they did for many historians before the present era, the main motive force of history. Nevertheless, given my own concerns with another old tradition—that of political economy—I do not wish to suggest either that powerful men can do exactly what they like or that socioeconomic and cultural forces have little or nothing to do with the case. Rather, I would like to suggest that the formula “Mubarak’s Egypt” only makes sense if it is accompanied by the equally powerful notion of “Egypt’s Mubarak,” the one imperfectly understood without the other, with both existing in the larger context of the Middle East and a globalizing world.
(Electronically reproduced from The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, by Roger Owen, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.)