Middle East Policy Council

Book Review

The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life

Roger Owen

Winter 2012, Volume XIX, Number 4

If ever the overused phrase "he needs no introduction" were applicable, it is to Roger Owen, known to virtually all students of the Middle East because of the breadth and quality of his writings. This most recent work reflects his remarkably diverse interests and knowledge. To help us understand Arab authoritarian leaders, he has drawn upon his awareness of and previous publications in the fields of economic history, political economy and biography to produce a cogent, insightful account of this phenomenon, which may now have begun to recede into history. In so doing, he has contributed to a long overdue revival of the study of political leadership. This subject has a venerable history that includes such luminaries as Machiavelli and Weber, as well as distinguished social scientists writing after World War II, including Gabriel Almond, Alexander George, Dankwart Rustow and Howard Wriggins. In the past 20 years, however, it has been almost entirely supplanted by econometric approaches that inherently devalue the vital role of leadership.

Owen embeds his analysis of "authoritarian statecraft" in its historical, comparative and national settings. Its genesis is to be found in the unique conditions of the Middle East in the postcolonial era. The legacy of anti-colonial struggles was a bitter one, rendered more so by rear-guard neocolonial interventions directed against emerging nationalist leaderships, such as the tripartite attack on Suez and Nasser in 1956. The resultant Arab leadership style was thus profoundly mistrustful, enamored of developing coercive means to fend off international, regional and domestic challenges in this cockpit of Cold War confrontation. The threat posed by Israel reinforced this tendency, while geostrategic rents and oil provided the wherewithal to support it. Thus the virulence of their particular colonial dialectics propelled Arab republics toward authoritarianism, where a new generation of leaders based their power on centralized security structures. These they rapidly coup-proofed, thereby guaranteeing the longevity of their rule.

Owen underscores the uniqueness of this historical setting and its destructive political consequences with a succinct comparative investigation of authoritarian leadership worldwide. It reveals that only in Central Asia is this phenomenon as widespread, although the small sample of states there renders the comparison somewhat moot. Yet Owen's argument is not one of historical determinism. A key factor in solidifying and perpetuating Arab authoritarianism has been, according to him, a "demonstration effect." By this he means the conscious learning and borrowing of methods by one Arab leader from another, as if the Arab world were a large school for dictators. Marching as if in lockstep, they perpetuate their authoritarian rule by imitating and coordinating repressive capacities, typically housed in ministries of interior. They employ various soft measures as well, substituting cronyism for socialism to generate patronage resources in "liberalizing" economies, and engineering elections to offset the declines in legitimacy that were previously generated by the anti-colonial struggle.

Another strength of the book is its exploration of linkages among historical, economic and political contexts, on the one hand, and the behavior of individual leaders, on the other. Owen places the reader in the shoes of the leaders so as better to understand their strategies. A particularly good example of this is his depiction of Jordan's King Hussein "managing a set of often contradictory imperatives" (p. 127), including shifting regional alignments, domestic economic crises and mounting opposition to his rule. After analyzing Hussein's and Morocco's King Hassan's adaptive strategies, he then compares how their sons, having inherited kingdoms that have undergone major changes, are compelled to forge new strategies of rule. Unlike Arab presidents and even some of their yet more authoritarian fellow monarchs, such as those in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, Kings Muhammad VI and Abdullah benefit from some political insulation. They lead relatively more robust civil and political societies, as reflected in the comparatively more important role played by their prime ministers and cabinets. Owen also tentatively explores quasi-psychological explanations of behavior. In wrestling with the question of why incumbent Arab presidents have sought to rule for life, for example, he proposes a "King Lear syndrome in which old men cling to power, unable to face the consequences of being sidelined and forgotten after they have given it away" (p. 151).

Nuggets of detail and insight, which readers may have once known and forgotten or have only a subliminal awareness of, are scattered throughout the text. Owen notes the key role of construction and contracting in the development of crony capitalists, something much commented on in country case studies but not previously observed at the regional level (p. 49). So, too, is the fact that no Sunni signed the 2005 Iraqi constitution (p. 121), and that Nasser had the 1956 Egyptian constitution drafted secretly in his office (p. 63). Authoritarian contempt for legalism is nicely exemplified with a revealing quote from Saddam: "The law is anything I write on a scrap of paper" (p. 39). In an understated style that belies the incisiveness of the observation, Owen notes, "Arab security states contained at least two influential groups of people: those who had a vested interest in persuading the ruler to appoint a family successor, and those who did not" (p. 140). Division within the Mubarak, Ben Ali and Qaddafi security states, revealed as they collapsed, was exactly of this nature. The concept of a "mirror state," in which "presidents were encouraged not only to see what they wanted to see but also to imagine themselves as omnipotent, indispensable and well loved by a grateful people," crystallizes not only these presidential personalities, but also the style of interaction between the leaders and their entourages. For this reviewer, it triggered recollection of an indirect interaction with President Mubarak. I am told on good authority that he personally banned the translation into Arabic of my Mubarak's Egypt (December 1988) as well as its sale in Egypt, not because of its overall critical tone, but because of the adjective "weak" used to describe him.

The fall of at least some of the presidents-for-life raises the question of "what next?" In 201 pages of text focused primarily on their rise, and writing as they were indeed falling, Owen cannot provide much guidance. What little he does is optimistic, speculating that the departure of presidents-for-life may herald the Arab world's return to history. Egypt might be able to find a "place in the larger global historical processes" that allowed other authoritarian countries to transition to democracies (p. 190). Since this was written, two developments in the wake of these historic "falls" suggest that optimism might be premature, or altogether unwarranted. Manifestations of centrifugal forces from Libya to Iraq raise the question of whether the Arab postcolonial states can, as presently configured geographically and structurally, transit to post-postcolonial, at least quasi-democratic, states. Or will they be federalized, Lebanized or altogether dismembered, with all of the political turbulence and violence associated with these scenarios of reconfiguration and dismemberment? Secondly, the rise of Islamism — most especially in Tunisia and Egypt but essentially everywhere as Arab authoritarian leaders begin to teeter — raises a question: will the Arab world become part of global political processes or depart yet further from them? After all, Iran's choice of a vilayat-e faqih [an Islamic jurist] to lead the nation hardly brought it back into the global mainstream. Might it possibly be that nostalgia — which, for colonialism and neocolonialism, took at least a generation to develop in most Arab countries — will emerge much more quickly with regard to these postcolonial authoritarian states and their presidents-for-life? The political marginalization by Islamists of liberal secularists and Christians in various Arab settings suggests this might be the case.

Had this been an academic tome rather than an extended, thought-provoking essay, it might have expanded variously. While Owen repeatedly and correctly laments the absence of accessible archival materials in Arab countries relevant to their postcolonial histories, he does not make much use of second-best sources: accounts by participants, whether in the form of memoirs or interviews. Kirk Beattie, among others, has demonstrated the utility of the latter in understanding the dynamics of the Nasser and Sadat political elites. To be fair, it is still premature for an effort of this sort; the surviving participants did not previously have the freedom, nor have they yet had the time, to reflect on their involvement in their respective "mirror states." A second area of potential investigation would follow the path marked out by previous studies of Arab postcolonial political elites, especially those with a military background. P.J. Vatikiotis, Elizier Beeri and others have focused on the social backgrounds of this nationalist political elite, drawing conclusions about their views and behavior from this data. One discovery was that their limited educations and narrow worldviews made them inherently suspicious of colonial-era cosmopolitanism and the politics associated with it. Whether successive generations of these officer elites, including Husni Mubarak and Bashar al-Assad, share their predecessors' backgrounds — and, if so, with what effects — is an inviting area for further speculation.

No review is complete without a few quibbles, though none here is of great import. The title does not accurately reflect the book's content, which deals with both presidents and monarchs. The categorization of republics into centralized states (Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Algeria), tribal states necessitating "managerial" presidents (Libya, Sudan and Yemen) and the "Lebanized" states of Lebanon and post-Saddam Iraq, provides some insight into shared characteristics. However, like all such classifications, it lumps some apples and oranges together. Syria, for example, whose government Owen argues "under Asad was run in a much more centralized way than that of Egypt under Sadat or Mubarak" (p. 144), could be seen as being more fragmented. Certainly the social forces from which Syria is formed are much more diverse, but so too has its governance had more elements of authoritarian pluralism than that in Egypt. The farming out of considerable communal governance to Christians and Kurds, to say nothing of greater local autonomy in, say, Aleppo as compared to Alexandria, combined with considerable freelancing within the military and security forces — as shown by parallel networks of corruption and even competition within the ruling Assad family — all raise questions about categorizing Syria, to say nothing of the yet more fragmented Algeria, with Tunisia and Egypt. While Iraq may share some of the societal diversity of Lebanon, and that Mediterranean country's "consociationalism" may have inspired proconsul Paul Bremer and other American decision makers when they crafted the post-Saddam governmental order, the outcome differed profoundly. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's personal power base — entrenched in the military and security services, complemented by control over the civilian administration, and supported by the United States — is far more dominant and unified than that of any prime minister or president in Lebanon's history, including Fuad Shihab, as the quick demise of "Shihabism" after 1964 attests. The existence of oil is a major part of the Iraq story; that factor, combined with the relative power and unification of the country's coercive apparatuses, suggests that Iraq might have been better placed with Algeria than Lebanon. Another quibble about interpretation concerns Nasser's resignation in the wake of the disastrous defeat in the June 1967 war. Owen gives him credit for this "rare show of humility" (p. 64), on the grounds that he was personally shouldering the blame (p. 32). This is a rather significant departure from the standard account, which sees the resignation as a ruse intended to provide the opportunity for Nasser and his backers to mobilize a demonstration of support, to bolster his position and undercut that of his designated and set-up successor, Zakariya Muhi al Din. While Owen's benign interpretation could be correct, it needs substantiation.

Finally, a few gremlins crept into the text. It was Bashir — not Pierre Gemayel — who was assassinated in 1982 (p. 116). It is al munafiqun, not al munifiqun (p. 178) and siloviki, not silovaki (p. 189). That Bahrain has had "fewer problems" than Morocco or Jordan (p. 136) may have been the case when the text was first drafted, but obviously not by the time it made it into print. In sum, Owen has managed to produce an almost delightful book on what is virtually a dreadful subject. Useful and entertaining for even as jaded a reader as this reviewer, it must be doubly so for those fresher to the subject, including students seeking to know more about how and why Arab leaders led their countries out of history.

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