Some autocratic systems are more adaptable than others, argues Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University. In doing so, Stacher is making a case for studying the nature of regimes in order to understand how they respond to demands for change, including even revolutionary pressures generated during the years of the regional "Arab Spring." Many studies of regimes in Arab politics emphasize republics and monarchies as a binary of regime types, but Stacher argues for the need to distinguish within, as well as between, types of regimes. Both Egypt and Syria have been authoritarian republics, each with pseudo-revolutionary heritage rooted in the early days of the Arab Cold War. Yet in many respects the similarities end there. Stacher argues that to understand the nature of authoritarian rule, it is essential to examine in detail the nature of institutions, elite alliances, and configurations of power within autocratic systems. And in this book, he does just that.
Adaptable Autocrats provides a unique theoretical contribution to our understanding of autocracy in the Middle East and beyond, but it is also an empirically rich study of the nature of politics and power in both Egypt and Syria. Stacher is a fluent Arabic speaker [End Page 325] with extensive field research experience in both his country cases, and his extensive knowledge of both countries shows clearly in the text. He provides a detailed examination of the emergence and development of the Egyptian and Syrian systems; tracing the origins of Egyptian autocracy from Nasser through Sadat, Mubarak, and beyond, while also examining the development of Syrian authoritarianism via the rise of the Ba'th Party, and the transitions to Hafiz al-Asad and later to Bashar al-Asad.
Aside from superficial similarities, Stacher claims, the Egyptian and Syrian autocracies in fact suggest almost polar opposites. The difference, he argues, is in the nature of autocracy itself, and it explains their varied responses to the Arab uprisings, and their very different degrees of resiliency and adaptability. Power, state, and society are organized in very different ways between the two cases. Stacher argues that in Egypt the nature of national identity is more homogeneous, while state power is centralized; as a more centralized system, Egypt was better able to adapt to even revolutionary pressures for change. Syria, he argues, is based on a more heterogeneous social fabric, coupled with a more decentralized governing system, and hence proved less adaptable and more prone to chronic violence and unrest. "The differences in Egypt and Syria's adaptive capacity," he writes, "are a product of the origins of executive authority. Since 1970, Syria has been more of an oligarchic system ... Egypt, by contrast, is an executive-heavy political system where other state organizations do not maintain the ability to act independently outside an executive body's purview" (p. 78). In Egypt, the military could remove Mubarak in order to adjust the ruling coalition, and even allow Islamist rule, without losing its own status within the regime itself. For all the changes, the nature of the regime, including the centralized power of the presidency and the privileges of the military elite, remained intact. In Syria, local elites have tended to counter each other, ironically preserving the importance of an otherwise weaker presidency as the arbiter between groups within the ruling regime itself. In Syria, Stacher argues, "elites compete and may obstruct their rivals from other institutions. This complicates a Syrian ruler's ability to achieve a governing consensus across the bodies, which slows adaptation. It also restricts the regime's ability to remake its ruling coalition" (p. 23).
Stacher's book makes several key contributions to the literature on Arab and Middle East politics. The theoretical analysis noted above will add to a rich debate on the nature and persistence of authoritarianism (joining works by scholars such as Lisa Wedeen, Steven Heydemann, and Jason Brownlee). Adaptable Autocrats also provides a rich empirical analysis of the origins and development of regimes, executive authority, and the cooptation of elites in both Egypt and Syria...