- The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life
In this intriguing book on Arab authoritarianism Roger Owen brings to bear a lifetime of scholarship on the modern Middle East. One approaches it with high expectations, and indeed there is much to like in these reflections. Owen is commendably modest in his speculations about how these long-ruling presidents think and behave, frequently noting that crucial information is simply not available. This is not a study based on primary research but, as he says, draws on the work of other scholars (mostly Western) and on his own long experience and extensive networks. Fair enough, because what we most want and need, especially in light of the so-called Arab Spring, is a seasoned synthesis to help us understand the volatile and complex realities of contemporary Arab politics.
The book begins with an account of the political vacuum left by colonial rule which led to the establishment of populist authoritarian regimes underpinned by the military and the subsequent emergence of populist “strong men” — Egypt under Nasser being the archetypical example. We are then presented with a description of the structures of presidential power — the well-known mukhabarat security state — and its “cronies” in the business sector. Owen rightly observes that concern for their hollow ideological legitimacy led the presidents to contrive constitutional and electoral rituals to justify their ongoing rule and to devise statist economic policies to provide tangible material benefits for the people. Unfortunately, these policies became ever harder to sustain. “Second generation” presidents, instead of moving in a democratic direction (as early modernization theory proposed), sought to strengthen their domination by allying with a small group of crony capitalists to accommodate global economic liberalization pressures; and they also worked to enhance their personal legitimacy by gradually taking on some of the trappings of monarchy.
In chapters 4 and 5 Owen differentiates between the relatively centralized presidential systems in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Syria and the “managerial” presidencies in the relatively tribal, fragmented societies of Sudan, Yemen, and Libya where the state has been historically weaker. Nevertheless, the essential features of the presidency remain broadly similar and increasingly “monarchical.” He then turns to what he calls [End Page 751] “weak presidencies” in Lebanon and Iraq. However, the juxtaposition is awkward, despite the “Lebanonization” of post-Saddam Iraq. After all, Iraq’s deposed tyrant was hardly weak. His successor (prime minister, to be sure) seems headed in a similar direction. Meanwhile, the Lebanese presidency has devolved into nearly feeble condition.
In a chapter on the politics of succession, Owen tries to make the case that “father-to-son” is the norm in these presidencies, which would justify Sa‘ad Eddin Ibrahim’s designation of these systems as gumlukiyas. He marshals anecdotal evidence that this is in fact the way things work in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Yemen. But only in one of these cases — Syria — did it actually occur, and even there it was carefully cloaked in constitutional, not hereditary terms. In all the other cases there was, among many observers, merely an expectation that the sons would succeed to office; in fact, none did. As for the principle of “president for life,” unless I have missed something, there is only one actual example: Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia.
This leads to the question of the degree to which Arab presidencies are like Arab monarchies, where “in the family” succession (not necessarily primogeniture) is the rule. Does it really matter? Conventional political science wisdom has it that monarchies are more stable than presidential systems because the monarch enjoys legitimacy and is above politics. Owen ascribes to this proposition. Yet in his chapter on “monarchical security states,” he depicts systems that are very similar indeed in their structural and authoritarian features to those of the presidencies. Little is said about the uprising in Bahrain or the ripples of protest that have been observed in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Jordan. Of course those protests have (mostly) not called for the overthrow of the monarchy...