Why so long?
A new book seeks to explain Arab presidents for life, a 'particular form of modern Arab political practice,writes David Tresilian
In the preface to his The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, published in May this year, the British historian Roger Owen explains that "I became interested in the particular subject of Arab republican presidents for life in the spring of 2009 when I learned that president Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria had engineered a constitutional amendment allowing him to remain in office for a third term and so, in effect, for as long as he wished."
However, Bouteflika was not the only one, since the republican presidents of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen seemed also to have engineered constitutional settlements of a similar kind, while the ruler of Libya, though refusing the title of president, was apparently in no hurry to depart the country's political scene despite having come to power in a military coup as far back as 1969.
Owen goes on to point out that the situation in the Arab world has changed radically since he started to write his book on "Arab presidents for life" in 2009, even if the uprisings of the Arab Spring seem to have bypassed Bouteflika. "This unexpected situation created an obvious dilemma," he observes, since the system the book originally described, of "an exclusive band of Arab rulers, five in North Africa and two in the Arab east, who governed more or less as kings with every intention of creating dynasties for themselves," seemed itself to be passing into history.
As a result, in his new book Owen has tried to explain the collapse of the system he describes in the uprisings that spread across the Arab world last year, as well as the reasons behind that system's earlier spread. The book attempts an explanation, drawing material from case studies across the Arab world, of the rise and fall of a "particular form of modern Arab political practice," one that turned out to be "much more vulnerable to popular pressure than almost anyone had imagined."
Owen is professor of Middle Eastern history at Harvard University in the United States, and he is well-known for his contributions particularly to Middle Eastern economic history. His biography of Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer, British consul-general in Egypt during the first few decades of the British occupation of the country and the man most associated with British colonial rule, was reviewed in the Weekly in April 2004.
A new book by Owen is quite an event, and The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, a long essay in length, makes valuable connections between regimes across the Arab world, allowing readers to see the former Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan and other regimes in a wider regional context.
Owen begins by explaining the features of this system of rule and the forces, internal and external, that helped to bring it about. "Almost every Arab republic," he writes, "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." In each case, "centralised structures of power based on a presidency supported by the army and the security services" were shored up, to extents that differed from one country to the next, by "oil revenues, western support as bulwarks against Islamic extremism, and largely apathetic populations."
There was also the "demonstration effect," in which rulers learned management techniques from their neighbours, including strategies of legitimation that included, but were not limited to, "managed plebiscites and elections, manipulated constitutions, and economic success," as well as the memory of earlier struggles against European colonialism that had originally led to the installation of republican regimes.
However, while understanding such "structures and processes," Owen writes, is vital to understanding how such regimes maintained themselves in power and continued over time, they can only be taken so far in the "absence of official records, which, though known to exist, remained totally inaccessible to public scrutiny" as long as the regime themselves were in power.
While "in the days of president Nasser, or the first two decades of Hafiz al-Assad, the personal idiosyncrasies of the leader, and the nature of his relations with close relatives, were sufficiently well hidden behind a wall of national institutions and, to some extent, constitutional constraints to play only a small observable role in the making of public policy," later the situation changed. Public policy remained as opaque as ever, but institutions and constraints were increasingly jettisoned in favour of what seems to have been essentially personal rule.
In this situation, the historian's best policy is one of modesty, Owen suggests, since he may be able to make only an informed guess at what is "being hidden, and of how the public is being willfully deceived." One way of reading Owen's book might be to seize on a couple of familiar objects in the prevailing fog, the author's characterisation of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia perhaps, while considering some of the more controversial questions raised by his enquiry. Was there, for example, a "cultural explanation" behind the Arab presidential regimes, or were they simply regional expressions of forces to be found across the developing world?
Regarding the regime of former president Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, which ended with his flight and that of members of his family in January last year, Owen writes that while the story of the Tunisian regime was similar to that of Egypt, "it sets itself apart in that the country's first president [Habib Bourguiba] was also the first in the Arab world to announce that he intended to remain in office for life." Having eliminated his rivals and destroyed the opposition, Bourguiba showed skill in entrenching himself in power, taking "good care to maintain friendly relations with the United States, from which he obtained significant aid, and from Europe, presenting himself as a secular moderniser."
Yet, having survived the 1950s, 60s, 70s and most of the 1980s in office, Bourguiba seems to have been losing his grip by the end of the latter decade, particularly as a result of more sustained internal opposition from the country's Islamist movement and spiraling economic difficulties. He was ejected in a palace coup orchestrated by his interior minister, Ben Ali, in 1987, Bourguiba's "increasingly erratic behaviour‚ê¶ arrogance, egotism, and general unwillingness to listen to advice [posing] an obvious danger to strong government at a time of great national tension."
While Ben Ali made moves in the direction of democratisation, common gestures during the handover of regimes, Tunisia became "a tightly managed police state run for the benefit of the president, his close family, and a small circle of friends and advisors." Owen quotes one observer to the effect that "employment in the security services may have sustained something like 10 per cent of the population," and those who benefited from the system did so in an ostentatious way, with "typical methods of enrichment including the privatisation of state assets such as hotels and manufacturing, the transfer of public land to private ownership‚ê¶ and, on some occasions, the forced sale of private assets such as banks and newspapers."
In Egypt, Owen writes, the rule of former president Mubarak can be divided into three main stages, the first and second ending in the 1990s when economic liberalisation led to a sell-off of state assets in a process that bears comparison to what happened in Yeltsin's Russia. Mubarak began to adopt a "more monarchical style," possibly as a result of pressure from those who had a "huge stake in the continuation of the regime without further change at the top" and possibly because of worries about the succession.
"It is also possible to imagine renewed pressure on Hosni Mubarak himself to stay on as president in order to protect the country from the new dangers that the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to pose," Owen writes. "The fact that the Bush administration changed its policy from one of democracy promotion in the Middle East to one of an alliance against 'terrorism' in 2006 was no doubt another important ingredient in the mix."
As such comments suggest, changing internal landscapes and shifting international priorities began to put increasing pressure on the presidents for life in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the years leading up to the Arab Spring. How far, though, can their impressive survival, in some cases for 30 years or more, be put down to local tendencies? Is there a case to be made for "Arab exceptionalism"?
Owen treats such questions in chapter nine of his book, where he argues that systems of long-term personal rule are not unusual "when set against some other areas, such as the Caribbean/Central American region, some few decades ago." They were also common in eastern Europe until 1989, where they were sustained by Soviet power, and they are still common in Central Asia and elsewhere. However, certain interlocking factors nevertheless characterised the Arab experience, among them "the greater centralisation of Arab security state structures‚ê¶ a set of common challenges ‚ê" oil, Israel, outside interference" and the "demonstration effect" that bound each regime to its neighbours.
Owen concludes that "presidents for life" are not uncommon when seen in comparative terms, and their peculiar tenacity in the Arab world cannot be put down to some essential feature of Arab populations, a racist argument. After all, the presidents for life eventually showed themselves to be as vulnerable to global pressures as presidents outside the Arab world, among them "political Islam, the stress on individual human rights, the revelations of WikiLeaks, and the American-directed war on terror," as well as the fury of popular protests.
"It is only the presence of so many of these presidents for life in one region over the last 40 years that is so unusual in global terms," Owen writes, "something that has to be explained in relationship not to the exceptional character of the Arab peoples, but to material factors that exercise a greater-than-usual power in the Arab world, notably the intensity of the multiple ties that bind it together, Palestine and oil money included."
Roger Owen, The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012. pp248