The cover of Roger Owen’s The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life (Harvard University Press ) shows Maummar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad in happier days. The genial and beloved Libyan, so modest that he claimed no higher position than colonel, stands with fist in the air, militant and feisty as ever. The Syrian technocrat wears what can only be called a big goofy grin. They look vigorous, confident, secure.
Does Assad ever think back on that era now, in the quiet moments between massacres of his own people? The recent fortunes of his peer group must inspire some nostalgia, as well as rage. The current situation of Hosni Mubarak (no longer a pharaoh, not yet a mummy) is bad enough. It proves that compromise is a slippery slope; holding on to power demands a willingness to fight to the death. As the example of Libya shows, even that may not be enough.
But the real horror of the situation, for Assad anyway – a far greater concern than any report  of his armed forces “killing and sexually abusing children and using them as human shields" – is that his people might not just fight him to the death, but deliver it to him in person, and record themselves doing so with their cell phones, for all the world to watch: Lèse majesté, then, with a vengeance.
It’s impossible to read Owen’s book without divided attention -- one eye on the page, the other on the news. In that respect, the book is timely. But it is also untimely, and not just because Owen, a professor of Middle East history at Harvard University, completed it a year ago. The endnotes cite one article dated as late as August 2011; otherwise, the references suggest he finished it last May.
In fact most of it was done at the end of 2010. It was conceived and written, that is, just before Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide by self-immolation (his final protest against the Tunisian authorities who had made it impossible for him to earn a living) set the whole region ablaze. Even with a final chapter on “The Sudden Fall” of the old order, Owen’s book is very much a pre-Arab Spring text. A description from the Harvard University Press website says the book “exposes for the first time the origins and dynamics of a governmental system that largely defined the Arab Middle East in the twentieth century.” This is, to be blunt, misleading. The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life is very much in the mainstream of recent U.S. scholarship on the region. Analysts have been considering the various flavors of political authoritarianism there for some time now. Owen’s concerns are their concerns. The orientation of this work is more or less epitomized by the title of a well-known journal article: “Why Are There No Arab Democracies? ”
Owen’s “presidents for life” ruled countries that others have identified as cases of “dynastic republicanism” or “monarchial presidency.” His list includes Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. Lebanon is an outlier here, as is post-Saddam Iraq. Owen describes them as having "constrained presidencies. The office is relatively weak -- dominated by outside forces (Syria in the case of Lebanon, the US with Iraq) and obliged to tread carefully given sectarian divisions within the country. In Iraq's case, a presidency-for-life once existed, but Lebanese presidents have left office voluntarily, except, of course, when assassinated.
The other regimes, by contrast, have been exceedingly stable. That stability might be explained by the efforts of any given state’s repressive apparatus, of course; but then you had to explain why the repressive apparatus itself proved so trustworthy and loyal. Junior military officers can be ambitious, after all. But once the likes of Saddam Hussein and Colonel Qadaffi assumed command, they kept it -- at least until outside military forces broke their grip.
From specialized work on countries in the region, Owen extracts and synthesizes enough shared elements to produce a generalized model of the arrangement that proved so durable for so long. The origins can be traced to what he calls “the authoritarian presidential regimes established soon after independence,” usually in the wake of the Second World War. A few readers will wonder if that’s going far back enough. The experience of colonization is not the schooling in pluralism and rule-of-law it is sometimes made out to be.
In any event, the incentives for a postcolonial concentration of authority are clear enough. Establishing national sovereignty is an obvious one, and in the early days it meant bringing much of the economy under state control as necessary to direct production for local needs. All the better if oil was the chief commodity. Besides creating a middle class of engineers and other professionals to run industry, national revenues could be directed towards building infrastructure, meaning employment for a wide range of skill grades.
State control of the economy assured plenty of money to fund the military, thereby consolidating another vested interest in stability, while at the same time building up a separate internal security forces to keep an eye on the military as well as the civilian population. Any paranoia on the part of the presidents-for-life was completely justified. Owen notes that by the early 1970s, most of them had come into office from the military and could appreciate the need to build “coup-proof regimes.”
Putting family members into key positions throughout the system gave the presidents-for-life another layer of oversight and control. In time, some regimes could even allow a bit of parliamentary politics as a valve to let off steam. And even when their economies underwent varying degrees of privatization, things remained well in hand. Previously nationalized industries were sold off to cronies, and only trusted people permitted to deal with foreign companies.
Enough people and institutions had enough of an investment in this arrangement to make continuity of leadership worth their while. In Syria, Assad succeeded his father. In Egypt, the younger Mubarak’s inauguration was a matter of time. This was tolerable for the people who benefited from the arrangement, and it them an incentive to ignore those who didn't.
At a certain intensity, corruption no longer counts as corruption; it’s just how things get done. And the men who served as the godfather to each national syndicate enjoyed the benefit of watching how one another did their jobs. They were a cohort. Owen calls it the “demonstration effect” – the diffusion of authoritarian techniques by example.
It clearly worked, as that photo of Qaddafi and Assad shows – at least until it didn’t. Four of the nine presidents-for-life in power on the first day of 2011 have left office and another has agreed to step down when his term has ended. As for the other four, well, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. And nobody saw the reversal failure coming, least of all on the scale that it did.
In an essa y titled “The Middle East Academic Community and the ‘Winter of Arab Discontent’: Why Did We Miss It?” (published last year), F. Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont answers that he and his colleagues were “focused (and in many ways rightly so) on explaining the anomalous regime stability that characterized the Arab world in the 40 years leading up to these events.”
It was never, he says, a matter of assuming that people were happy, but rather of focusing on the efficacy and robustness of authoritarian institutions. That sounds like a good description of the topic of The Rise and Fall of the Arab Presidents for Life.
Gause’s self-critical remarks seem worth quoting at length. A single-minded concern with the regimes’ strength “led us to discount the possibility of mass political mobilization, largely because we had seen previous efforts in this direction fail. It led us to make assumptions about the relationship between regimes and their militaries that turned out, in some cases, not to be true. It led us to overestimate the regime-strengthening effects of neo-liberal economic reform. It led us to discount the regime-threatening effects of demographic change and new social media, not because we did not recognize the fact of demographic change and new social media, but rather because we thought the regimes were strong enough to absorb the pressures generated by them.”
Owen’s last chapter takes up those undetected factors in the fragility of the monarchial presidential regimes, and concludes that the Arab Spring was another instance of the “demonstration effect” at work in the region – people learning from and using one another’s experience, as their leaders had. Fair enough, I guess. But the most important books on 2011 will begin at that point, rather than end there.