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New Texts Out Now: Roger Owen, The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life

[Cover of Roger Owen, [Cover of Roger Owen, "The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life."]

Roger Owen, The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Roger Owen (RO): I was intrigued by news reports from Algeria in the spring of 2009 stating that President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika of Algeria was going to amend the constitutional term limits in order to allow him become, in effect, president life, as Ben Ali and other Arab republican presidents had done before him. This led me on to consider the whole phenomenon of personalized presidential power, which did not seem to me to have been properly addressed before—at least not in English. At the same time, I was intrigued by Saad Eddine Ibrahim’s notion of the “Gumlukiya,” the monarchical republic, which he believed had come to exist in Syria and would in Egypt if Gamal Mubarak succeeded his father, a touchy point that led the Mubaraks to have Ibrahim arrested and put in jail.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

RO: I address the question of power in an old-fashioned way—that is, concentrating on the personality of the president and his family and of the structures that support them—which seemed largely to have vanished from the literature, particularly that written by political scientists. For example, if you look at the index of many recent books about modern Egypt, you find very few references to “Nasser” or “Sadat,” although this was certainly not always the case. And yet, many of the Arab world’s ills seemed to me to come from the fact that most of the individual countries were ruled for so long by superannuated older men surrounded by crony-capitalists whose only interests were in the preservation of a corrupt status quo.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

RO: My early work was almost exclusively concerned with the economic history of the Middle East in the last two centuries. But I was then drawn to write a text-book—State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East—about the existing political systems from a political-economy point of view using material which stemmed directly from a regular series of lectures I gave at Oxford University beginning in the 1970s, when no one else seemed to be given courses on the same subject.

Later, when I joined the History Department at Harvard University in 1993 (I had been in Social Studies at Oxford), I wanted to try my hand at political biography as some of my colleagues were doing. And this led to my life of the first Lord Cromer (published in 2004), and then to a wish to write something like a series of connected modern political biographies. These would be focused on the exercise of power within the authoritarian political structures that had developed in the Middle East (as well as the rest of the post-colonial world) as a result of the multiple personal as well as political and national insecurities of that era, so well examined by writers like Mohammed Ayoob and Jean-François Bayart. It was an exciting yet trying piece of research, given the fact that so little could be known about the secretive personal life of the presidents I was writing about and it relied very much on information coming from friends, students, and other informal sources—including, right at the end, some of the invaluable Wikileaks documents.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RO: My initial aim was to write for the same kind of well-read but largely non-academic readership I had hoped for my State, Power and Politics, including journalists, diplomats, and others. But now, with the Arab Spring and the sudden disappearance of three out of the seven Arab republican presidents for life, I have come to believe that my new book may reach a much more general audience, as well as a larger academic one, including undergraduates who are interested in survey courses involving the contemporary Middle East. In particular, I would like readers to think about the harm done to Middle Eastern societies by the existence of presidents for life—for example, now, in Syria—and of both the problems and the promise involved in the creation of new constitutional orders based on the notion of a plural democratic practice based on regular national elections.

J: How would you like to see this book affect current political and intellectual conversations regarding ongoing events in the region?

RO: I would like to see my book used as the basis for informed discussion about what American writers have called the “constitutional moment,” involving, as it must do, large considerations concerning republican as opposed to parliamentary systems of government, and also with regard to the nuts and bolts of democratic practice, such as the conduct of elections, the organization of parliamentary debate, and so on.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RO: I have been lecturing and writing widely about the problems and possibilities connected with the establishment of working democracies in the Middle East, including the nature of what is obviously a significant “Arab” moment in which lessons and examples pass rapidly from one part of the Arab world to another. In addition, as I approach retirement, I have also begun to put down a set of more personal memories relating to my own experience of the modern Middle East, beginning with my military service in Cyprus in 1955-6, which I used to visit Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt for the first time, and also related to the creation of the field of modern Middle East studies as I viewed it from the vantage point of being a student of Albert Hourani and as a new member of some of the various networks of European, Middle Eastern, and North American scholars with which he was associated.

Excerpt from The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life

From the Preface

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 his wished. In so doing he joined 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, just as Hafiz al-Asad had managed to do in Syria. The decision to write a book on the subject followed almost immediately, and the project was virtually completed by the end of December 2010, just as the first rumblings of opposition to President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia suggested that these systems of quasi-monarchical government were much more vulnerable to popular pressure than almost anyone had previously imagined.

This unexpected situation created an obvious dilemma. Should I publish the manuscript as it was before any of the presidents had been actually pushed from office, or should I seek to incorporate the beginnings of that extraordinary story by which insistent demands for the removal of dictatorial presidents and for personal freedom suddenly appeared almost everywhere in the Arab world? In the end I decided on what was necessarily an only partially satisfactory compromise: I would adapt my manuscript to take account of the fall of two presidents, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; the tremendous pressure faced by three more, Bashar al-Asad of Syria, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya; and the announcement by Omar al-Bashir of Sudan that he would not seek another term as president when his present term expired in 2015. This meant, in effect, the end of the system that my book seeks to explicate as a particular form of modern Arab political practice.

Presidents were also very much in the spotlight when my own interest in Middle East politics began in the 1960s. Like other academic observers I believed that the strong presidential regimes of that time were an inevitable outcome of the drive toward complete independence, easily justified by the attention that was paid to remedying the enforced backwardness of the colonial period with programs of land reform, industrialization, and educational development. Only in the 1970s did I begin to realize that they also involved the creation of structures of centralized personal rule, soon to be identified as authoritarian, while showing few signs of transforming themselves into plural systems of power based on contested elections and the more open, more competitive economic structures to be seen in parts of postcolonial Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

Disillusion came in two stages. First, there was the widespread recognition that Arab authoritarianism was much more durable than had originally been supposed. Next there was the realization that more and more presidents were becoming, in effect, presidents for life, with every intention of passing on their office to one of their family, a process first observed in Syria, where President Hafiz al-Asad began grooming his sons to succeed him in the early 1990s. Soon some of the republics were beginning to look more like monarchies, a condition wonderfully captured by Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddine Ibrahim’s newly minted word “gumlukiya”—meaning a state that was half republic and half monarchy—which, though coined while he was reporting on Hafiz al-Asad’s funeral in Damascus, was rightly taken to apply to President Hosni Mubarak’s plans for Egypt as well. That Ibrahim was arrested as soon as he got back to Cairo seemed only to confirm the truth of what he was saying. Republican presidents were now behaving more like kings, just as the kings of Jordan, Morocco, and, later, Bahrain were adopting many techniques of government borrowed from their presidential neighbors.

My attempt at a comprehensive answer to the many questions about the development of Arab presidencies for life builds on the research of numerous political historians and political scientists of the Middle East working along much the same lines, whose ideas, I hope, it fully acknowledges. Nevertheless, as far as I know, there is no other book devoted solely to the subject, nor one that examines its historical etiology all across the Arab world from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, as well as analyzing its many unusual features in terms of rulers determined not only to defy the passage of time but also to find ways of defeating the whole logic of what is supposed to be a republican form of government.


From Chapter Ten, “The Sudden Fall”

On 31 December 2010, the Arab world contained nine presidents, of whom seven clearly intended to stay in office for life and six were over sixty—a veritable kingdom of the old. No one predicted, nor had the means to predict, what lay ahead. Egyptian newspaper columnists, for example, writing of what to expect in 2011 could see little significant on the political horizon other than continued speculation as to whether Gamal Mubarak would succeed his father, nothing more. Elsewhere, there was some question about opposition to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s plans for his eldest son. Meanwhile, academics were still writing about what Eva Bellin, in 2005, had called the “robustness of the coercive apparatus.” And where they did address the question of the conditions under which regimes might fall, it was almost always argued in terms of possible weaknesses at the top, perhaps a fiscal crisis that could lead to a “hollowing out” of the coercive apparatus.

Out of the blue, and beginning with what might otherwise have been a minor event—the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the southwest of Tunisia—a spark was lit that caused popular feeling to explode across the Arab world, bringing the immediate downfall of two presidential regimes (in Tunisia and Egypt) and posing a substantial threat to three more (in Libya, Syria, and Yemen), forcing their leaders to confront the rebels in a series of increasingly violent confrontations. And though, in retrospect, it is possible to discern some of the material causes of these events, it is their existential quality that seems worthy of most notice, the fact that so many people in so many places were united in the desire to free themselves from a set of oppressive, arbitrary, corrupt, controlling, and incomprehensible regimes, all of which appeared as though they would last the length of their own lifetimes and beyond. To take just one telling example, a young Egyptian of thirty would only have known one ruler, Hosni Mubarak, and could expect to know only one more, his son, Gamal.

In the event, the most useful way of explaining these unexpected irruptions of popular grievance was provided by Timur Kuran in his seminal article “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolution,” based on a study of the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions. Here he theorizes that in repressive regimes people conceal their true opinions but at considerable psychological cost. Then, in response to a slight surge in more open opposition, more and more individuals are emboldened to publicly express political dissatisfaction until there is a wholesale shift in “public sentiment.” A further elaboration is provided by Arne Klau, in which he notes that the coming of Facebook and Twitter allowed Tunisians and Egyptians to express their dissatisfaction to each other at very low cost—for example, without running the risk of attending public meetings—and so giving them a sense of their own large numbers even before the first demonstrations began.

The revealed weaknesses of the Arab presidential regimes and the way that these weaknesses combined created a revolutionary situation that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to try to complete the work of liberation first begun by the founders of the very same structures they were now trying to overturn.

[Excerpted from The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, by Roger Owen, by permission of the author and of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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