Joshua Stacher, Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?
Joshua Stacher: The central reason for writing this book was to understand the differences in how executive power operates in autocratic political systems. I had been living in Cairo for about four years and, while I had traveled to other Arab countries and noticed differences, I had grown accustomed to the Mubarak regime`s variant of autocracy. After living and researching in Damascus for about three weeks, I started to realize that there were structural differences in the authoritarianism I was seeing there. This was in some respects counter-intuitive, given that Egypt and Syria had briefly been one country (1958-1961) and looked similarly designed on paper. When I went to the literature, there seemed to be people working on Syria who referenced Egypt but those working on Egypt hardly ever referenced Syria. This implied there was a linear aspect of development. And yet, this was not what I was experiencing in the field. I spent my remaining months and several trips back to Syria teasing out this difference with Egypt. Consequently, this project coalesced around the idea of comparing and contrasting authoritarianism in the two countries.
The central difference between Egypt and Syria seemed to be a product of how executive power flowed. What I discovered was that the Egyptian system was more centralized around the executive, while the character of the Syrian system—even under Hafiz al-Asad—was more oligarchic. Despite this idea, the project lacked a hook. When the uprisings began in 2011, the ongoing outcomes reflected this discrepancy in how power operated. In Egypt, Mubarak could be replaced as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) slid into the executive`s role to adapt the system, while in Syria the option of replacing the president still has not occurred. Once the decentralized regime unified in Syria, it produced a protracted and violent confrontation between the state and society. Are we watching Syria’s unified autocratic regime collapse in slow motion? I think so. But it has not happened yet. I do believe that we are also watching an autocratic regime with very low adaptability. Hence, the centralized versus decentralized executive accounts for a difference that makes some autocrats, such as those in Egypt, more able to adapt than others. Executive centralization favors the authoritarian’s ability to adapt.
There were also many more reasons why I wrote this book but it was primarily out of a genuine commitment to taking politics in Egypt and Syria seriously and wanting to understand a part of the world where I ended up living nearly a third of my life (up until that point).
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
JS: The central literature my book addresses is on authoritarian durability. Yet, rather than set up authoritarianism as a "bad" guy to the goodness of "democracy", I tried hard to take the type of rule that I lived under without making a lot of moral judgments. I wanted to understand authoritarian rule not as part of a dichotomy but rather for what it is. There are lots of works out there that want to reduce autocracy to single-person rule or elections, and I just never thought that encapsulated the experience of people living under these regimes. I wish my book spent more time looking at how people resist such rule, but the point of fact is I was trying to understand exactly the types of regimes that many of my friends and colleagues continue to struggle against.
This book also addresses topics such as authoritarian change. While there is a raging debate about the extent and lasting effects of the Arab uprisings, I believe that we are witnessing continuities in the short-term. This is not to suggest that "nothing has changed” or will not change. Both are simply not true. The uprisings in the Arab world are enormously important and will lead to larger seismic changes in how people are ruled in that region. But, in the short term, I make the assumption—as does the book—that authoritarians will attempt to reconstitute themselves, and the odds favor these incumbents. This does not mean power brokers cannot make mistakes or the popular mobilization will not continue. I anticipate both will happen. However, I suspect the uprisings and revolutions to be more circumspect than initially anticipated. This will, however, set the stage for a larger showdown as people continue to demand their rights in the future. I think it is important to understand that we are watching a long historical process unfold. Hence, this is why I see these elites as adaptable autocrats. Egypt`s regime is just more agile than the cumbersome, option-less one in Syria.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
JS: Most people have been introduced to me through my research published in the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) on the Egyptian Society of Muslim Brothers. I enjoy working and thinking about that group, partly because I find it fascinating that I could personally disagree with a group so much but still find myself trying to humanize them in the face of outdated and simplistic discourses against them. The truth of it is that throughout my intellectual journey, I had mostly studied the politics of being in the opposition. I was interested in opposition parties, how a regime structures a population`s political culture, and human rights activism. The only real exception was my recent article on reinterpreting hereditary succession in Syria, which appeared in Middle East Journal`s Spring 2011 issue.
My book is unlike most of my previously published work, in this respect. Rather than think about how social forces resist autocracy or atomize the games that such regimes play to manipulate the rules, I wanted to build a theory about how such regimes are designed structurally. It is a major departure from anything that I have done previously.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JS: I hope everyone reads this book, and its impact is immeasurable. But being more realistic, I have more modest ambitions. In particular, I would like to be read and be taken seriously in Middle East Studies circles, as well as by those in political science and history. Similarly, I hope people who are interested in methodological issues, such as interviewing elites or verifying oral data, will read it and gain new insights when conducting field research. Other audiences that I may reach include journalists, as well as policy makers working on the region. I doubt the book will influence policy makers much, as they have their own structural realities. However, if it contributes to a more nuanced or careful conceptualization of autocratic rule in the Arab world in the academy or among journalists, I will be immensely pleased.
J: What other projects are you working on right now?
JS: Thankfully, there is no shortage of topics or questions that are sparking my interest. The events since January 2011 in the Arab world have reinvigorated everyone`s interest in the region. I believe that our interests (as academics) and the types of questions that are being raised at roundtables, conferences, and research trips are only skimming the tip of the iceberg. Politics in the Arab world is changing, and how we approach our understandings will likewise need to change. This will have reverberations for our research tools and will impact our traditional disciplinary delineations.
Transitioning from my book to the next project is a work in progress. I am currently working on two papers. The first, with Shana Marshall, examines the military’s economic role in Egypt and is a political economy of the transition. The other project is more of an interplay between political science theories of regime breakdown, and how the Egyptian case informs and teaches us new lessons about partial regime change.
Current Arab uprisings are revealing how interlinked the social sciences and the humanities are. Rather than any single discipline dominating the types of questions that get asked, it will be creativity and intense field research that will compliment the bravery and creativity the protesters in the Arab world have shown. As people who professionally study politics, history, economics, society, and how culture is produced and reproduced, we get to stand on the edge and watch these processes unfold. My next project—like those of many of my colleagues—will be trying to faithfully document and record the transformations that we are all witnessing.
Excerpt from Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria
While there are similarities for why Syrians and Egyptians revolted against their political elites, there seems to be one key difference in why the outcomes varied. In Egypt, power was centralized prior to the uprising. When the protests occurred, the homogeneous character of society helped protesters overcome their previous collective action problems as they put aside their political differences. Their unified mobilizing pressure, combined with a rapid change in the balance of power between the coercive forces and the demonstrators, enabled a dynamic whereby members of the centralized ruling coalition could be and had to be dropped to save the regime. Then, when Mubarak became untenable at the helm, the SCAF could force his departure and slide into the centralized position of authority. While the SCAF was weak initially, it was in a better position to offset the continuous challenges from below.
Syria had no such luck. The heterogeneity of its society made centralized authority a difficult prospect in the early years of state formation. Hafiz al-Asad rectified this with his development of a cross-sectarian decentralized ruling coalition that shares power and works together to keep the state intact. It is an imperfect system, but it has not provided much governing turnover. After the uprising started in Syria, options for a coalition transition did not exist. This reduced the crisis to a question of the regime’s survival. The constituent parts of the regime would either hang together or collapse. In addition to forcing hands of the state elites to deploy repression, it revealed the decentralized and weak character of the state. When the population had to choose between a life in a weak state and no state and rising sectarianism in a diverse society, it chose the former.
To understand how Egypt and Syria emerged from the 2011 uprisings, researchers need to identify and explain how power was configured prior to them. By doing so, we must recognize and analyze the differences of systems that are often grouped together. Although researchers working on the Middle East regularly distinguish between monarchies and republics, scholars of comparative politics have not explored other differences within these categories in an explicit way. Examining the staple textbooks on Middle East politics proves this point. Yet, as the uprisings suggest, authority is structured and operates differently in these cases. This poses an important question: Which autocrats are most successful at adapting their political systems?
By exposing the differences in how autocrats adapt these systems, we gain new perspectives and understandings about regime power in the Middle East. Whether elites like it or not, political change is inescapable. Government officials have vested interests in apprehending and managing this process. As the Cairo bureau chief of the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat explains, “It is in a regime’s interest to change so that it can stay in power. They reform to keep the [political] system going.” Such “reforms” help rulers avoid more radical changes in the future.
This book argues that Arab elites are not initiating reform processes, but rather are engaging in adaptation. Autocratic adaptation helps regime elites maintain their dominant position and hierarchical authority over society. Adaptation can be defined as political change that adjusts a state to changes in its environment (such as a more mobilized, complex society, weakening state economic capabilities, external pressures, and so on) without giving up power or sacrificing the cohesion of elites. Adaptation takes place through controlled openings. Specifically, researchers can see adaptation when new groups are incorporated into the ruling coalition or when previously privileged members are dropped. Co-optation, or the inclusion of new figures and groups, shifts the state’s social base and allows ruling elites to pursue organizational innovations in state institutions. However, adaptation does not mean that incumbent elites seek intentionally to transform or restructure existing relationships between the rulers and the ruled. In examining adaptation, we journey behind the iron curtain to examine the microdynamics of co-optation in such political systems.
[Excerpted from Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria by Joshua Stacher, by permission of the author. © 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]