The monarchical presidential regimes that prevailed in the Arab world for so long looked as though they would last indefinitely—until events in Tunisia and Egypt made clear their time was up. The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life exposes for the first time the origins and dynamics of a governmental system that largely defined the Arab Middle East in the twentieth century.
Presidents who rule for life have been a feature of the Arab world since independence. In the 1980s their regimes increasingly resembled monarchies as presidents took up residence in palaces and made every effort to ensure their sons would succeed them. Roger Owen explores the main features of the prototypical Arab monarchical regime: its household; its inner circle of corrupt cronies; and its attempts to create a popular legitimacy based on economic success, a manipulated constitution, managed elections, and information suppression.
Why has the Arab world suffered such a concentration of permanent presidential government? Though post-Soviet Central Asia has also known monarchical presidencies, Owen argues that a significant reason is the “Arab demonstration effect,” whereby close ties across the Arab world have enabled ruling families to share management strategies and assistance. But this effect also explains why these presidencies all came under the same pressure to reform or go. Owen discusses the huge popular opposition the presidential systems engendered during the Arab Spring, and the political change that ensued, while also delineating the challenges the Arab revolutions face across the Middle East and North Africa.
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Chapter 1: The Search for Sovereignty in an Insecure World
The Arab state system that now exists across the Middle East and North Africa and the origins of its particular style of presidential rule are the result of a combination of colonialism, Arabism, and the new world order of sovereign states that was introduced after 1945 under the aegis of the United Nations.
Although Europe established very few formal colonies in this region, the boundaries of three sets of Arab states — those in North Africa, in the Fertile Crescent, and in the Arabian Peninsula — and their international acceptance were largely the work of British and French governments anxious to establish spheres of influence on the far side of the Mediterranean Sea and along the land and sea routes running east to India. This process began in Arab North Africa, starting with French invasion and occupation of Algeria in 1830. The process continued with the establishment of a protectorate in Tunisia in 1881, followed by the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 and of Sudan in 1898, and then the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911. Finally, it was rounded out by the French declaration of a protectorate of Morocco a year later.
European military and political expansion east of Suez, though not the establishment of spheres of cultural and commercial influence, was checked by the existence of the Ottoman Empire, which was closely allied to Britain in an effort to prevent Russian influence from spreading outward toward the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. However, once the Ottomans decided to enter World War I on the German side, plans were put in place for an imperial carve-up of the Arab provinces of the empire. The result was that the British established themselves in what was to become Iraq, Palestine, and — after 1922 — Trans-Jordan (later Jordan). Meanwhile, the French also created two new states, in Syria and Lebanon.
All these entities were technically termed “mandates,” a form of international trusteeship devised by the powers controlling the new League of Nations to conform to what was seen as “the spirit of the age,” a reference to Woodrow Wilson’s call for national self-determination in Europe. Nevertheless, they were run more like colonies than nations-to-be, not withstanding a certain amount of international oversight and Britain’s obligation to adhere to the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 promising to encourage the development of a Jewish national home in Palestine. As is well-known, the disputes engendered by this promise were to lead, by 1947, to Palestine’s violent partition into what emerged as the new state of Israel in May 1948 and two Palestinian entities, the West Bank and Gaza, under, respectively, Jordanian and Egyptian rule.
In the Arabian Peninsula, power before World War One was divided among several entities: the Ottoman Empire, Britain, and a few family administrations that had managed to maintain an uneasy form of local independence, notably the successive states created by the house of House of Saud based in Riyadh and the Imams who controlled the mountainous interior of western Yemen. This system continued largely intact into the oil era which began in the 1930s with the ruling families cementing their hold on power with the use of their new wealth, distributed along familiar lines of patronage to their relatives and tribal and merchant supporters.
Table of Contents
1 The Search for Sovereignty in an Insecure World 12
2 The Origins of the Presidential Security State 23
3 Basic Components of the Regimes 37
4 Centralized State Systems in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Algeria 61
5 Presidents as Managers in Libya, Sudan, and Yemen 94
6 Constrained Presidencies in Lebanon and Iraq after Hussein 111
7 The Monarchical Security States of Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Oman 125
8 The Politics of Succession 139
9 The Question of Arab Exceptionalism 153
10 The Sudden Fall 172
What People are Saying About This
An accessible yet comprehensive review of the political history of the modern Middle East, made all the more relevant by the convulsions of the past year. Owen's dismantling of the "Arab exceptionalism" argument, which has formed the basis of so many accounts of authoritarian power in the region, is historically and sociologically persuasive. He successfully explains how countries with very different histories have nonetheless produced political systems with such strong resemblances. Thoughtful, full of nuance, and mercifully free of jargon, Owen's writing carries the reader along at a terrific pace, providing both the grand sweep of history and the focused perspicacity of political analysis.
Charles Tripp, author of The History of Iraq
This book delivers, at precisely the right moment and in the right measure, the historical context needed for understanding the significance of the popular uprisings that are currently transforming the Arab world. In fluid and accessible prose, Roger Owen, the leading historian of the Middle East, demonstrates that the phenomenon of "Arab presidents for life" is a product of modern historical circumstances, not a pre-determined outcome of the "Arab mind," a "tribal" mentality, or the Islamic faith. The key to Owen's analysis is what he calls the "demonstration effect": Arab leaders and regimes consciously borrowed from each other's internal security playbooks in order to solidify their power and prolong their rule. In so doing, they dug their own collective grave.
Beshara Doumani, author of Rediscovering Palestine
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