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Review: Roger Owen's 'The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life'

Updated on March 9, 2017
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Michael has been an online freelancer and writer for many years and loves discovering and sharing about new experiences and opportunities.

The Rise and Preservation of the Arab Republican Presidency

Why, post-WWII, did the Middle Eastern Arab world give rise to so many similar presidential structures in nations increasingly labeled as ‘Republics’, but whose leaders were hungry to maintain indefinite political power? Why were these power-driven men often military officers themselves and how did they manage to come to, and to secure, their positions—as what Roger Owens refers to as—‘Arab Presidents for Life’? This article seeks to address these questions, as well as to outline some of the ubiquitous strategies employed across regions to keep populations in fear of the new regimes, in darkness about their activities, and in doubt about whose interests were truly the focus of their governments.

It is first essential to understand the effect that WWI had on the Middle Eastern region. With the entente powers bringing an end to the Ottoman Empire, with the Ottomans losing “from 12 percent of [its] population to as high as almost 25 percent” (as James L. Gelvin notes from his book, The Modern Middle East: A History, P. 189-190), and with France and Britain unilaterally deciding to “[create] states where states had never before existed” (Gelvin, 193), there was a huge effect on these newly shaped territories. Indeed, with the Ottoman Empire left for the annals of history, so too was “Ottoman nationalism—osmanlilik—[no] longer an option”; the demise of the empire meant “there no longer remained a political framework that could unite Arabs and Turks” (Gelvin, 191). Under a repressive system of mandates and protectorates, areas like Egypt, as well as these newly formed states, such as Syria, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, were heavily influenced by wartime inflation, famine, and the market distortion of colonialists, who “viewed them as cash cows to enrich the imperial center” (Gelvin, 263).

Following the end of WWII, where European powers had bled from the effects of war, suffering their own losses and having to tame their interests in colonies and protectorates abroad, colonialism was weakened. Complemented by the explosion of information through the expansion of radio and television, the 1950s-1970s thus saw a period of decolonization that set the foundation for lifetime presidencies. The void of authoritarian colonizers quickly led to new forms of nationalism as these now free, sovereign states realized they could not return to their old tribal ways and survive after their independence; indeed, “a tribe is not a state and cannot be used as a model of state governance” (Owens, 94). With changes in government and the increasing knowledge and unhappiness of peasants, rich elites and landowners could see their highly profitable interests in danger. Due to their own unpopularity amongst peasants and wanting to propagate their own agendas and systems allowing continual exploitation, they therefore needed a king or president to act as their patsy. These cronies therefore had “a vested interest in protecting both the regime and themselves by limiting and controlling the impact of Western-inspired political and economic reform” (Owens, 2). This atmosphere among high-powered landowners and the wealthy was conducive to the type of authoritarian regimes that resulted, and is likely the explanation of why these nations deflected away from becoming moderate democracies.

With this sort of cronyistic preference among the elites, it should have come as no surprise that states like Egypt quickly began attempts of defensive developmentalism after Colonel Gamal cAbd al-Nasser came to power. It was also likely due to the distain for colonialist influence that led to the rejection of colonial policy, such as Egypt’s cotton plantations. Once the more radical regimes came to power, the objective became to eliminate the effects of colonial presence, and this included disbanding foreign military bases, pushing out non-Muslim populations, and “nationalizing much of what had been a flourishing globally connected private sector” (Owens, 17)—including “banks and other commercial enterprises” (Owens, 80). Indeed, if we take Egypt as an example of the rise of an ‘Arab progressive colonel’, we can chart the pathway leading to the type of policies that helped keep Nasser, and others like him, in place and which led to the formation of “gumlukiya” states.

Although Egypt now had its sovereignty, there were still (legitimate) anxieties over the West reasserting their military and political might over it again, and the result was for the country—and others like it—to strengthen its own military early after independence; indeed, internal cohesion was itself a cause of friction due to the multitude of ethnical and religious rival groups throughout the territories. The result was a major increase in “the number of middle- and lower-class officers produced by their own military academies, most of them imbued with an intense patriotism” (Owens, 16), who would eventually play a heavy role in the overthrowing of post-colonial governments—giving rise to the military that would overpower them. Sovereign security was also increased by playing off the pressures of the Cold War and by, crucially, strengthening the link between inter-Arab nations through the creation of the League of Arab States in 1945. This league helped the nations “[recognize] each other’s legitimacy” (Owens, 22) and to avoid infringing on each other’s boundaries, with the exception of Iraq on Kuwait in 1990. It also included “a variety of schemes for a free trade area, a common market, and other forms of unity […] such as OAPEC” (Owens, 158), “The Economic and Social Council of the Arab League’s Council of Arab Economic Unity, [… and] ALESCO” (Owens, 161). Colonel Nasser was a vivid proponent of this as he spearheaded Egypt’s participation in the Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference at Bandung in 1955. However, defeat of these colluding Arab nations—at the hands of Israel—in 1967, as well as decreasing domestic resources, led to them wanting to avoid such Arab unions in an effort not to be pulled into each other’s future wars.

Colonel Nasser himself came to power through a military coup in 1952 under the Revolutionary Command Council, together creating revolutionary courts to legitimize their seizure of power and to rationalize their push towards achieving “Egypt’s long struggle for independence” (Owens, 17). Of particular importance is also the type of learning curve that each of these Arab states provided for each other as they went along. The actions of one guided the actions of others, which ultimately led to similar revolutionary takeovers occurring in 1958 in both Iraq and Sudan, in Algeria in 1965, and then in Syria in 1966. As it was the stated objective to bring Egypt to its national potential, these regimes began to enact a type of Arab socialism that tried to “improve social welfare via a large-scale redistribution of wealth” (Owens, 18). Obviously a nation in pain would welcome these actions and would feel no need to offer up candidates in opposition to the secular, one-party state—and this was very likely “used more as an instrument of control than a vehicles for debate” (Owens, 88), but also to care for the Egyptian population through the Arab Socialist Union.

After 1967’s defeat, the armies were retrained in order to become more effective and more loyal to their regimes, and this shortly led to Anwar Sadat’s advance on the Suez Canal in 1973 under pressures of dwindling resources and increasing international pressures. This was one of the methods employed to try to reaffirm power and to restrict the type of military coup that put Nasser in power in the first place. Other attempts to ensure that no one else could repeat their revolt against their monarchial states was to “increase the size of the military” and to factionalize it so that it would be difficult for any fraction to rebel. Furthermore, they would create numerous intelligence services in order to oversee the actions of the military, of the people, and of other intelligent services—with the total security budgets for places like Egypt more than what was being spent on healthcare. Trusting no one, the regimes built failsafes everywhere, but there were always gaps for jihadi groups to emerge—which led to Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981.

There were vast attempts of legitimizing their rule, including:

  • Changing the constitution—which was touted as “evidence of the people’s will” (Owens, 3)—through amendments designed to prolong the terms or years of the presidency and for “removing checks on presidential power” (Owens, 23);
  • Creating and “holding regular elections and referendums” (Owens, 39) (built on parties unaffiliated with religion, class, regional loyalties, or foreign associations” (Owens, 56)), which were still underhandedly controlled—and where ballot stuffing occurred;
  • Allowing election to the “people’s congress and revolutionary committees that, themselves, [had] very little power to make serious decision of major national importance” (Owens, 57);
  • Maintaining the support of the military but at the same time appearing as one with the people, such as Yasser Arafat and Muammar Qaddafi;
  • Using their own charisma, speeches and language, and staged meetings and visits (or diwans), as well as defensive developmentalist policies, to make the country feel that they are one with them (President Nasser lived in his old house on the outskirts of Egypt);
  • Using their family members as prototypes of charitable work and organizations, as well as women’s rights;
  • Boasting economic success by expanding military spending through conscription and employing much of the labor force in public/military jobs, which would later prove unsustainable due to poor centralized planning and increased international borrowing.

However, behind closed doors there were other maneuvers taking place to maintain their positions:

  • Awarding state contracts to friends and relatives and bloating the budgets of the military and secret police, with powerful members of the elite all understanding that none of them “could be considered indispensable” (Owens, 41);
  • Borrowing state money to privileged members, who themselves would become indebted to the regime and prevented from criticizing or opposing it;
  • Remolding “corporate structures, trade unions, the universities, and the media […] to serve the purpose of the regime itself” (Owens, 8);
  • Avoiding delegating responsibilities due to an inherent distrust, and with some—like Hafiz al-Asad, “working a fourteen-hour day, which often included dealing with relatively trivial matters” (Owens, 42);
  • By ensuring that there could be little movement of military equipment without their oversight and by, eventually, recruiting university graduates in order to fight the cyberwarfare that was increasingly sabotaging the regime through social media and the organization of protests;
  • Jailing, silencing, harassing oppositional parties and voices (with Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison being a prime example of how Egypt’s Anwar Sadat employed these tactics through mass, unjustified incarcerations), “and often executing members of organizations they regarded as dangerous” (Owens, 27). This was a step in crushing popular revolutions led by political factions or parties;
  • In places like Syria and Iraq, religion was intertwined with the presidency to build a cult around the ruling families, and Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba had portraits of himself hung everywhere to brainwash the masses;
  • When presidencies changed hands, such as from Sadat to Mubarak and from al-Asad to his son, their first acts were to release prisoners and promise a wave of regime reforms, but there was often backtracking on these promises.

It was a comprehensive mixture of these strategies that allowed the Arab world’s republican presidents to make their regimes almost coup-proof and to stay in power for so many decades. Some avoided assassination attempts by living in military encampments or by moving from palace to palace. Economic liberalizations began from the 1970s onwards, which in Egypt involved “a selective opening up of the economy to [… attract] foreign investors” (Owens, 20), and the sale of national assets occurred from the 1990s onwards in order to enrich the regime cronies further, who transformed them into private monopolies that still had the protection of the government behind them. State banks were also used to finance the private ventures of nationalized firms, often resulting in nonperforming loans. This all culminated into much more economically progressive regimes, shifting to market liberalization, as they became desperate for funds and foreign investment to keep up with their “attempts to create heavy industry, to engage in major public projects, and to create better health, education, and wealth systems for their people” (Owens, 51).

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The rapid fall of some of these regimes can be attributed to the poor economic and political decisions that ultimately caused higher unemployment levels and the lack of basic goods and services, all a side-effect of market interference through state-sanctioned private monopolies and biased cronyism. Some were also a victim of “creating a new parliamentary and electoral platform for people […] just the same moment when those policies contained much they wished to criticize” (Owens, 128). With mounting public pressure—including acts like Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in protest in Tunisia, with presidents aging, and with the fact that, barring Syria, “Arab republics lacked, and still lack, any well-established model for a family succession” (Owens, 139), there was a rapid spread of popular uprising across the Arab world, “bringing the immediate downfall of two presidential regimes (in Tunisia and Egypt)” (Owens, 172). Indeed, the culmination of all of the power-reinforcing strategies mentioned above and employed by these Arab presidents for life seemed to have culminated into a widespread feeling of “kifaya.” Although the Arab states faced different presidential results to their uprising—some with offers of dubious concessions, some with resignations, some with fleeing, some with death—it is clear that the Arab world has grown weary of gumlukiyas.


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