Adaptable autocrats
Courtesy: AUC Press

When Tunisia first revolted in early December 2010, columnists and political commentators were quick to debate whether Egypt would follow suit. A dispute about whether Egypt was or was not like Tunisia ensued for days, but Egyptian protestors were quick to end to it by staging the historic January 25 uprising.

At first glance, it seemed as if Egypt was like Tunisia in as much as both countries’ citizens insisted on overthrowing seemingly similar autocratic regimes. Soon, Arab revolutionary contagion went viral: Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen were all sites of revolt in no time.

The next query that preoccupied commentators was why some revolutions “failed” while others “succeeded.” It soon became clear, however, that the failure-success barometer is an inapt tool for evaluating the transformations taking place in the Arab world.

But the extensive perimeters of the uprisings were screaming for a comparison of their outcomes. This is what makes Joshua Stacher’s latest book, “Adapatable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria,” recently published by the American University in Cairo Press, an extremely timely work.

Stacher compares the regimes in Syria and Egypt to understand why the latter was able to overthrow former President Hosni Mubarak in a seemingly smooth manner, while the former drifted into civil war. He focuses on comparing authoritarianism in Syria and Egypt prior to the 2011 uprisings.

Challenging mainstream perceptions of authoritarian rule, Stacher’s contribution to the field of political science centers on his treatment of the concept of authoritarianism. In other words, he moves away from the monolithic understanding of authoritarianism that identifies a single difference between autocratic rule in this region: monarchs vs. republics.

Stacher gives the concept of authoritarianism shades of color by showing how it is non-stagnant, and how autocratic rule is structurally different in Syria and Egypt, even though both states are post-populist Arab republics. This difference lies in the level of centralization of power in the hands of the rulers.

As will be clear later, the crux of Stacher’s argument is that executive centralization determines the regime’s adaptive capacity — its ability to sacrifice regime figures, for example — in order to survive, especially at times of revolt.

Stacher’s comparative study deconstructs the main conventional assumptions about Syria and Egypt. The first is that Syria has a more centralized political system than Egypt. In fact, the book proves the opposite; Syria’s decentralized political order is the reason for the current dangerous mess that is proving difficult to unravel.

To understand Syria’s authoritarian rule, Stacher takes us back to the origins of executive authority, particularly to former President Hafez al-Assad’s state-building challenge: namely how to “stitch Syrian nationalism into [such a heterogeneous] society,” as the author puts it.

Stacher reminds us that Hafez assumed power after 15 coups that followed Syrian independence in 1946. Inheriting a highly competitive and sectarian political sphere, he created an oligarchic system where elites shared power to protect their interests.

Bashar al-Assad took over his father’s delicate power-sharing arrangement, with a decentralized political order, constricted power of the executive authority, and weak state incapable of sacrificing key figures of the ruling coalition in order to adapt, because any such change would mean the fall of the entire regime.

In Egypt, however, in 2011 the head of the state was sacrificed along with other key constituents in order for the regime to survive. This was only possible because of the centralized nature of Egypt’s political order, according to Stacher.

He explains at length how the Egyptian elites and state institutions, particularly since Anwar Sadat’s presidency, were depoliticized. This created a situation where executive power is highly centralized and whoever is at the “system’s apex,” as the author calls it, has the means to adapt and make changes to the ruling coalition to protect the regime.

This centralized executive authority made it possible for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to take over power in a relatively smooth manner, in contrast to the Syrian situation, where the regime could not make any changes in the composition of its ruling coalition — it had to remain unified while resorting to lethal force to survive.

Through an extensive presentation of the differences between Egypt and Syria’s political orders, Stacher successfully explained the different outcomes of the uprisings based on the level of centralization of the political order: The more centralized the regime, the more adaptable its autocrats are, and the more likely it will survive existential threats.

But how was the author able to make such a compelling argument? 

Stacher’s book is the outcome of 36 months of field work in Syria and Egypt, where he conducted interviews in English and Arabic. He interviewed government decision makers, political activists, journalists, academics and dissidents in both countries. These extensive interviews helped him draw a complex picture of the functioning of autocratic rule in Syria and Egypt, making the sound argument that not all neoliberal authoritarian regimes in the Arab world are the same.

He thus deconstructs another common misconception that Syria is Egypt 10 years ago. He revises the scholarship that places authoritarianism on a linear progressive spectrum with democracy on the horizon. He does so by proving that Syria and Egypt have a structurally different political order, where the former is more oligarchic (decentralized), and the latter is more autocratic (centralized), as explained above.

This gives American foreign policy on the Middle East a bash on the head by getting at the commonly used political rhetoric of “democratic reforms.” Stacher argues that regimes in the Arab world have used such phrases in order to appease the international community while cheating change.

Stacher’s book sends a clear message that what authoritarian rulers have actually been engineering for decades is autocratic adaptation, rather than real democratic change.

The book is much-needed. Stacher’s arguments for the different structures of authoritarian rule in Egypt and Syria are compelling, as is his explanation for why the outcomes of the uprisings varied, particularly due to the degree of centralization of the executive authority. He also presents an amazing analysis of the functioning of elites in both Egypt and Syria.

While certain parts of the book also feel a bit redundant — if there is such a thing as overstating one’s argument — fortunately Stacher’s smooth writing style makes it an enjoyable read, even for non-specialists.

Stacher’s study depends mainly on oral narratives. He explains that he cross-checked his sources to weave a narrative that “falls within the confines of a ‘safe reality’.”

This left me wondering about what official records — if made public — could contribute to this study. A recent book by Joseph Sassoon, “Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime,” is an excellent study of the modus operandi of the Iraqi Baath party using its own records. Sassoon used a myriad of official documents and tapes of Saddam’s governing council, housed at the Iraq Memory Foundation in the United States.

If similar documents could become available to researchers after Bashar’s inevitable demise, they would add greatly to the understanding of Syria’s Baath party and shed more light on the quotidian functioning of authoritarian regimes. And this would definitely open ways to another comparative study, this time between the Baath parties of Syria and Iraq. 

Dina Hussein 

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