The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life

Philip Robins on the Middle Eastern despots who held power for so long and lost it so rapidly

May 10, 2012

For many of those unfortunate enough to see footage of his grisly end less than seven months ago, the demise of Libya's leader Colonel Mu'ammer Gaddafihas come to represent the passing of the ultimate power-crazed despot in the course of the "Arab Awakening". This latest book from Roger Owen, the doyen of Middle East studies at Harvard University, is an attempt to explain why the likes of Gaddafiheld on to power for so long - in his case for 41 years - but in the end fell so quickly.

Curiously, the field of Middle Eastern studies has not been very forthcoming in analysing political leadership. There are lots of excuses, none of them good enough: a friction between "great man" and structural history; the absence of archives; vested interests, not least in the academy. What we have been left with on our bookshelves are some largely mushy biographies (those on King Hussein of Jordan must be well into double figures by now) and a preoccupation with political economy. This surely needs to be better integrated with other approaches, such as political psychology, so well deployed by authors on modern Russia.

To his credit, Owen was on to the topic well before the recent regime transformations in much of the Arab world. This helps explain the occasional organisational contortions in the book, not least "The Sudden Fall" appearing as late as chapter 10 on page 172! Generally, however, Owen is admirably systematic in approach and comparative in method as he analyses what he sets up as a paradoxical hybrid, namely "monarchical presidential regimes". His application of the term "personalised corporatism", under which only the autocrat and a few key allies know all the relationships between the component parts of power, as in today's Syria, is also especially insightful.

The backdrop to the work draws predictably on such bugbears as colonialism, Arabism and the contemporary territorial state. It is when Owen moves on to fresher factors such as indolence, ageing and political succession as key features of vulnerability that the analysis begins to break new ground. Lazy complacency increasingly exposed incumbent regimes as capricious. They became only fitfully responsive to opposition, thereby unwittingly encouraging resistance, as was the case with President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. The repeated health scares of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak underlined the growing fragility of the man and with it his waning grip on power. It was Mubarak's last gamble on the establishment of dynastic rule that swung the coalition of state power decisively against him.

With a regional canvas of this size, inevitably there are some gripes. This is a modestly proportioned book, which presumably reflects the author's decision to "get something out quick" rather than develop the sort of magisterial text with which we are more familiar from his pen. Many of the lengthy chapter preambles are predictable and unexciting: indeed, the Iraq and Lebanon chapter contains little else. And an evidential base generated from "colleagues and friends" sounds snug and cosy.

In his conclusion, Owen points to the narcissism of power by which the dictator believes that, after all those years in command, the people look only to him to face down the unforeseen contingencies of the moment. On the contrary, it was the figures in control upon whom the steely gaze of those engaged in rebellion was focused. Hence, to his dying moment, Gaddaficould not quite believe that he was the target of his sadistic captors.

The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life

By Roger Owen

Harvard University Press 2pp, £18.95

ISBN 9780674065833

Published 9 May 2012

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