Two Takes on Power in the Middle East: A Joint Book Review

Another book review for Dr. Vitalis’s PSCI211: Politics of the Contemporary Middle East, this piece evaluates two different books about power centralization in the Middle East.  Ironically, it was only during and after the Arab Spring that even expert outsiders like Roger Owen could really dissect the polity of Egypt to fully understand how Mubarak had so effectively consolidated power.  Beatrice Hibou, on the other hand, analyzed power in Tunisia well before the Arab Spring, which is both rare and immensely to her credit.

In 2013, it seems bizarre to think that until recently, the Middle East was understood all across the world to be a place of political stability (violence, yes; regime change, no).

Owen’s The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life and Hibou’s The Force of Obedience are both outstanding works in their own right.  In my opinion, they are in a completely different (and better) universe than is Lynch’s book, which you can find reviewed in the previous post.

Introduction

Where does power come from?  And once obtained, how is it sustained?  Before December 2010, the majority of scholars and analysts would have pointed to the Middle East as an excellent case study of the consolidation and maintenance of power.  And yet, ironically, as these regimes are finally unraveling, now is perhaps the best time to finally get a glimpse into the apparatuses and systems that held them in place for so long.

Rodger Owen seized this opportunity in his recent book The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life.  Béatrice Hibou, on the other hand, discussed the Tunisian power structure in The Force of Obedience years before the Arab Spring.  Still, both authors provide interesting insights into how and why these governments and their leaders were able to hold onto power for decades.  And while most might see these books as offering contrasting answers to those questions, they are ultimately complimentary of one another.

Owen’s Presidents

Owen frames his book as a quasi-survey of the region.  Starting from a historical perspective on centralized governments, Owen gradually zooms in on the region of the Middle East.  He describes the phenomenon of Pan-Arabism, but disagrees with his colleagues who argue that this movement’s organic nature was primarily responsible for the rise of Arab strongmen.  Rather, Owen posits that the timely combination of post-colonialism and the crushing defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967 played more of a role in framing these countries’ domestic political development, and in further solidifying their regimes as a single unit for consideration in the following decades.[1], [2]  Owen adds that, “what really mattered was the enormous license that manipulation of the notion of the sovereignty of the people appeared to give to presidents when it came to legitimizing their own personal rule.”[3]

Here, Owen goes on to discuss the particular regimes in question, paying particular attention to the presidential personalities in each case.  The pattern of centralization in these countries was largely the same, as was the central problem: after decades of consolidating a system around one individual, what happens when that individual dies?  One of the primary political tools in centralizing power was playing on the idea of sovereignty and representation,[4] inherently rejecting the notion of monarchy.  And although the President’s grip on power was strong enough to convince the public that hereditary succession in this system was just, the system itself had been created in such a way as to reject any apex other than the founder.[5]

Hibou’s System

As opposed to Owen’s survey methodology, Hibou’s work is a narrowly focused, deep analysis of one case in particular: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia.  And while Owen’s work is centered on the office of the presidency, Hibou rounds out every component of the Tunisian power structure: the economy, the security network, the bureaucracy, political activity, etc.  Where the two most converge is their understanding of the indispensability of the office of the presidency.  Hibou describes the permeation of the presidential persona as a nearly fascist “cult of personality.”[6]

But Hibou’s inherently more detailed work reveals something much more meaningful in the Tunisian case, something that relates to Owen’s notion that Arab Presidents utilized the mirage of popular sovereignty to centralize their power.  But instead of focusing on the regime’s abuse of political power, Hibou underscores the idea of “obedience” as it relates to the repressed people themselves.[7]

Ultimately, obedience is a two-way street.  Put another way, despite its virtually transparent lack of representation, the Tunisian system still incorporated a social contract of sorts.  The real secret to maintaining political power, according to Hibou, is convincing the populace that they’re better off with the current regime, however unrepresentative it may be,[8] which includes the same kind of give-and-take associated with Western democracies; not a giving and taking of political power, but rather an exchange of services and security in return for the tacit obedience of the Tunisian people.  In order to achieve this kind of complicity, the Tunisian system was perpetuated by getting as many people as possible to have some skin in the game, so to say.  This was propagated through a combination of rewards and punishments, [9] and was consistently reinforced by economic dependency. [10]

Most intriguing about Hibou’s conclusion is that it is generalizable beyond just Tunisia.  Hibou’s nuanced understanding of “obedience” sheds new light on all regimes (not just those in the Middle East) that consistently under-represent their people, even in this climate of increasing political and economic liberalism throughout the world.

Conclusion

While different in approach, both Owen and Hibou make important contributions to the understanding of Arabic political economy in the post-colonial era.  Owen’s broad, historical perspective helps us understand the external influences that helped to shape the domestic political development of these regimes, as well as how and why the office of the presidency became so pivotal as to be virtually indispensable.  Hibou in many ways follows up on that survey by delving deep into the Tunisian case.  For all of Owen’s perspective and induction, the reader is still left with the question of “Why did these regimes last so long?”  But through Hibou’s detailed description of the obedient nature of the Tunisian regime, a reader can reasonably generalize Hibou’s conclusions from the Tunisian case to the many other cases discussed by Owen.

Of course, the specifics always matter.  And in no way should the reader walk away from these two works thinking that the differences between the regimes and the peoples are negligible.  On the contrary, Hibou’s work highlights the necessity for more rigorous and focused analysis on each system in question.  But, taken together, Owen’s survey and Hibou’s case study both help to elevate the mundane discourse readily apparent in the news media’s coverage of the Arab Spring, as well as in the half-hearted analysis of less serious works on the topic.


[1] Rodger Owen, “The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life,” Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012: pg. 19.

[2] Owen, pg. 153.

[3] Owen, pg. 23-24.

[4] Owen, pg. 53-60.

[5] Owen, pg. 139-140.

[6] Béatrice Hibou, “The Force of Obedience: The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia,” Polity Press, Cambridge, UK: pg. 267-268.

[7] Hibou, Part III.

[8] Hibou, pg 286.

[9] Hibou, pg. 93-95.

[10] Hibou, pg 63.64.