Rise and Fall, Push and Pull (Pt. VI)

On 18 April, 2010 Issandr El Amrani of the Arabist wrote:

“Late fascist”: A term I use to describe the political systems most of the Arab republics, in comparison to Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal in the late 1970s or similar regimes based on public mobilization where the original ideological edifice of the regime is spent. Will have to elaborate someday, but today it applies to Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Also in some respects Iran. I think it may well have applied to most Eastern bloc countries in the 1980s.

This accurately describes much of the situation. What else can be said?

The ex-socialist republics in particular have “evolved” along similar lines to post-Soviet Russia: deliberate privatization has created what are at root post-revolutionary corporatist, authoritarian states. Crudely, they qualify as “mafia” states, properly as oligarchies of various orders. They have kratocratic elements — Mauritania is a good example — if coups have become more difficult to launch over time. Mehran Kamrava, in The Modern Middle East: A Political History Since the Fist World War (Berkeley, 2005), distinguishing three regime types in the Arab world, each with sub-categories: (1) exclusionary (divided into military and mukhaberat regimes); (2) sultanistic (divided into oil monarchies and civic myth regimes); and (3) quasai-democratic regimes. Kamrava has an additional “Inclusionary” category where he curiously groups pre-invasion Iraq, Libya and Iran. These states “thrive on populism, perpetuating and the relying on a myth of popular participation in order to survive. But their populism varies greatly in nature and in degree, and they may in fact be more exclusionary in reality than in appearance.” (pg. 284) This category comes off as a cop-out, giving too much credit to Libyan political “philosophy” and treading too lightly on the Iraqi Ba’th. Iran, alone, fits into the “inclusionary” category with ease. In any case these broad categorizations make some sense.

The political class in the Arab republics is often dominated by the elderly. And there is good reason for this: (1) authority and leadership is often reserved for elders in Arab society and most others; (2) elite power is maintained by excluding political rivals and novices or those otherwise lacking in “experience” managing complex and fragile institutions; (3) states are authoritarian and so membership in the political class as a whole and in the ruling clique changes hands infrequently over long periods of time; (4) rulers make enemies and are suspicious of newcomers and ambitious or clever youth; (5) youth have limited access to (and sometimes interest in) leadership and governing institutions; (6) in states with professional and politicized militaries it takes time to advance to positions of seniority. The result is gerontocracy, even in places where heads of government or state are relatively young. Gerontocracy provides oligarchies with some stability: the old, supposedly, are well positioned to teach the young how to carry the system on ensuring elite survival. It also has draw backs for young countries with weak institutions: the geriatric elite holds skill and agency close to its chests and prevents newcomers from having anything but secondary say. Thus, rather than tutelage and a constantly replenishing leadership class, the outcome is more like political gangrene.

Ideology serves little purpose where the facts of governing are concerned. Plenty of Arab leaders, bureaucrats and technicians have ideals, but few let them dominate their behavior. Arab regimes survive in part because the are pragmatic and deliberate. They are free from ideology or governing principles and can adjust to break down, co-opt or collapse their opponents by whatever means they see fit. Some, whose legal, moral and traditional legitimacy is sapped, do it with a bear hug: instead of casting out or crushing the opposition they embrace them and run away the true believers. This relies on the maxim keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

On the hand, there is a desire for Simplicity but on the other there is the necessity of Complexity. Simplicity divides society into two classes the Rulers and the Ruled. As Kedourie put it, angrily: “those who are at the centre, and those who are at the margin of power; those who belong, and those who do not belong to the official institution.”(“The Chatham House Version,” 1970) Simplicity’s advantage is it is easy to understand and thus to control. Everyone knows his own place and every other person’s place. But Simplicity is obvious for practically everyone, bother the Rulers and the subjects. The Ruled can grasp Simplicity quickly or gradually and just as soon put it to waste.

Complexity demands that the Rulers and the Ruled be more clever. Where Simplicity is increasingly transparent Complexity is increasingly obscurantist. Where Simplicity offers comfort Complexity produces insecurity and fear. Simplicity builds confidence and Complexity shakes confidence. The world is complex. People are complex. The larger the group the greater its Complexity and the greater its Complexity the more difficult it is to control. Governing requires simplification. So the Rulers consolidate things with potential around themselves. Here, Complexity is of some use: complex institutions confuse and stall rival classes, leaders and movements. The clever Ruler simplifies by delegating power to trusted friends (Managers) in ministries; his Managers keep the Ruled from getting in the way by sub-dividing their ministries into interlocking and overlapping departments and bureaus and directorates. In those caverns skilled (and not-so skilled) technocrats run the everyday machinery of the state. The Ruler has his ranks infiltrate whatever there is of civil society and bolsters coercive forces — special, regular and secret police, military, tight legal strictures — and leaves nothing to chance. The leadership class is non-ideological; easy adherence to categorization is limiting by nature and leaders require freedom of action within their spheres. Yet on the face of things, he makes every effort to assign an ideological gloss to himself and his cohorts for this reduces the complexity of his person and actions, sending the ignorant and the dimwitted in a preferred analytical or emotional direction.

Regimes are systems. Systems fail because they do not learn, anticipate or adapt. Arab regimes are frequently quite good at learning about their people — and others’ too. The best developed and most durable Arab regimes monitor and map out their oppositions and rivals extensively. Jordan, Syria and Egypt do this through some of the most highly developed secret services the world has ever known. The goal of data collection is not arbitrary; it forms part of the process of control. Knowledge is power, the cliche goes, and this particularly true in authoritarian societies. Maintaining information maintains control: blackmail extends control over individuals or groups by controlling information about a subject. The possession of information makes deception and conspiracy more effective — those who possess the truth better control lies. By accumulating knowledge, regimes are capable of anticipating opposition and civil activities, facilitating preemption and crackdowns. Adaption to change keeps humans alive; failure to adapt creates stagnation and death. A regime needs only a balance between its ability to adapt to security and surveillance problems and its capacity to prevent its people or its enemies from developing or taking advantage of new methods of opposition.

A Ruler immersed in a high-tech security apparatus wants already active network technologies to spread among his people if only for surveillance purposes. At the same time, he is frightened that this might allow his enemies to meet, organize and conspire against him. His natural disposition is to reserve the most advanced technologies for himself and his inner circles. Yet the world is not so easily micro-managed today. Over reliance on technology is a weakness: human intelligence is the basis of the surveillance state. Reactive and proactive measures ensure the degree of a leader’s control over information and public perceptions, as in all other things.

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