Brian Whitaker — author of What Really Wrong with the Middle East and one of the best Anglophone journalists writing on the the region — has made a post in reply to “Rise and Fall, Push and Pull (Pr. VI)” as well as an interesting article from The Economist dealing with similar topics. Whitaker takes issue with some of the reasons offered in RFPP Pt. IV:
It’s not just the Arab republics, though; the same could be said of several of the monarchies too. But I don’t particularly buy the idea that this has much to do with respect for elders or the dismissal of youth, per se.
There are plenty of Arab leaders who came to power when they were young or relatively young: Gaddafi at 27, Ali Abdullah Salih at 35, Bashar al-Asad at 34, Abdullah II at 37, and Nasser was only 34 at the time of the Egyptian revolution.
This is true; the Algerian ruling class was rather exceptionally young at independence and is especially old nowadays because the system has survived through time. This blogger does not argue, though, that old men rule the region because they command respect from what are mostly youthful populations. Rather, they commandeer artificial respect (and real fear and public/opposition defeatism) through myriad strategies managing instability or crises — exploiting the moment. They take on the forms of legitimate or accountable government be it through religious, military and/or nationalist pageantry, dress, language and so on. Leaders in North Africa have been quick to appropriate to themselves the traditional, aesthetic symbols of legitimacy and authority in North Africa, particularly when lacking experience or age. When young, they have aimed to appear wiser and older; when old they have tried to appear both wise, alert and spritely so as not to seem infirm. The military coup often enters Arab politics when ambitious men have exhausted alternative routes to power; the standing, European-style military presented many young men with an alternate route to power, which they sought for national or self-aggrandizement, social and political progress and so on. It represents, in part, contempt from young men feeling stifled by the limitations placed on them by traditional and modern institutions (to use problematic terminology). He goes on and makes the valuable point:
The point is not really the age of the rulers themselves but the longevity of their regimes – and this is where the other factors come into play: the entrenchment of ruling cliques and the elimination of potential challengers. So the real question is not how soon the elderly will die. It is how long the survival strategies developed by the regimes, and which have proved resilient over many years, will continue to hold. [Emphasis added.]
This is very true; the longevity of Arab regimes is operational and action oriented. Much of what is key to survival is left unsaid and unseen, at least at the official level. It relies on powerful institutions, busy at work on ensuring the dominance of the ruling set. Much (though not all) other “public sector” work is window dressing or capacity building in support of these activities — which will be discussed here soon enough.
Michael Collins Dunn raises the issue of summer time coups, which has been discussed frequently here. The question is: Why so many Arab coups in the summer? Issandr El Amrani speculates: “to avoid student mobilizations.” This would be interesting to map and graph. One might start by asking: In states with frequent summer time coups:
- What was the population of university students in the capital and principal cities in the years surrounding the coup(s)?
- How many student unions were there and how large and how active were they in the years surrounding the coup(s)?
- What was the political disposition of these unions and their relationship(s) with:
- (1) the pre-coup elite/government;
- (2) the putschists;
- (3) the post-coup political elite/government (outside and inside the military);
- (4) each other, and;
- (5) significant outside ideological, political or religious actors (which is not to say that religious actors cannot be or are not political actors or to exclude other categories)?
From these (and others) one can attempt to gage how students might have impacted coup-makers planning and decision-making processes. One might suspect that in states with large and active student movements (especially from the leftist or religious tendencies), this would have been an important consideration. Opportunity also plays an important role; coups are only possible when they are possible, in other things.