Rise and Fall, Push and Pull (Pt. VII; Partial Review: Faith & Power by Bernard Lewis)

Bernard Lewis’s latest collection of essays, Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East (Oxford, 2010), reveals little that is new. Its thirteen chapters (mostly short essays) largely re-iterate what Lewis has written over the last ten to fifteen years in other books and broad narrative histories. Topically they are stimulating for general readers, lacking the depth of his more specialized writings on the same subjects in his numerous other books. Chapter Nine, “Democracy, Legitimacy, and Succession in the Middle East,” (pg. 131-152) addresses similar issues as those frequently considered on this blog. The essay deals with several interesting topics, such as the historical difference between “freedom” (hurriya) and “justice” (ʿadl) and “tyranny” (zulm) and “justice” (ʿadl) in Middle Eastern and western political discourses (pgs. 135-137); the impact of technological and systematic “modernization” on Middle Eastern political culture in the late nineteen and early twentieth centuries; the sources and mechanization of military rule (though he focuses mostly on the Turkish experience); and the problem of succession in the currently and formerly Baʿthist states and the region generally.

Of most interest here are the two effects of “modernization” Lewis offers, the causes and implications of military rule and the issues related to succession. Lewis has it that the two main implications of “the new machinery, the apparatus of government, communication, warfare and the rest” of nineteenth century modernization (along European lines) were: (1) “the abrogation of intermediate powers” (which he also calls “limiting powers”) by which he means notables, the old gentries, guilds and the Janissary Corps, even the ʿulema which he describes modernizers as “nationalizing,” (pgs. 139-140), and; (2) military modernization which “greatly strengthened the sovereign power” creating “a level of absolutism far greater than had ever existed in the fabled past.” This was achieved mainly through technology – -the telegraph, more efficient methods of troop movement and deployment and more effective weaponry. Lewis writes: “This continued with such modern regimes as those of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and the late Hafiz al-Asad in Syria. One could add other, less obvious, examples.”

While this is broadly accurate, in both Syria and Iraq the modernization of the armed forces actually weakened the power of “the sovereign” in the early years of state building — the civilian leadership in both the Iraqi monarchy and the early Syrian republic. Because the armed forces were so powerful relative to the rest of the state and society, it meant that (as he notes later in the essay) politics was dominated by ambitious military men feuding with each other while civilians relied on the support of mass movements or military cliques. Support from the military made the Baʿthi movement triumphant over the left and religious tendency in both countries. Modernization made intra-elite rivalry faster and more bloody but Syria and Iraq are poor examples for the broad process that Lewis describes; Iran fits this description earlier and somewhat better than either country he mentions (though that discussion is less interesting). Iran’s modernization in the early and middle twentieth century shows almost exactly the process Lewis describes, where as Syria and Iraq development of the same period is more complicated by the fact that their militaries’ modernization weakened the sovereign to the point where the military stood as the strongest single institution, backed up by pervasive party apparatuses. Technological development made “absolutism” in both Syria and Iraq more possible than in the past, but this was only because such powers were applied against other modernizing or modernized civilian and extra-party institutions (the monarchy, the commercial classes and so on). Economic changes (the rentier economy in Iraq, for instance) also impacted this development, which Lewis neglects.

Lewis also considers the impact of the “technological revolution” on Middle Eastern politics — especially in the case of the Iranian Revolution. Here he notes the impact of the telephone and the fax machine in helping to “reverse the trend” of technology being used to tighten the elite’s grip over the masses (pg. 140-141). One wishes he would consider the impact of the internet or email or mobile phones more seriously (he does remark on these, and satellite television, briefly). One notes that effective Arab regimes make sure to guard their image using print and internet media. A critical look at the progress of Egyptian women is quickly met with a dismissive letter-to-the-editor from a “media group” or public affairs group sponsored by the Egyptian embassy. An article posted on the web looking at the dim situation that the Tunisian opposition faces will be met with a flood of comments confirming that Tunisians not only live happily, but are free to criticize their regime as much as they please, that their opposition operates in full liberty and participates in a fair political process, posted up from employees of public relations firms or their embassies in Europe and beyond. Some of the most repressive regimes use public relations firms and marketing techniques to normalize their brutality in foreign conversations; so great is their fear of uncontrollable internet and social media. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Syria and other use such techniques to try and keep their domestic politics out of their foreign relations. All this is geared toward a common goal of strengthening the sovereign. Yet as Lewis notes, technology is a two way street; it can be used to establish and maintain control as well as to disrupt and weaken it.

Where military rule is concerned, Lewis dwells for some time on the Turkish process of “intervention” (which  was for some time understood to have a constitutional role) whilst also considering military politics in the Arab countries. His view of military politics is straightforwardly negative yet somewhat confusing. He begins with the causes: they may because as a regime crumbles, “the military is the only institution left with some sort of command structure and some sort of hierarchy and in which such words as honor and loyalty still retain some meaning” or there may be “patriotic motivations” involved (pg. 143-144). These are reasonable. But one must consider that in the Arab countries, at least, the collapse of a regime often means the collapse of the armed forces as well — Lebanon, Somalia and Iraq all saw their militaries fragment into militias and gangs as their regimes fell apart. “Loyalty” and “honor” kept meaning but it was not within their established schema. During the Iranian revolution, much of the Iranian military collapsed and deserted or fled the country as well, having been dominated by much of the old elite. In the instances where Middle Eastern regimes have collapsed, the military went too, for diverse reasons. In most cases, politicized military officers have caused “collapse” or protracted instability through coups d’etat or glorified coups d’etat (“revolutions”) as in Syria, Iraq, Mauritania and Sudan. The idea of a wildly fragmenting civilian government is usually an excuse for a coup proceeding from deeper rivalries or interests. In the middle of the twentieth century, coups often caused conspiracies leading to more coups.  Thus, Lewis is correct when he writes: “within a usually quite a short time, the army becomes subject to the same degenerative processes as the civil society into which the army moved to take over.” Yet he does not fully consider the role of the military in creating or contributing to the “degenerative processes” that sometimes overcomes civilian governments in the region. This is characteristic of much of Lewis’s late work: broad, sweeping generalizations that frequently conflict but lack the attention to detail that reconciles or elucidates the problems associated with them.

Lewis writes that the Baʿth began as basically “Nazi-fascist” but once in power it found a happier role in a “quasi-Soviet type of regime that once flourished in Eastern Europe and some other places, where the party is part of the apparatus of government.” (pg. 146) The Baʿth, writes Lewis, was not capable of providing Syria or Iraq with detached succession as in the Soviet Communist Party. “In both branches of the Baʿathists [sic], there was a movement toward monarchical succession in party leadership and state dictatorship” (pg. 147). Why or how this came to be in Syria and Iraq, Lewis does not explain. Discussion of the Baʿth and its appeal to minorities and the layout of both polities’ social make up (with the importance and the tribe and the clan, for instance) might give a more clear image of how the Syrian Baʿth pioneered the father-son transition. Lewis does list three methods of succession in the region, though: (1) elections (referring to “free” elections, he writes); (2) “nomination, normally but not necessarily hereditary” and; (3) “violence — assassination, coup d’etat, civil war and similar methods of problem solving” (pg. 147).

Considering the number of monarchies and so-called republics in the region, the qualification that nomination is “normally but not necessarily” hereditary is problematic for minor reasons. Outside of the monarchies, Syria is the only hereditary state in the region, though one might make a convincing case that the Lebanese political system transfers political leadership within parties and movements in a similar way. In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Algeria there are strong expectations among many observers and citizens that the sons, brothers, wives or nephews of the current heads of state will take power in upcoming succession contexts. Much of this is well thought out and makes sense. Some of it is the result of a lack of creativity by those looking to heavily at the Syrian, Egyptian or Libyan cases (obsession with jumlukiya); in effect these positions often assume an underlying stability in the existing systems that may or may not be “real.” There are still generals, spy chiefs, tribal leaders, business and party people with great institutional and charismatic weight and potential that are lacking in the silver spoon children of the dictators (Daniel Byman has written an excellent article on this topic (“Latter-Day Sultans,” The National Interest, No. 108, July/August, 2010)) . This is not intended to make or deride any predictions or expectations currently widely held, but instead to say that “hereditary” rule is not yet the norm in the republics. Civil strife, war, military unrest and other possibilities abound as well. Looking at the hereditary problem may be problematic in creating a full analysis of evolving regimes. Yet it does seem that the hereditary form holds great potential where respect for state institutions is often overrun by the force of personality and rule by the gun.

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  1. Kal, it’s interesting that Lewis focuses his criticisms on the Arab states rather than on the Zionist entity, which is largely responsible for the poverty and miseries in the Mashreq. This writer has long been known as a strong supporter of zionism, whose role is to morally weaken the Arabs and repel their supporters. Why doesn’t he talk about Gaza or the Zionist role in the sufferings of the Arab people? Who gave this (or any) Zionist the right, the legitimacy, to appear as an objective scholar? And why is this blog his sounding-board?

  2. The writer of this post is not a Zionist, which should be manifest from the post here and those elsewhere on this blog. Israel is of no special interest on its own here.

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