Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria

Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria

Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria

Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria


The decades-long resilience of Middle Eastern regimes meant that few anticipated the 2011 Arab Spring. But from the seemingly rapid leadership turnovers in Tunisia and Egypt to the protracted stalemates in Yemen and Syria, there remains a common outcome: ongoing control of the ruling regimes. While some analysts and media outlets rush to look for democratic breakthroughs, autocratic continuity- not wide-ranging political change- remains the hallmark of the region's upheaval.

Contrasting Egypt and Syria, Joshua Stacher examines how executive power is structured in each country to show how these preexisting power configurations shaped the uprisings and, in turn, the outcomes. Presidential power in Egypt was centralized. Even as Mubarak was forced to relinquish the presidency, military generals from the regime were charged with leading the transition. The course of the Syrian uprising reveals a key difference: the decentralized character of Syrian politics. Only time will tell if Asad will survive in office, but for now, the regime continues to unify around him. While debates about election timetables, new laws, and the constitution have come about in Egypt, bloody street confrontations continue to define Syrian politics- the differences in authoritarian rule could not be more stark.

Political structures, elite alliances, state institutions, and governing practices are seldom swept away entirely- even following successful revolutions- so it is vital to examine the various contexts for regime survival. Elections, protests, and political struggles will continue to define the region in the upcoming years. Examining the lead-up to the Egyptian and Syrian uprisings helps us unlock the complexity behind the protests and transitions. Without this understanding, we lack a roadmap to make sense of the Middle East's most important political moment in decades.


As political revolution imperiled his elite status, the Count in Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard declared, “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll [nationalists] foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” One can envision many Arab elites in the various corridors of power uttering similar statements during the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East. Egged on by decades of unbridled repression, awash with crushing tsunami-like waves of neoliberal economic adjustments, and frustrated witnesses to unaccountable rulers, many citizens revolted in the largest regional Intifada (uprising) in the post-World War ii period. Protests—in varying intensities and durations—began in December 2010 and took place throughout 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Algeria, lordan, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Palestine, Iraq, Oman, and Syria. Although the general conditions that ignited the revolts transcended the various countries’ borders, the protesters lodged country-specific grievances at ruling elites, who had treated their citizens with disdain for years.

By mid-January 2011, a new era of popular politics seemed to be tearing down the older political order. Shortly after Tunisia’s dictator of twenty-three years, Zayn al-Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, analysts debated whether Tunisia would be an isolated case or the start of a larger regional movement for change. Some regional specialists suggested no. As one predicted shortly after Ben Ali’s fall, “Arab regimes have often been criticized as sclerotic and archaic; they are neither. Over the past two decades, they have confronted and overcome a wide range of challenges that have caused authoritarian governments to collapse in many other world regions. Arab regimes have demonstrated their resilience in the past, and they continue to do so in the wake of the Tunisian uprising.” People in the region interpreted Ben Ali’s departure differently. Sensing a critical moment was underway, activists that had been—at times—comically unsuccessful at organizing against well-armed security apparatuses went on the . . .

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