This Op-Ed was published in The New York Times on 14/04/2011
Yet 1848 and 1989 are not the right analogies for this past winter’s events. The revolutions of 1848 sought to overturn traditional monarchies, and those in 1989 were aimed at toppling Communist governments. The revolutions of 2011 are fighting something quite different: “sultanistic” dictatorships. Although such regimes often appear unshakable, they are actually highly vulnerable, because the very strategies they use to stay in power make them brittle, not resilient.
Such governments arise when a national leader expands his personal power at the expense of formal institutions. Sultanistic dictators appeal to no ideology and have no purpose other than maintaining their personal authority. They may preserve some formal aspects of democracy — elections, political parties, a national assembly, or a constitution — but they rule above them by installing compliant supporters in key positions. The Middle Eastern exemplars include Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Behind the scenes, such dictators amass great wealth, which they use to buy the loyalty of supporters and punish opponents. Because they need resources to fuel their patronage machine, they typically promote economic development through industrialization, commodity exports, and education. They also seek relationships with foreign countries, promising stability in exchange for aid and investment. However wealth comes into the country, most of it is funneled to the sultan and his cronies.
The new sultans control their countries’ military elites by keeping them divided. Typically, the security forces are separated into several commands (army, air force, police, intelligence) — each of which reports directly to the leader. The leader monopolizes contact between the commands, between the military and civilians, and with foreign governments, a practice that makes sultans essential for both coordinating the security forces and channeling foreign aid and investment.
To reinforce fears that foreign aid and political coordination would disappear in their absence, sultans typically avoid appointing possible successors. They keep the masses de-politicized and unorganized by tightly controlling elections and providing subsidies for key goods, such as electricity, gasoline and foodstuffs.
By following this pattern, politically adept sultans around the world have accumulated vast wealth and concentrated power. Yet despite their apparent stability, sultanistic dictatorships have inherent vulnerabilities that only increase over time.
Sultans must strike a careful balance between self-enrichment and rewarding the elite. As years go by, however, such rulers tend to direct more rewards to their family and cronies, alienating other elites. Meanwhile, as the economy grows and education expands, the number of people with higher aspirations increases. The weaknesses of sultanistic regimes are magnified as the leader ages and the question of succession becomes more acute, and his very indispensability works against a smooth transfer of power. And then there are the security forces. By dividing their command structure, the sultan may reduce the threat they pose. But this strategy also makes the security forces more prone to defections in the event of mass protests.
The revolutions unfolding across the Middle East represent the breakdown of increasingly corrupt sultanistic regimes. Although economies across the region have grown in recent years, the gains have bypassed the majority of the population, being amassed instead by a wealthy few. Fast-growing and urbanizing populations in the Middle East have been hurt by low wages and by food prices that rose by 32 percent in the last year alone. Discontent has also been stoked by high unemployment, which has stemmed in part from the surge in the Arab world’s young population. Finally, these regimes’ concentration of wealth and brazen corruption increasingly offended their own militaries, as well as the populace.
Yet those hoping for Tunisia and Egypt to make a quick transition to stable democracy will likely be disappointed. Revolutions are just the beginning of a long process. Even after a peaceful revolution, it generally takes half a decade for any type of stable regime to consolidate. Where civil war arises, as in Libya, it often takes even longer.
Some Western governments, having long supported Ben Ali and Mubarak as bulwarks against radical Islam, now fear that Islamist groups will take over. Yet the historical record of revolutions in sultanistic regimes should alleviate such concerns. Not a single sultan overthrown in the last 30 years, such as Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, or Suharto in Indonesia, has been succeeded by an ideologically extremist regime. Instead, more democratic regimes — weak, sometimes troubled, but still democratic — have taken their place.
Whatever the outcome, there is reason for optimism. Prior to 2011, the Middle East stood out on the map as the sole remaining region in the world virtually devoid of democracy. The Jasmine and Nile Revolutions look set to change all that. Whatever the final outcome, this much can be said: The rule of the sultans is coming to an end.
Jack A. Goldstone is a professor at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy. A longer version of this article is published in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs.