This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 25/04/2011
We will continue to discuss: Why did the Mubarak regime in Egypt collapse? How did it happen in Tunisia that one of the most influential security regimes was overthrown by a minor incident? How does it happen that Gaddafi's state now is on the verge of collapse, following four decades of rigid rule? In Syria, the al-Assad regime, which was once one of the most imposing regimes in the region, is also threatened with collapse because a group of youths wrote anti-government slogans on a wall in the city of Daraa [and were arrested as a result], arousing public anger. Today, the revolution is resonating through more than seven Syrian cities, all chanting anti-government slogans calling for an end to the regime.
The question to be asked is: Why have the most powerful and most brutal of all regimes collapsed?
The incidents that led to all these uprisings are well known, yet the reasons behind them are still a matter of debate. I believe it is generally agreed that the collapse occurred because of a set of overlapping factors, as stated by sociologists, most prominently Ibn Khaldoun in his works highlighting the causes for the downfall of states. Here we see how conflicts within the ruling apparatus are the common denominator. Hereditary rule and conflict between different sectors of the authority in Egypt preoccupied Mubarak for over five years, during which his rivals engaged in struggles and alliances. In Tunisia, there was much news of power struggles within the family of former President Ben Ali, especially on his wife's side. As for Gaddafi, who always boasted of being a leader rather than a president, his sons were engaged in a rivalry over the administration of the state, and competed to gain the most benefits. Although there was no apparent internal conflict over the bequeathal of power in Damascus, the family's influence, and its rivalry for commerce and power, became part of public debates.
In fact, heated public debates are evidence of the regime's fragility, and a reflection of a struggle in the upper levels. During the latest years of his rule, Mubarak was preoccupied with attempts to resolve disputes between the state's different pillars, in the belief that distributing privileges and benefits amongst conflicting figures such as [Safwat] el-Sherif, [Saad] el-Shazli, [Zakaria] Azmi, [Ahmad Fathi] Sorour and others would achieve stability for the regime, and would perhaps pave the way for his son Gamal to assume the presidency. Yet Mubarak seemed virtually indifferent to the feelings of the masses and other political forces outside the palace. As we discovered later on, the actual source of power did not come from the palace, but rather from the street, where the people were proven to be more important than ministers, associates, businessmen and even the army.
When governance is consumed by struggles, over time these regimes become senile. Following 40 years of individual rule, it was natural for Gaddafi's governing institution to be weakened, because it lacked legitimate alternatives. Despite his pride in leading a country without governing institutions - a country instead consisting of peoples' communities - where the Libyans ruled themselves, Gaddafi's government was in fact filled with struggles for power, and perhaps still is engaged in such struggles during these current dark days.
In Tunisia, an unknown security man named Ben Ali came to power as successor to the great historic leader Habib Bourguiba, at a time when there were numerous figures of a greater political stature than him. Ben Ali, who was supposed to govern on a temporary basis, remained in power for around two and a half decades. He did not realize the importance of consolidating state institutions for governance, stability and continuity, but rather he acted to undermine them.
In Damascus, Hafez al-Assad's son unexpectedly rose to power [instead of his brother], after he inherited rule from his father. There was no government party nor was there a clear ruling system - whether republic or monarchy. President Bashar al-Assad extended his circles of authority to include more relatives.
These regimes have all collapsed, or are on the brink of doing so, because they marginalized state institutions, and were preoccupied with the fires fanned by those around them in power. However, they failed to pay attention to the much greater fire on the street.