19
Apr

Understanding the Revolutions of 2011

Written on April 19, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Culture & Society, Democracy & Human Rights, Middle East

By Jack A. Goldstone

The wave of revolutions sweeping the Middle East bears a striking resemblance to previous political earthquakes. As in Europe in 1848, rising food prices and high unemployment have fueled widespread popular protests. As in Communist Europe in 1989, frustration with corrupt and unresponsive political systems produced defections among elites and the fall of once powerful regimes.

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. Read more…

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.

As published in www.nytimes.com on April 14, 2011 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 15, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune)

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