Egyptian reformer Saad Eddin Ibrahim observed in the late 1990s and 2000 that the Arab world was beginning to be characterized by a bizarre gryphon-like form of government, the republican monarchy. In a republic, power is supposed to be vested in the people, who are sovereign, and who can change out their leaders through elections. In a monarchy, power is vested in a hereditary monarchy.
Air Force general Hafiz al-Assad made a coup in Syria in 1970. By the late 1990s, as his health failed, he groomed his son Bashar as his successor. Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist, succeeded his father. Initially he was thought likely to make significant reforms. But he was constrained by the powerful Jama’at al-Assad or al-Assad clan to retain the regime’s closed and authoritarian ways.
Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who had taken over Libya in 1969, was by the first decade of the 21st century grooming his son Sayf al-Islam to succeed him. Sayf did a degree at the London School of Economics and was rumored to have enlightened ideas.
Hosni Mubarak, an Air Force general, came to power in Egypt in 1981, succeeding the assassinated President Anwar El Sadat. In recent years, he groomed his son Gamal to succeed him, provoking a strong backlash from military circles (Egypt has since 1952 been a military dictatorship) and from civil society.
Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen came to power in 1978 and was positioning his billionaire son Ahmed, a military commander of the Republican Guards, as his successor.
The republican monarchy was not a quirk. It reflected the realities of political economy. From the 1990s, the Arab states were beginning to adopt Neoliberal (laissez-faire, anti-regulatory) policies after a long period of socialism. Privatizing public economic resources created enormous opportunities for graft, favoritism and nepotism. The government knew where the opportunities were for investment before the public, and state officials could tip their relatives and cronies.
There is a sense in which the great Arab upheavals of 2011 were in the first instance revolts against republican monarchy. The Arab youth who came in the streets viewed the nepotistic elites as predatory, and as pursuing policies that lined their own pockets at the expense of fostering opportunities for their publics.
When people ask if the Arab Spring has really changed or accomplished anything, this reality should be remembered. Since a whole future, in which the sons of the dictators would come to power, has now been erased from the arena of possibility, it will be easy to forget that it had ever been in the cards.
We should also consider that the very prospect of republican dynasties was one of the motivators for the youthful crowds who made the revolutions. However hopeless the political, cultural and economic scene might have been, if there had been hope of eventual change than perhaps people would have stayed home and not risked their lives to make a revolution. The very likelihood that the dynasty would just go on, and that its policies would change little, produced the anger and despair that fueled popular discontent.
This year marked the end of republican monarchy, and of its peculiar, nepotistic, form of state economy. Gamal Mubarak is in jail in Egypt. Sayf al-Islam Qaddafi is in jail in Libya. Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has stepped down in favor of an unrelated prime minister, and it seems unlikely that Ahmed will be allowed to become president. Bashar al-Assad and the Assad Clan are under severe pressure and whatever happens seem likely to be weakened and to be unable to govern as dynasts into the next generation.
The end of republican monarchy is also the end of rule by a small oligarchy of persons related to or intermarried with one another. That is, the Arab 1% has begun being overthrown by the 99%. If the government and economy open up, bribes aren’t demanded for every little thing, and leaders emerge who put the interests of the country first, economic and political opportunity may be gained by the Arab millennials.
The Mubaraks put Saad Eddin Ibrahim (with whom I studied) in jail for pointing out their aspirations to republican monarchy. Gamal Mubarak is now in Saad Eddin’s old cell.
The king is dead, and lives no more in the republics.