Hereditary Dictatorships Crumble in the Arab Spring

There are few clear similarities between the countries in the Middle East where uprisings have succeeded or are currently in full swing. However, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen do share one thing: They are all hereditary dictatorships, places where the undisputed leader has either inherited power from his father, or is clearly making preparations to hand it down to a son. Why are the hereditary dictatorships in danger? Because mostly aging military dictators have allowed iron rule and familial relations to control their countries.

In June 2000, Saad Eddin Ibrahim published an article that made a bold and comical statement about hereditary dictatorships. Ibrahim created the term al-Gumlukia, a combination of the Arabic terms gumhuriya ("republic", as spoken with in Egyptian dialect) and mamlaka ("monarchy"). The term was meant to explain the odd phenomenon of self-proclaimed republics where power appeared to be hereditary. This transfer of power was already seen with Syria's Bashar al-Assad taking power from his father Hafiz in 2000. A similar hereditary change of power appeared to be in the works in Egypt, Libya, Iraq before the invasion, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Eleven years later, it is these countries that appear to be on brink of falling to the Arab Spring. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has long since fled Tunisia, while former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt lay behind a metal cage as his trial began. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya has already lost half of his country in a civil war and Assad faces down his own internal insurrection. Yemen’s security appears to be in tatters, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh recovers from a near successful assassination attempt. Bahrain is the lone monarchy that faced serious opposition during the Arab Spring, but for the time being has returned to a tenuous and strained calm.

While not all of the countries that have seen serious difficulties during the Arab Spring are among the al-Gumlukia, most are. What do these countries have in common that might explain this trend?

All of these governments rule with an iron fist by former military leaders. Although it is impossible to compare the experience between Libya and Egypt, or Syria and Yemen, these governments routinely use methods of torture and disappearance, sometimes arbitrarily. It is no mistake that specific individuals that have died in the different countries are revered for their suffering at the hands of their government, whether Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, Khalid Saeed in Egypt, Hamza al-Khatib in Syria, or the protesters killed on March 18 in Yemen.

Additionally, the notion is widespread that these governments represent familial interests; not the country's own interests. The suffering of civilians, and not political opponents, resonates with the populace. Patronage networks are strong in all of these countries, but wider familial relations are particularly reviled for the belief that they control national economies, whether it is the Tarabulsi’s in Tunisia or the Makhlouf’s in Syria.

Another common theme is most of these countries are ruled by aging autocrats who have been in power for decades. Health rumors have swirled among nearly all of these leaders in recent times, creating uncertainty and worry that they will simply hand power down to their kin. This uncertainty can best be seen in Egypt, where Mubarak denied that there were any plans for his son to succeed him, and worries about internal opposition to son Gamal Mubarak’s inheritance were widespread. The sole exception to this is Assad (although his father did rule Syria for three decades before he came to power) which fits the one family or one ruler paradigm that is al-Gumlukia.

The challenges the al-Gumlukia countries face suggest that the kind of family handover of power that occurred in Syria is now unlikely. Transfers of power will now take on an added dimension of uncertainty as populations realize if they don’t like inherited rulers, they can always take to the streets.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jonathan Bertman

Jonathan Bertman holds a MA in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh. He is interested in politics and economics in the Middle East and North Africa.

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