In the West, authoritarian regimes in foreign lands tend to be depicted as uniformly brittle and hollow, ever ripe for popular overthrow. But that blanket characterization fails to do justice to the differing natures of authoritarian systems, argues author and political scientist Joshua Stacher. Authoritarianism is not, by definition, "a stagnant governing approach," he writes in his timely and provocative new book, Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria.
His defining example of an authoritarian regime that is masterful at perpetuating its rule comes from Egypt, the Arab country he knows best. With last year's toppling of "ruler for life" Hosni Muburak and the recent election as president of Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood (and decidedly not of the military and other powerful state institutions), some analysts see a brighter prospect for democracy. "Democratization is becoming rooted in Arab societies," Egypt included, the historian Olivier Roy recently declared. But Stacher doesn't think so. Egypt, he says in his book, has not experienced a genuine democratic revolution. While "structural changes to the ruling coalition have undoubtedly occurred," the same old elites, especially the military (its power concentrated in the SCAF -- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), remain firmly in control of the country.
Syria, in this formulation, offers a contrast to Egypt. Because political and economic power is more decentralized in Syria, with Damascus having only a tenuous hold on events in the outlying regions, Bashar al-Assad's ruling coalition might collapse. The result is apt to be an unstable power vacuum of the sort Egypt has so far managed to avoid. But in any case, Stacher concludes that "neither Egypt nor Syria is democratizing, and neither is likely to do so in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings." And Washington, he asserts, is complicit in this squelching of popular aspirations for grassroots democracy; its rhetoric notwithstanding, the Obama Administration, like its predecessors both Republican and Democratic, is generally comfortable with the diverse forms of autocratic governance in the Middle East. After all, in 2009, President Obama called Mubarak "a force for stability" in the region.
This bleak and somewhat harsh assessment begs tough questions. But Stacher, an assistant professor at Kent State University in Ohio, has earned the right to a voice in the debate about how the U.S. should respond to change in the Arab world. His knowledge of the terrain is hard-won and first-hand: He devoted three years of fieldwork in Egypt and Syria to research for the book, including, as he notes, "more than one hundred interviews with government decision-makers, political activists, journalists, academics, and dissidents." He speaks fluent Arabic and lived in the Arab world (mainly in Cairo), from 1998 to 2007. A native of a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, Stacher first visited Egypt in 1997, on a college study-abroad program. "I fell in love with Egypt because of how chaotic it was," he recalled. "Back in '97, you had this major city, Cairo, where there were no traffic cops, no traffic rules." In the following interview, he fleshes out his perspective on events in Egypt and the Middle East as well as Washington's reaction to them:
Foreign Policy: How do Egyptians talk about democracy? Does it mean the same thing to them that it means to people in the West?
Joshua Stacher: They don't have the same exact conception of democracy that we do. What Egyptians are really looking for is equality of opportunity. Basic protection under the law. They want to feel like they're getting a fair shake -- in getting into school, getting a job, getting a car, getting an apartment. The problem is, they don't have basic rights protected. If you're Egyptian, and you get thrown into jail, what [social] class you're in determines whether you're going to get tortured or not.