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Why He Cannot Let It Go?

December 18, 2012

When popular protests begun to spread across the country, Bashar Assad’s regime responded with ruthless violence to clamp down the protesters. The violence unleashed fueled rather than stopped the confrontation and prompted a fully fledged civil conflict. This chain of events poses one question: why Assad clung to power and did not let it go in the same fashion as Mubarak did in Egypt? Clinging or letting go the power however is not a choice that Assad is able to make independently: executive power in Syria is in fact, despite the conventional wisdom, not concentrated in the hand of the president. Power is diffused across the ruling coalition which is dispersed across the main political organizations: presidency, military, security services, bureaucracy and the ruling Baath party.  When it comes to adapt to popular pressure there is no one person who calls the shot: there are a lot of people comprising the ruling coalition which will fight hard to keep the status quo and prevent any adaptation. Adaptation in fact implies that somebody in the existing ruling elite coalition will lose: when power is dispersed everyone will fight not to be the loser. As a result the regime is not able to adapt and to incorporate new elements: there is no alternative to a struggle to keep the status quo. This, according to political scientist Joshua Stacher in his new book Adaptable Autocrats, is the reason why Assad cannot let it go and why the regime in Syria has responded they way it did to challenges to its power.

Stacher builds his thesis on one observation: the deposal of the president in Egypt was accompanied by a minimal disruption of the social class structure. The president was ousted by members of the previous regime ( the military) which ensured that full regime change did not take place: the ruling coalition was reshuffled (prominent members of the previous elites were discarded), yet the underlying autocratic structure of power was left untouched. The regime in Egypt is therefore changing to stay the same. In Syria on the other hand the regime proves an inability to change to stay the same: this has blocked any peaceful transition in Syria. The ability of a regime to adapt is, Stacher argues, a function of the degree to which the executive power is centralized: if there is one person who calls the shot (i.e. executive power is more centralized), then it is easier for a regime to change while staying the same.

Centralized vs. Decentralized Executive Power. The ruling coalition comprises the top elite personalities who coalesce around the epicenter of governing. The epicenter of power (or executive power) is more or less constrained by other state institutions: the military, security services, state party and ruling party. In Egypt, the executive power (which coincided with the presidential office) was successful in sapping those organizations of the ability to autonomously participate in the decision-making process. Key personalities of these organizations were part of the ruling coalition because of their proximity to the executive power (i.e. the president) and not because of the institutional support derived from their respective organizations: institutions such as the ruling party in Egypt were emasculated and de-politicized to an extent that their only role was to obey the directives of the top. In Syria the president was never able to de-politicize key state organizations such as the ruling party Baath: for that reason the executive power is dispersed across organizations so that one counterbalances the other.

Politicized Institutions. In Syria in other words each organization is a repository of power and elites derive their influences from the patronage its institutions (military, secret services or party) can yield, and not from their proximity to the president: in practice this meant that the elite in each organization preserved a space of autonomy vis-à-vis the president. As each of these politicized institutions want to have a saying in the decision-making process, countries such as Syria are bound to experience governing gridlock and inability to alter the ruling coalition. The latter characteristic proves pivotal when the regime is faced with popular protests as it was in 2011: whereas Egypt was able to reshuffle the ruling coalition while conserving intact the autocratic structure, the oligarchic system in Syria was unable to decide who was to be the scapegoat to placate the popular anger. As the executive power was dispersed, the president was not able to handpick the losers: nobody in the ruling coalition wanted to let it go, hence they fought back to preserve the status quo.

How do autocrats adapt? (source offthemark.com)

In one of the first interview released by UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Brahimi, he stated that the need for political change in Syria is fundamental and urgent and it will result in a new order: the change cannot be cosmetic, he argued. Adaptable Autocrats casts the recent events in Egypt and Syria in a different light: regimes are not engaging in meaningful reforms they are just reinventing themselves in response to popular protests. The extent to which regimes are able to adapt and change is given by the configuration of power in the country. From this angle, the order which results will be new only to a limited extent and regimes will remain autocratic or oligarchic.

Adaptable Autocrats’ thesis has some weaknesses too. Firstly,  if the president in Egypt had an undisputed executive power and the military had been emasculated, it is difficult to understand how the long term dictator could be so easily ousted by a marginal institution such as the military. In other words if the executive power was truly centralized in the president office one would not expect the driving seat to be taken so easily from the president’s hands and transferred to a de-politicized military. Secondly, the process of ruling coalition alteration and elite cooptation happens most of the time behind closed doors and therefore it is difficult to observe and explain how elites are able to counter the president choice. A decentralized executive power with elites from other state organization opposing the president is used as a variable to explain why the regime was unable to adapt when faced with popular uprising. Yet, given the paucity of evidence pointing to the elite opposing the president, the inability to adapt (the dependent variable) is used to prove the presence of a decentralized power (independent variable): the argument therefore runs into circularity sometimes. Despite these pitfalls however, Adaptable Autocrats is an important contribution to a debate which was skewed too much towards the novelty of the new order while forgetting the degree of continuity with the past.

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