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The Roots of Scattered Power: A No-National Identity

December 24, 2012
While holding a temporary seat at the UN Security Council, Syria was called to express its vote on a Resolution which legitimized US occupation in Iraq by instituting the Coalition Provisional Authority. Syria’s UN representative did not attend the vote and Syria was registered as abstained. He did not show up to the vote because he received conflicting messages from Damascus: on one side president Assad wished Syria to vote affirmatively, on the other side two prominent figures of the Baath party  wished Syria to vote negatively. These two authorities gave diverging opinions at different times to the Syria’s UN representative which resulted into a no-vote. This episode epitomizes how the authority to take decision in Syria is not fully in the hand of the president: there is no one person who calls the shot, as each of the State’s organizations (the Baath party, the military, the secret service) are repositories of power and therefore have a saying in the decision making. This, according to Adaptable Autocrats, limits the ability of oligarchic regimes to reshuffle the ruling coalition and adapt when faced with popular protests.

Adaptbale Autocrats argues that power in Syria is dispersed not because the president was weaker than presidents in Egypt where they successfully emasculated other organizations. Power is dispersed because when president Hafiz Assad was building the Syrian state he did not dispose of one key ingredient of the sate-building mix: a national Syrian identity[1].

Identity on the Way of Centralized Power. Syria did not exist as a self containing unit before colonialism. When it gained independence it therefore lacked a degree of social homogeneity and regional integration which could produce citizens with a shared national identity: an Arab identity was the only social identity one could buy into. Conversely, Egypt had a distinct Egyptian identity due to its geographic conformation and distinct dialect. This difference turned out to shape the path of executive power centralization (or decentralization) in Syria and Egypt after the 1970s. A shared national identity was the glue which kept together the state and the society in Egypt. Lacking this glue, Syria had to create strong politicized State’s organization such as the ruling party which could make up for the absence of a Syrian identity and allow the State to penetrate into the society.

When Hafiz al-Assad gained power after a coup in the 1970s he made the party one of the key prop of the State’s stability. The party endorsed a common pan-Arab ideology and therefore was able to absorb a cross sectarian coalition. A political centre such as the ruling party which could counterbalance the centripetal forces of social heterogeneity explained the choice of the president to create a strong politicized and autonomous ruling party. A party which through its membership could enfranchise the citizens into the state-building process made up for the absence of a Syrian identity: the party was “the state’s central vehicle for social patronage”. However, this happened as the executive powers became dispersed across organizations thus creating decision gridlock and hampering State’s capacity to adapt: this was the Faustian trade off Syria had to sign to. The ensuing stability was one side of the trade off, the current civil conflict is the other side of a trade off which comes with decentralized executive authority.

This thesis is very convincing yet it has blind spots too. Stacher argues that

“because of minimal social and ideological constraints, the Egyptian polity could be kept unified and cohesive without a strong party that could compete for influence with the president”.

During the 1960s one had to be member of the party to be eligible for any national or local assembly or board of any unions or even to exercise some professions. When the president moved to weaken this apparatus, the Egyptian polity remained unified because of its Egyptian identity. However, it is not clear how the identity could substitute for a party which, as centre of patronage, linked the society to the state. This is not the aim of the book, yet a deeper discussion of this link could have made Adaptable Autocrats’ thesis stronger.


[1] A social identity is not the only constraining factor. Adaptable Autocrats identifies also the differential treatment by the international hegemon and the opposition challenges as factors constraining the degree to which executive power could be centralized.

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