Hudson: Arab Countries Need Authoritative, not Authoritarian, Leaders

What the Middle East needs the most right now are strong, authoritative –– not authoritarian –– leaders to come to power and restore stability, as well as the adoption of new “legitimacy formulas” that encompass the popular demands of the people, noted Distinguished Visiting Professor Michael C. Hudson, director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore and professor emeritus at Georgetown University.

“Given the nature of [our] more global society and the new technologies and exposure that people have, an effective legitimizing formula … would include the inclusion of marginalized sectors, the limiting of elites, and the appearance of enlightened and capable leadership,” Hudson said. “Other items include good governance, transparency, civic identity, pluralistic nationalism, freedom and, to some extent, the issue of Palestine.”

In one of two lectures he delivered at AUC, “Arab Politics After the Uprisings: Still Searching for Legitimacy,” Hudson focused on the successes, and most recently the great failures, of what he described as legitimacy formulas used by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region since the 1950s until now.

“Legitimacy refers to the condition whereby most of the people in a political society have a common understanding and belief that they are being ruled rightly,” he said, adding that imbedding this belief in people can be achieved through legitimacy formulas, which Middle Eastern leaders have long relied on to convince their populaces that they are good and worthy rulers. “So what are the legitimizing formulas today and will they succeed?” Hudson probed. “Because the old ones, by and large, have failed.”

The Right Formula The notion that there are types of legitimate rule was first developed by Max Weber, the noted sociologist and political economist who published an essay in 1992 titled “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule.” “Weber suggested that there were three basic legitimations of domination: legal, traditional and charismatic,” Hudson explained. “[In the 1960s], when I was studying as a master’s student at Yale, there was no real talk of democracy as such. It was not given the same kind of emphasis that it has been lately by policymakers and scholars who are concerned with the notions of transition to democracy. Back then, most of the states in the Middle East were authoritarian, and the question in those days was, ‘How can authoritarian leaders justify their rule?’” Hudson sought to answer this question and focused on it in his widely acclaimed 1977 publication, “Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy.” What he found at the time was that many of the regimes in the Arab world were indeed classifiable in either the area termed as traditional-patrimonial-monarchical systems –– such as the Gulf monarchies –– and that others were prominently legitimized by charismatic leadership. “Of course, the most prominent example of this was right here in Egypt,” he noted, citing the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser. “Abdel Nasser is one of the few Middle Eastern leaders in the 21st century who can be considered charismatic.” According to Weber, charismatic leaders are distinctive in their almost magical or all-consuming authority over their people, regardless of what that they may actually do. However, the formulas that leaders in the MENA region relied on to consolidate their rule in the 1950s and 1960s have faded over time, Hudson noted. The notions of pan-Arabism, nationalism and support for Palestine were all prominent legitimizing symbols that authoritarian regimes used to popularize their rule, but Hudson argued that these symbols are no longer relevant in the region today. Then and Now Thanks to the well-established domestic security apparatus prevalent in most of the MENA region, authoritarian leaders were able to maintain their rule, despite the dilution of their legitimacy formulas, through the basic tactics of fear and intimidation, Hudson said. “The old, classical legitimacy formulas, which in the case of Egypt were developed way back in the Nasser period, were a combination of charismatic leadership, partnered with an ideological program that had great resonance among the Egyptian people: anti-imperialism, dignity, socialism and land reform,” he explained. By the 1970s, there was a continuity in the region, but this does not suggest –– according to Hudson –– that the legitimizing formulas were working. “The clout of the symbolic menu had declined, but what hadn’t declined was the mukhabarat [state intelligence]. A fair amount of the explanation for rulers such as Gaddafi, the Assads, Saddam Hussein, Sadat and Mubarak lies in the national security apparatus that had been developed in their countries.” Examining the current state of affairs in post-Arab Spring countries, Hudson noted that the uprisings signaled the last straw, or the culmination of a situation where regimes had lost their legitimacy. “Now it is time for those who have inherited rule to construct new legitimacy formulas that are more in tune with what people seem to be demanding,” he said, noting that very few countries in the region have taken this step. Out of the entire MENA region, Hudson highlighted Tunisia as the most successful example of steady improvement. “Libya, on the other hand, remains quite chaotic and there is no coming together, and Egypt seems to be turning backward,” he observed. “The case in Egypt is particularly interesting because it suggests that people’s preferences for legitimacy formulas can sometimes change very quickly. Those who wanted a new regime in 2011 also rejected their new government in 2013, and now in 2014, they seem to want only stability, regardless of how they get it.” Caught Off-Guard Taking all of the above into consideration, why then were the uprisings in 2011 a surprise to Middle East experts? “Scholars were surprised by the Arab Spring because we’ve always focused on the authoritarian regimes of the region, rather than looking at what is happening on the ground. The conventional wisdom was that these regimes were coup-proof,” Hudson explained. “We hadn’t noticed it, but there was most certainly a legitimacy deficit, even if there was a surplus of coercive power.” There are additional reasons why the waning of the region’s legitimacy formulas had been overlooked by experts. “Firstly, authoritarian regimes are deeply imbedded and typically persist despite their unpopularity,” Hudson observed. In the Middle East, this is very much the case, as the oil-rich regimes are able to “buy the consent of the people,” and the regimes that lack oil compensate for it by investing heavily in military and security institutions. “Authoritarian rulers can manage surprisingly well just by scaring people or at least creating situations that deter public expression or organizing,” he noted. Another reason that authoritarian regimes have persisted in the region is due to the backing of foreign powers. “The United States, for example, continues to deploy substantial amounts of assistance, both economic and military, to several MENA states,” Hudson stated, “And one reason given for this assistance, at least domestically in the United States, is that this furthers America’s strategic interests in the MENA region.” Hudson argued there must be a shift among scholars toward observing more closely what is taking place in societies in the region, rather than what is occurring within the regimes themselves. “We must reconsider civil society,” he asserted. “In Egypt, for example, many forces within civil society emerged during the revolution –– women, workers, youth and the traditional elite.” Prior to the Arab Spring, many of the movements and aspirations of these groups had been greatly underestimated. “What we’re looking at is some kind of mutual awakening in what we had essentially thought was an inert populace,” Hudson added. What Next? Looking forward, the two greatest challenges facing post-Arab Spring countries, as Hudson described, are “restoring stability through authoritative, but not authoritarian, rule and … refashioning communities within the states in order to create harmony between the contending identities in each country.” In doing this, Hudson believes that the MENA countries will create more legitimate, authoritative systems. “So that people who ask themselves ‘Why do I obey?’ will finally have a good answer,” he said. Overall, Hudson is optimistic about the future of post-Arab Spring states. “There are a few trends to at least inspire some optimism,” he affirmed. “First of all, there’s an emerging global, multipolar world, which may positively affect the possibilities of developing new, legitimate and stable political orders. The effects of social media will impede authoritarian tendencies, and post-uprising governments will be weaker and possibly more responsive to popular demands for accountability, performance and inclusion.” Photo caption: Hudson (left) speaking at AUC New Cairo, with Clement Henry, chair of the political science department at the University