A New Generation of Charismatic Leaders: Is there a Chance for Change in the Middle East?

It seems that in the Middle East, no “Caesar” will tolerate institutions next to him that can call into question his hegemony in the political sphere, such as a parliament or strong political parties. The experience of most of the Caesarist regimes in the Middle East and North Africa confirms that parliament is assigned only a secondary role as an institution that ensures the formal democratic legitimacy of the leader’s legislative initiatives, writes Valdai Club expert Nikolay Surkov.

Along with monarchies, authoritarian regimes remain among the most common forms of government in the Middle East and North Africa. This is justified, because, due to the underdevelopment of democratic institutions, in the event of any major crisis, the result will not be a coalition government based on the institutions of representative democracy, but the emergence of a strong leader.

What should we expect from modern authoritarian regimes? When analysing them, one should, first of all, pay attention to where they draw their legitimacy from. Regimes with hereditary monarchical legitimation are fairly stable: as a rule, they rely on traditional institutions and are relatively predictable. Plebiscites exist as a source of legitimation in the Middle East, but it is more often formal and directed outward to ensure recognition from the international community. Much more interesting for research are governments which use charismatic legitimation, predicating it on the popularity and prestige of a particular person who is positioned as a “saviour of the fatherland”, “a guarantor of stability”, “freedom fighter”, “defender of the faith”, etc.

At the same time, charismatic legitimation requires regular populist steps to strengthen itself: from the distribution of free food to small, victorious wars.

If the necessary data is available, it is advisable to establish whether the charismatic leader has a workable team (a close group of associates); in other words, “the retinue makes the king”. The team is important because it is a guarantee of the stability of the regime and a key source of human resources. Its absence calls into question the long-term sustainability of the political regime. It is equally important to understand what forces the leader relies on: the army, special services, oligarchs and/or parties. As the experience of the Middle Eastern countries shows, reliance on special services, party bureaucracy and the business elite is characteristic of mature and more stable authoritarianism.

In the case of charismatic leadership (Caesarism) the most important thing is to understand whether it is progressive/revolutionary or conservative. How the country will develop depends on this. Progressive Caesarism, as a rule, is aimed at radical transformations, and sets ambitious external and internal political tasks. In the realities of the Middle East, this can mean internal reforms combined with an active foreign policy — with claims to a large role or even leadership in the region. This creates the preconditions for the growth of tension and the emergence of conflicts. Conservative Caesarism deals more with solving internal problems and consolidating the regime, so one should rather expect a cautious foreign policy from it, aimed at finding allies and sponsors.

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Saudi Arabia clearly needs change. Its present economic model simply is unsustainable in the wake of the collapse in the oil price, and with a young leader in control, who has, at least until now, bet the Saudi treasury, double-or-quits, on wars in Syria and Yemen, and in extravagant foreign policy gestures (Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Libya). And now, predictably, the western consultants, McKinsey, have been called in to rescue the kingdom from the enveloping crisis.

Finally, it is necessary to determine what kind of Caesarism has developed in the country in question — a one-time version or one involving the inheritance of charisma. One-time Caesarism is fraught with new crises and power struggles after the departure of Caesar. In this regard, it is important to pay attention to the existence of mechanisms for the transfer of power, since political stability depends on this. We can see the example of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who could not ensure the transfer of power to his son Gamal, the representative bodies and parties under his control were simply not able to solve such a problem. As a result, the army had to resolve this problem amid the conditions of the revolution.

The rise to power of the first generation of charismatic leaders in the region in the 1950s and 1960s was most often the result of a military coup, caused by an internal political crisis or a struggle for national liberation. Moreover, in the Middle East this kind of situation regularly led to dictatorship, which can be explained, first of all, by the weakness of other institutions, which should limit the power of leaders.

The first generation of charismatic leaders in this region was progressive, since, as a rule, it was about the transition from one type of state to another — for example, from a monarchy to a republic with a corresponding modernisation of the political system and economies of countries.

As for the second generation, we should talk about conservative Caesarism, which at best allows for a gradual evolution of the existing system, but more often cements all the shortcomings and weaknesses. On the eve of the Arab Spring, mature Caesarist regimes of a conservative nature prevailed in the Middle East. If for the first generation of charismatic leaders the army played the main role, then within the framework of the transition from revolutionary to traditional conservative Caesarism, the parties and special services created by the first generation came to the fore. Such a situation was observed in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Algeria. However, as the recent developments in Egypt showed, armies are still capable of bringing new Caesars to power.

In the short term, a third generation of charismatic leaders should be expected. This has already happened in Egypt. Its example may be followed by Libya, Iraq and Sudan. A distinctive feature of the current period is that the role of the army is assumed by oligarchic structures or political groups that have sufficient financial resources and/or their own armed formations (Libya, Iraq, Sudan).

In connection with the changes in the region and the demand for democratisation, plebiscite legitimation may become more important: when the Caesarist leader can come to power both immediately by parliamentary means and by military means, and later confirm his claims to dominance with the help of a plebiscite. A vivid example of the use of plebiscite legitimation is the election in 2014 of Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. In Egypt, a campaign was launched to present al-Sisi as the nation’s saviour and the de facto ideological successor to another popular charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. These efforts were crowned with success and in the 2014 elections, al-Sisi received over 90% of the vote.

The development of the political systems of the Middle Eastern states may even lead to the emergence of the phenomenon of a parliamentary “party leader”. The mechanism of the birth of a party leader was described by Max Weber: the party elite expects that the attractiveness of the leader’s personality will provide the party with votes and mandates, therefore party adherence is replaced with adherence to a specific person (not to the abstract programme of some party) and this is the “charismatic” element.

Turkish politician Recep Tayyip Erdogan can be considered an example of a modern party leader in the Middle East. In 2001, he created the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won parliamentary elections in 2002. In 2003, Erdogan became prime minister, and in 2014 he won the first direct presidential election.

The weak point of the third-generation Caesarist regimes will remain the problem of continuity.

However, it seems that in the Middle East, no “Caesar” will tolerate institutions next to him that can call into question his hegemony in the political sphere, such as a parliament or strong political parties.

The experience of most of the Caesarist regimes in the Middle East and North Africa confirms that parliament is assigned only a secondary role as an institution that ensures the formal democratic legitimacy of the leader’s legislative initiatives. In the event of a crisis, the role of the true “kingmaker” is assumed by another institution: the armed forces.

The nature of third-generation Caesarism will most likely be reactionary, since progressive Caesarism, as a rule, arises during the transition to a new social model (“from one type of state to another”). In the modern realities of the Middle East, the emergence of progressive Caesarism can be expected only in those countries that require decisive modernisation. In particular, the figure of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is quite interesting, although his legitimation is more hereditary-monarchical, and not charismatic. In all other cases, one should count on the continuation of the tradition of conservative, protective Caesarism. In particular, we see the results of the Arab Spring, which strengthened the positions of the ruling authoritarian leaders or brought new ones to power, which had the same attitudes.

The State – The New Leaders and the Old Institutions. Third Session of the Valdai Club Middle East Conference (in English)
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.