The Arab world’s presidents for life and absolute monarchs are quaking in the aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Arab politics had been stuck in a vast logjam for the past thirty years, from which its crowds are now attempting to blast it loose. The protesters put their fingers on the phenomenon of the vampire state and concluded that before anything important could change, they had to put a stake through its heart.
Under European colonialism the Middle East had a few decades of classic liberal rule in the first half of the twentieth century. Egypt, Iraq and Iran had elected parliaments, prime ministers and popular parties. However, liberal rule was eventually discredited insofar as it proved to be largely a game played by big landlords overly open to the influence and bribery of grasping Western powers.
From about the 1950s, the modern one-party states of the Middle East justified themselves through the struggle for independence from those Western colonial empires and the corrupt parliamentary regimes. They undertook land reform, developed big public sectors and promoted state-led industrialization. In recent decades, however, each ruling party, backed by a nationalist officer corps, increasingly became little more than an appendage of the president for life and his extended clan. The massive networks of informers and secret police worked for the interests of the central executive.
These governments took steps in recent decades toward neoliberal policies of privatization and a smaller public sector under pressure from Washington and allied institutions—and the process was often corrupt. The ruling families used their prior knowledge of important economic policy initiatives to engage in a kind of insider trading, advantaging their relatives and buddies.
The wife of Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the notorious former hairdresser Leila Ben Ali, placed her relatives in key business positions enabled by insider government knowledge and licenses that allowed them to dominate the country. The US Embassy in Tunis estimated in 2006 that half the major entrepreneurs in the country were related by blood or marriage to the president. In Egypt, Ahmed Ezz, for example, benefited from his high position in the ruling National Democratic Party and his friendship with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal. Ezz has been formally charged with usurping control of a government-owned steel concern and of rerouting its products to his own, privately owned Ezz Steel company. In the past decade, Ezz went from controlling 35 percent of the Egyptian steel market to over 60 percent, raising a chorus of accusations of monopoly practices. Since the Mubaraks rigged the elections so that the NDP always won, and the party officials favored by the president prospered, Egypt was ruled by a closed elite.
The policies of these one-party states created widespread anxiety among workers, the unemployed and even entrepreneurs outside the charmed circle, seeming to create an insuperable obstacle to the advancement of the ordinary person. Everyone could be taken advantage of or even expropriated at will by corrupt state elites, who had the backing of the secret police. Workers’ strikes were crushed by security police. The presidents even began putting on regal airs and grooming their sons as successors, ensuring that the family cartels and cronyism would continue into the next generation.