“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” That’s a line from Game of Thrones, a new HBO television series, but it could just as easily refer to the no-holds-barred battles we are watching in Libya and Syria. What is hardest to grasp is how these regimes are both strong and brittle. Their rulers are ruthless dictators prepared to do whatever it takes to stay in power – and for decades that can work. Until, suddenly, it does not.
We are not very good at understanding the win-or-die dynamic of these sorts of political systems: Not so long ago, everyone – from the U.S. State Department, to Harvard, to the London School of Economics, to Vogue magazine, to blue-chip Wall Street money managers – treated the Assads and the Gadhafis like rulers capable of gradual liberalization and even democratization.
Part of the problem is that the Cold War habit of mind, with its division of the world into two rival, ideologically cohesive camps, dies hard. Its legacy is our tendency to look for a new, black-and-white division, this time into democracies and dictatorships. But modern dictatorships come in many different varieties. The ones that are collapsing in the Middle East are examples of what are known as “sultanistic” dictatorships.
According to Jack Goldstone, a professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia, the defining characteristic of such a dictatorship is that it has no purpose apart from maintaining the leader’s personal authority. “A sultanistic regime is one in which the leader of a country has managed to gain control of all the levers of state power,” Mr. Goldstone said. “No one has any secure rights, and the leader rules with absolute authority.”
Richard Snyder, a professor of political science at Brown University in Rhode Island, said sultanistic regimes – which he prefers to call personalistic dictatorships or neo-patrimonial dictatorships – are all about the guy on top. “People get goodies for being close to the ruler. That’s the essence of it,” he told me.
Sultans establish their power by making sure no one else has any – or at least any that is independent of the sultan himself. That means that sultans intentionally hollow out their own government institutions.
Successful sultans, Mr. Goldstone said, also work to make and to keep their societies divided: “The ideal arrangement is to be supported by many elite groups, none of which are inclined to support one another.”
All of which makes sultanistic regimes particularly awful places to live. The bitter and corrosive sense of personal humiliation that inspired so many participants in the Arab Spring was not accidental – it is central to how sultanism works. “Under a sultanistic regime, because nobody has any rights, they all feel humiliated and subject to the whims of the ruler,” Mr. Goldstone said.
But modern-day sultans have an Achilles heel. The techniques they use to establish and maintain power make them very, very strong when they are in charge – Mr. Goldstone said sultans have more personal authority than medieval monarchs did – but also make their regimes extremely brittle. If a revolution starts, it can succeed swiftly.
“The armed forces need to decide, ‘How many of our own people do we need to shoot to keep the boss in power?’ ” Mr. Goldstone said. “If the boss looks strong, the whole regime looks strong. But if the boss starts to look weak, it crumples fairly quickly.”
That is the good news. The bad news is that the brittleness of sultanistic regimes is a mixed blessing: It helps the revolutionaries when they are in the streets, but it complicates the task of nation-building after they win.
A smart dictator eviscerates his country’s institutions; rules by personal fiat, not by law; and creates a divided society in which sycophancy and corruption are the paths to prosperity. Citizens of such societies lack even a shared set of values; they live in what Mr. Snyder calls “a belief vacuum.”
That is why it will be neither a failure nor a betrayal if the best the Libyan rebels manage to establish is a weak democracy that is unstable, divided and inefficient. Effective democracies take generations to build.
It is easy to cheer the fall of the sultanistic dictatorships. Now is the moment to remember to be patient when their humiliated and divided people find it is a struggle to build a government that is not quite so bad.