A Diagram of Power in the Arab World

Michael Gilsenan

  • Master and Disciple: The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism by Abdellah Hammoudi
    Chicago, 195 pp, £30.50, September 1997, ISBN 0 226 31527 4

Broaching the topic of authoritarianism in Arab societies has its risks for Arab intellectuals. How should the questions be formulated? Where, how, and of what can they speak? At different periods it has been a dangerous act for Iraqi, Saudi, Egyptian, Sudanese, Moroccan, and now especially Algerian thinkers and commentators to address such topics head on. Edward Said argues that the Palestinian Authority shows signs of following exactly the same authoritarian route. At one time, from the late Fifties until the wars that began in the mid-Seventies, Beirut offered a unique regional arena of debate, in contrast to other Arab capitals. Laissez-écrire matched the laissez-faire of Lebanon’s unbridled individualism. Elsewhere, France, Germany, Britain and the United States have served as varyingly hospitable destinations, temporary or permanent, for many Arab thinkers. But it would be naive to imagine that mere distance is a guarantor of freedom, or, in extreme cases, life. Hosts, moreover, have their own interests. They have their polite, perhaps unspoken, requirements; their own ideas of what constitutes an appropriate intellectual project, and what does not. Not the least of the virtues of Abdellah Hammoudi’s new book is that it resists censuring, insists on debate, and persists in what is essentially a collective effort to open up the possibility of critical reflection.

Why is it, he asks, that modern Arab regimes of all kinds are consistently authoritarian? Civil space is continually, often brutally, circumscribed. A single centre of power, however internally differentiated, controls the distribution of resources. Negotiation with citizens (assuming citizen to be an appropriate category) is limited at best. Opponents are co-opted or silenced. Security forces exercise harsh surveillance. Pluralism and diversity are denied. Yet this kind of rule is found in many other contemporary societies, and so Hammoudi seeks to identify some characteristically Arab variations on the theme. Though he does not use the same terms, his interrogations seem to me to be cousin to those of Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities and Jacqueline Rose in State of Fantasy: how are Arab communities and nations imagined? What are the fantasies that are constitutive of their different political and social identities? And in the shadows hovers the great question for Arab intellectuals: what is to be done?

Authoritarianism does not go unchallenged. Serious moments and movements of opposition occur – food riots, strikes, more subtle forms of resistance. There is no shortage of reasons. Economic and social blockages and contradictions abound. True, trade unions and left-wing movements are now marginal, in part because of the end of Russian influence. But ‘the street’ is volatile. Those millions of young men, city migrants, many with little behind them and less ahead, unemployed even when they have some training or a degree, and forming with their sisters a high percentage of the population of Arab societies, are a constant source of unease to governments. ‘The lads’ (the shebab) are ready to protest.

Some join Islamic groups, currently often the most visible and best organised form of opposition. Their publications on religion and the state, social justice and regulation multiply. Some of these very disparate groups – in Jordan and Egypt, for example – have learnt, more or less happily, to collaborate with the authorities. Others take on the social, educational and healthcare duties which governments either never filled or never even acknowledged. Radicals have attacked leaders (the assassination of President Sadat, which had no effect on the system) or created local ‘disturbances’ on a provincial scale (Egypt again). Uprisings and killings continue in the murky politics of Algeria. (In every one of these cases the state apparatus is at least as bloody as its opponents, sometimes more.) For all the emphasis on shura or ‘consultation’ on the part of some Islamic groups, few expect them to be any less authoritarian when they acquire real power and influence, as they have in Sudan.

Yet, Hammoudi writes, Arab rulers’ assertions of legitimacy are endorsed in some fashion by some subjects. Whatever the kinds of resistance, many of those subjects apparently invest emotionally in claims by their rulers to powers of blessing, or baraka (Morocco’s King Hassan); to the prestige of holy or sharifian descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s family (Jordan’s King Hussein and King Hassan); to the guardianship of Islam (the Saudi royal family); to the sacred heritage of the nationalist struggle (Algeria); to be the embodiment of ‘the people’ (Hafez al Asad in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who during the Gulf War discovered that he, too, was descended from the Prophet); or to some mix of these. Since attributes of this kind have to exist in the eyes of the beholders, we need to understand what it is they believe they behold and why they might do so. In what are the emperors clothed – if they are clothed?

The master of the Moroccan state is the king, Hassan II, and much of the book shows very clearly how an authoritarian monarchy has been constructed, or reconstructed in a new form, over the past thirty years or so. Hassan’s inheritance was lucky. Muhammad V, his father and a man who seems to have possessed the vital, intangible quality of presence, was twice made a hero by the actions of the French Protectorate authorities who had occupied the country since 1912: first, when, in 1930, he refused to sign a notorious law which would have split the country between Berbers and Arabs; and again when they exiled him in 1953. The Sultan had the charisma of resistance to the colonial power. His role as symbol of ‘the nation’ was supported by the nationalist militants who felt they needed a unifying symbol in their struggle against the French. And by this odd mixture of forces, kingship was saved.

Charisma may be claimed, but it has to be demonstrated. You may summon spirits, as Hotspur tartly observes to Owen Glendower, but will they come? Rituals and forms of ceremonial etiquette have to be scrupulously observed, or invented. Mystique must be sustained, miracles performed. More prosaically, old allies must, perhaps, be discredited, and new ones found. Much effort was expended after independence by Hassan II in out-manoeuvring the Istiqlal nationalist party and other groups, mostly with great success. Civilians were needed for alliances to counterbalance the weight of the Army. Rural and urban notables were cultivated, and rewarded handsomely with access to landholdings. Prebends were and still are distributed.

Being an authoritarian ruler is hard work. The King has survived food riots and well organised efforts to force him to delegate power, not to mention assassination and coup attempts. Those who mounted the plots have not. No one who heard the public broadcast 25 years ago will ever forget the frantic screams of ya ’aish al malik (long live the king!) from high-ranking military officers, tied to posts on a public beach and about to be executed by firing squad after one such attempt to kill Hassan in his palace. Rumour had it that the condemned had been promised a dramatic last-minute pardon if they paid public tribute to their sovereign. But their screams might just as easily have been a spontaneous final acknowledgment of that supreme earthly authority which had absolutely made and was about as absolutely to destroy them. The mediated spectacle, where listeners’ imaginations played their own part, served an ancient purpose of edification, as a demonstration of the Sultan’s omnipotence.

It would be wrong to seek the entire explanation in the coercive powers of the state. But violence in multiple forms has a place in the system which Hammoudi several times qualifies as ‘central’. The monarch’s direct control of the repressive apparatus has been crucial. Troops were stationed where their colonial predecessors had been, and for the same reason: internal security rather than the defence of national borders. Officers were selected from rural and urban notable families as part of a web of alliances between dynasty and notability. Contemptuous of liberal politicians and politics in general, they owed their loyalty to the King. The Army has played its part in everything from the suppression of attempts at a general strike to local military operations against the recalcitrant. Hammoudi notes that it is under the direct control of the royal house.

Coercion is historically expected of the ruler. The chronicles take it for granted. Modern patterns of organisation, also derived from the French colonial power from whom the regime learned much in these matters, enable that violence, like the bureaucratic administration, to be more efficient, more ordered. High military officers are ‘close’, to use one of the dominant Moroccan idioms. Close enough to launch a coup attempt. Proximity is power, and control. It is also a potential danger for both parties. Who guards the guards? No wonder ‘tensions’ is a word that often comes up in Hammoudi’s book.

Qaraba or ‘closeness’ marks the élite who have access to the centre of power. But it is also the term used for privileged entry to any point of authority, however local. Closeness is a constant and sometimes ritualised process of exchange and service. Qaraba, Hammoudi explains, is both a quasi-ethic and a practical matter. Moroccan authoritarianism is a system of overlapping competences rather than a set of neatly marked out spaces entailing a strict division of labour. In a clearly gendered male world of power and status, constant rounds of public ‘gifts’ and services are the means by which a man makes, and keeps, a place. Gift-giving is a coercive and continuous process. The recipient must give in turn to the donor, at a suitable interval, lest he remain obligated and perceived as unable to give as he should.

Only the ruler is not obligated. Subjects repeatedly offer him gifts, as if in unending payment of a debt, a basic motive which, as Hammoudi shrewdly notes, is fundamental to the Abrahamic model of sacrifice so important in Moroccan society. The King may reward with his presence alone, itself liable to bring benefits from those who seek to exploit the access of the giver to the monarch for their own purposes. ‘Presents pay for other potential and long-lasting benefits, which the prince can only grant through organised coercion.’ The link between the reproduction of gifts, authority, force and the control of production by the royal house is clear.

Hammoudi’s theoretical point is that political economy, however broadly defined, fails to account for a key dimension of the problem. We must certainly analyse the impact of colonialism, skewed economies, dependency, state apparatuses, coercion, contradictions and class alliances. But in his view, these are necessary rather than sufficient conditions for the enduring nature of the authoritarian pattern. Beneath the various forms of Arab monarchy, the presidencies, armies and secret services, parties and clans, gift exchanges and patronage networks, Hammoudi identifies certain ‘cultural schemata’ which explain for him not only the success of the regimes in establishing and perpetuating themselves, but also the apparent emotional support for the rulers.

The book contends that these schemata ultimately derive from the master-disciple relationship of dominance and submission in the Islamic religious brotherhoods. These groupings, known as the Sufi Orders or Ways, have existed since around the 12th century. They have played a multiplicity of roles. In Morocco some collaborated with the colonial power, some opposed it; some were pro-sultan, some against; some were exclusive, some inclusive in their membership. Though often identified, particularly among the poorer strata, with ecstatic practices, healing cults and very loose forms of organisation, some Orders were and are strictly regulated. Such brotherhoods are hierarchically structured in a series of ranks. They pay scrupulous attention to Islamic legal codes and proprieties, conscious of the suspicious eyes of the state, the religious scholars and legists and Wahhabi radicals. Islamic reformers, the salafiyya, hold that many Sufi practices are unorthodox, a perversion of Islam, a brake on the renewal of law and faith.

Sufi followers gather round their sheikh, who has himself been the disciple of his own sheikh. They owe him absolute obedience. He is their teacher, guide, healer, master. An initiate may rise through different levels of illumination until he, too, establishes his own branch of the Order. It is from that relation, Hammoudi argues – a relation marked by ambivalence and even violence as much as by teaching and obedience – that the forms of patriarchy in family, chiefship and, ultimately, monarchy (or military dictatorship) spring. The model is replicated at each level and the forms reproduced throughout society.

The crucial point is that in the Sufi Order, everything goes on ‘as if’ social reproduction were realised entirely through men. In societies where descent is traced through males (agnation), the ‘normative scandal’ of women’s role in biological reproduction is suppressed and the sheikh/master is seen as androgynously ‘reproducing’ his disciples/servants. Since Hammoudi also argues that what distinguishes Arab societies from others characterised by authoritarian forms is the ‘extreme codification’ of the relations between the sexes, the book pivots on this treatment of power and gender. Hammoudi interprets the disciples’ total submission to the master, and to the often extreme forms of ascetic discipline which he imposes, as a feminising of the initiate. The silence, fear, obedience, subordination, all are feminine. The master rules absolutely; his injunctions violate reason, just as they violate all those male qualities of autonomy and honour so valued in the everyday world. As with so many ascetic traditions, the discipline of the Order reverses the expectations of the world.

What would be dishonourable submission in the village is sacred duty in the Sufi lodge: ‘the master may spit into the disciple’s mouth or place his tongue in it and order the disciple to suck, or the disciple may ingest the master by swallowing defilements from the master’s body.’ Defilements consecrate. The master may penetrate the follower, bodily as much as metaphorically. But he will also treat him tenderly, as a mother would. The master is both male and female. To reach that state himself, ‘the disciple becomes a woman for a while.’ But only ‘for a while’.

Violence and dissent may occur. The disciple himself becomes charismatic, and the master becomes distrustful of his ambitious follower. Fights may occur, as they do between sons and fathers. Patriarchs are challenged, perhaps brutally. The submissive becomes the dominant. More generally, Hammoudi makes the case that Moroccan male identity is constantly double, alternating between submission and dominance. The son who serves his father treats his own peers and women ‘in a virile and domineering way’. Master and Disciple argues that this ‘diagram’ informs political parties and radical Islamic reform movements as much as family, clan and state patterns of power.

The very scope of this claim provokes questions. Why should there be a single diagram at all? (Segmentary lineage theory, much used in anthropological analyses of Morocco at one time, tended to be based on the same assumption; Clifford Geertz’s individualist model of the bazaar likewise.) I am concerned that Hammoudi runs the risk of collapsing various forms of social and cultural reproduction – biological, of family, of labour, of different social identities, of authority – into one. Fields of gender, power and identity are homogenised. Though he is alert to the dangers of essentialising and is much too good an anthropologist and historian not to be aware of the changing historical conditions of the monarchy and the Sufi Orders, he nonetheless appears to be reproducing the local diagram as much as he is analysing it. Women do, in fact, vanish from the book.

The identification of all forms of submission as ‘feminine’ has its logic, but seems to me to be too simple. There are different forms of male and female submission. To put the matter crudely, it is ideologically in the nature of women’s social identity, both in social custom and in Islamically legitimised practice, to be modest and to submit to men’s control, for the latter are held to be superior in reason. Men’s submission is a different matter. (I leave aside the enormous impact of modern large-scale migration and unemployment on patriarchy, family and gender.) The ascetic disciplines of self-abnegation in the Orders are open only to men. Their severity characterises the inversions which anthropologists have noted in rites of separation and passage into another state. It also characterises a specifically male set of trials. Moreover, such practices are usually followed only by a tiny élite within the Orders, which themselves vary tremendously in ritual behaviour and social character. Selecting one Order and one hagiographically based biography as typical has obvious dangers.

Part of the problem, I think, comes from the definition of that intensely vague concept, ‘culture’. The complex world of gift exchange is surely as ‘cultural’ as Sufi practices. In fact, Hammoudi’s analysis of the monarch’s power in Morocco, which includes its cultural aspects as well as those of political economy, is so persuasive that his appeal to the need for another explanation, some key to the mystery, is somewhat diminished. The range of violence, from transparent state coercion to the links of gifts and production in a more opaque form, often appears to be central. On the other hand, if we also consider the role of the myriad informal practices of everyday life, the resistances, evasions and ways of getting by, it may be that the legitimation of the monarch’s power is only a sporadically relevant issue. We cannot assume that silence means consent.

Finally, the book might be read as the analysis of an impasse (which is where the matter stands, both theoretically and empirically). If the master-disciple relation is the diagram which, like an X-ray of the same cartoon behind different pictures of authority, lies beneath every form of male power, then the pessimistic implication might be that critics can only recognise and publish aspects of that reality; that they can only redescribe, at least so long as Sufi Orders exist. Hammoudi’s optimistic implication may be that the imaginaire of certain kinds of male power, the continuation of certain states of fantasy, can and must be radically rethought. For though we now have many highly sophisticated studies of women’s place and role in Arab societies, the analysis of men and masculinities is largely absent. Hammoudi’s subtle readings of power relations in Morocco force the reader to think more widely of those relations in Arab societies as a whole. He invites a complete rethinking of how we should understand the significance of Sufi religious groups in the modern period, and of their complex relations to other social forms.