16 - 22 March 2000
Issue No. 473
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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The Arab predicamentBy Omayma Abdel-Latif
Nothing illustrates the stress from which the Arab world is suffering so clearly as a gathering of Arab intellectuals incapable of reaching a consensus on who exactly the movers and shakers are in Arab politics. In other words, who are the members of the ruling elite in whose name decisions are made, wars are fought, men are jailed or made rich?
A recent gathering in Amman brought together prominent scholars from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan and Kuwait to launch a one-year project. Its aim: to study the pervasive notion of Arab states as the virtual possessions of the men who have been at the helm for the past 50 years. Difficult as it seems, researchers will embark on the task of explaining the unprecedented longevity of the ruling elite in some Arab countries.
The study, in the words of Haytham Al-Hourani, deputy director of the New Jordan Studies Centre, will be geared towards a better understanding of the social, political and economic transformations that have swept the Arab world for the past half-century. "The study of those who rule and in whose names important decisions are made is essential in understanding the world the Arabs are entering," Al-Hourani added. The project is the fruit of collaboration between the centre and a number of civil society organisations in the countries that represent the study's focus.
Some of the most important questions the two-day conference set out to answer revolved around the remarkable survival of some of today's Arab regimes. To name but a few: what are the reasons for the staying power of these regimes? How have they survived plots, dissent and policy failure apparently unscathed?
The core of the dilemma, Arab intellectuals argued, could be traced to the imposition of the nation-state model, which Harvard scholar Roger Owen described as one of the fundamental legacies of the colonial era. In the same perspective, some participants suggested that any study of the political elite in the Arab world entails a study of the nature of the Arab state. In fact, it was the late Egyptian scholar Nazih Ayubi who, in his extensive study of the Arab state, wrote of it as a "fierce state" that resorts to raw coercion to preserve itself. It is not a strong state, however, since according to Ayubi it lacks the infrastructural power enabling it to penetrate society through effective mechanisms such as taxation. Nor does it possess the ideological hegemony allowing it to forge a historic social bloc that accepts the legitimacy of the ruling stratum. Such was also the view of many analysts, who argued that Arab politics in the second half of the 20th century was characterised by acts of "capturing" and "resisting" the state.
If past experience offers any lessons, they are that the ruling caste, once in power, usually have no intention of relinquishing it. As was argued, formulae for maintaining power vary from case to case. When the preservation of the privileges of the group that captured the state requires the preservation of the status quo (without rejecting economic growth or artificial modernisation), the ruling caste strives to co-opt other groups. In situations where the promotion of the ruling caste's interests requires changing the status quo through acts of social engineering (developmentalism, socialism or free market), on the other hand, political adaptation techniques include both political co-option and isolation.
The discussions were triggered by what Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, referred to as "meta-questions" about the elite in the Arab world. "What exactly do we want to explain through our study of the elite?" Said asked. "Is it the failure of modernisation, our own national defeat, the failure of secular ideologies or the extended crisis of democracy?" In contrast to this view, which takes the elite as an analytical category through which political, social and economic trends in Arab politics can be explained, Nizam Barakat, who has researched the Israeli political elite extensively, suggested that the elite is not the sole factor capable of explaining the different trends in Arab politics.
"The other political, social and economic forces outside the elite circle should not be rendered ineffective in any political process," Barakat commented. A distinction thus emerged between two types of decision-makers in Arab politics, the core elite being the head of state and his men (known as the strategic elite) and the political elite -- ministers, MPs and members of political parties.
The preliminary discussions, then, focused on issues that transcended individual countries or what Michael Hudson, professor of Middle East politics at Chicago University, described as "the common features behind the staying power exhibited by some Arab regimes," such as massive centralisation of power in the hands of the few; the identification of the state with the leader's person; patron-client relations, which some perceived as a main source of elite recruitment in some countries; and the all-powerful security and military establishments, which function mainly to shield the regime against internal dissent.
To illustrate his argument, Said noted that the transformation of state policies, from socialist to liberal and free market, was not a consequence of change in elite formation and recruitment. "In Egypt the elite circle remains closed on the 1952 generation; despite major changes in state policies, the personalities that took decisions in favour of socialist policies are the very ones who are fostering the state's orientation toward a free-market economy."
According to Said, the only change in the elite's character may be the emergence of businessmen as members of the elite, although they have not been recruited as a particular economic or political grouping.
The role of social movements such as student unions, women's movements, and especially political parties in producing, reproducing and even re-shaping the elite has been a point of fierce contention among Arab intellectuals. A consensus thus emerged among most participants that the political parties in most Arab countries play hardly any role in shaping the elite. "Political parties are not even counted as sources for elite recruitment," said Haider Ibrahim, head of the Sudanese Studies Centre.
This could be one reason why the opposition elite, professional syndicate members and Islamists, who could be counted as counter-elite forces, play no role in the political decision-making process, not even as pressure groups. According to views aired at the meeting, however, things could take a different turn in coming years. "The hegemony of a bureaucratic country on both the social and the political [spheres] is bound to be disrupted when factors such as globalisation, human rights and women's rights enter the process of social mobilisation," noted Said.
The militarisation of political society in some Arab countries was also debated. It was argued that, while the army holds an undisputed place in political life, no research has probed the role played by this powerful establishment.
One participant suggested that among the main characteristics shared by most regimes was the depoliticisation of the elite. In other words, it is largely a technocratic elite whose main virtue -- and possibly the only criterion for its inclusion in elite circles -- is its ideological neutrality. It is usually recruited from either academia or the bureaucratic body. "Any person with any ideological convictions has no place within the ranks of the elite," Al-Hourani argued.
Ibrahim Osman , professor of sociology at the Jordanian University and the project's coordinator, referred to the lack of any ideological institutions capable of nurturing would-be members of the elite. He added that the elite's members are randomly selected; the only systematic aspect of it is the promotion in the bureaucratic ladder. The result, he believes, is a political stagnation in the Arab world that has reached unprecedented levels, with the same faces remaining in power for almost four decades.
When the focus shifted to the Jordanian case, a different set of questions was raised about the nature of the relation between the royal family and the elite. It was argued that external influence on the formation of the political elite in Jordan is detrimental to the study of that elite. Al-Hourani cited the example of one's stand on the peace process as a criterion for inclusion in or exclusion from the elite in Jordan. "Perhaps the impact of the international environment on internal policies is more visible in Jordan than in any other country," he said.
As for Sudan, Ibrahim revealed a characteristic shared by other countries of the region: the wide gap between the elite and the masses, due to the fact that the ruling elite lacks the discourse and organisational skills that could enable it to form a popular base.
"It can only seize power through sectarianism or the army, yet it presents itself as an opponent of both," Haider explained. He referred to the segmentation of the elite, arguing that a line should be drawn between the segment that claims an Arabic-Islamic, northern affiliation, and the southern elite, which has recently attempted to distance itself from the former. Though the Islamic elite, according to Ibrahim, has maintained a social discourse, it is growing increasingly isolated from society. "They talk about the implementation of Shari'a, but their children are educated in Western capitals," he noted. Ibrahim considers the Sudanese ruling elite to be the first Islamic group to reach power in an Arab country. It has participated in a democratic system, capturing 51 seats in parliament, but soon turned against it. On the other hand, he spoke of the formation of "a new elite" with respect to its education, cognitive formation and economic ability.
Two days of intense debate, as was to be expected, left observers of the Middle Eastern scene with more questions than answers. While attempting to formulate plausible scenarios for the future of Arab societies, and to determine whether or not existing elites will be capable of facing the challenges posed in the new century, the intellectuals participating in the seminar were not seeking easy answers. They now know, at most, the nature of the task the project has set them -- and it is by no means a straightforward one.