Opposition forces have been reduced by Arab regimes to servile advice givers, neglecting the aspirations of the people whose interests they exist to better defend, writes Azmi Bishara
Some Arab opposition forces criticise this regime or that for pursuing policies that run counter to its own interests. On what grounds does the opposition presume it is more aware of the regime's interests than the regime itself? The very charge is a sign of weakness in the opposition force that levels it. It is not the job of the opposition to offer advice on what is in a regime's best interests. Its job is to criticise a regime's policies on the basis of their assessment of what is in the country's and the people's best interests.
Opposition in politics does not exist for its own sake. The exception to this is the critical eye of a handful of intellectuals who make a mission of constant critique and analysis. While such a practice plays a part in politics it is generally not politicised. Still, it remains an essential complement to political activity and in order to perform its function its practitioners must avoid the type of attitudes and behaviour that cheapen it, such as superficiality, vanity, exhibitionism and egoism. By the latter I mean indulging such personal whims or obsessions by playing the role of victim; venting emotions such as love, hate, envy or rancour; or avenging oneself on particular people. By exhibitionism, I refer to the tendency of the critic to care less about his subject and his function and more about projecting an image of himself as an enfant terrible or a permanent and flippant devil's advocate.
Apart from this there is no opposition in politics for opposition's sake. Of course there are people who oppose out of personal motives. A person might, for example, aspire to a government post and attempt to fulfil this ambition by grandstanding in the hope of forcing the government to award him an appointment merely to shut him up. Another may be similarly opportunistic, but his ambitions overlap with the aims of the opposition -- his hope for growing status and influence is linked with the arrival of the opposition to power. Such personal motives are considered legitimate in politics, albeit within limits. In all events, they have little bearing on our subject here, which is the political opposition movement or party.
In pluralistic democracies that permit for the peaceful rotation of power, the opposition advocates a platform of policies that conflict with those of the government. It claims that in order for these policies to be put into effect it must be voted into power or invited into sharing power. Protest movements and pressure groups, by contrast, try to influence the ruling government but do not strive for power. They do not present themselves as alternatives to the government. Rather, they oppose certain policies and try to press the government into changing these policies and meeting their demands. In democratic states there are numerous instances of protest movements transforming themselves into political parties after having accomplished their initial mission. There are also cases of opposition parties or forces using protest movements for their own ends. If the government is unable or unwilling to meet the protesters' demands, they can be mobilised in favour of the opposition. Conversely, the opposition may attempt to infiltrate the protest movement and manoeuvre it in such a way as to forestall the government's meeting its demands, for fear that if the government did concede this would weaken the opposition and undermine its prospects for the next elections. Protest movements sometimes try to steer clear of the influence of opposition parties and forces precisely because they fear the reaction of the ruling authorities that are perfectly aware of the aforementioned tactics.
The aim of the political opposition in democratic systems is to attain and/or share power. This is the only reason for establishing and organising a political party. Of course one occasionally finds fringe parties in democratic countries that have other designs, such as overthrowing the entire system of government, attaining power by subverting the rules of the game, or merely to advocate an idea different from the rivals in the mainstream. In the latter case, such parties gradually evolve into something more akin to an intellectual club or a cult in some cases.
Returning to our opening point, we stress again that an opposition party does not see it as one of its functions to counsel the ruling party or government on its best interests. Rather, it operates on the premise that it knows better than the government what is best for the country. It may go so far as to charge that the interests of the current government are at odds with the interests of the country. But his is not advice, but rather censure. To be thorough and precise, we must exempt from this rule certain extreme situations in which there is an overwhelming national consensus, as occurs when a country is under attack or suffers a natural catastrophe. In such cases, a wise government may actively solicit the advice of the opposition and the opposition may sincerely tender it on the overriding matters of national security on which they are in full accord in order to safeguard the political order in which they share a common interest and which embraces their democratic rivalry.
But if the above applies to democratic countries, does it also apply to non-democratic ones? Do not opposition forces in such countries also aspire to power? They certainly do. In modern non-democratic states, opposition forces organise themselves, per force, in clandestine or semi-clandestine parties that aim to leverage themselves into a position to put their political programmes -- whether democratic or anti-democratic -- into effect. Of course, non-democratic regimes may experience changes in rule or power structure without the direct influence of opposition parties. Political reforms or coups undertaken by the ruling party, the army or other agencies are the two major avenues towards this end. The new authorities may bring the opposition parties onboard or, conversely, they may step up the repression of these parties. Both trends are probably equally commonplace. Be that as it may, let us not be detracted from our primary concern here, which is the state of opposition parties themselves in non-democratic countries, Arab countries included.
A regime consolidates and bolsters itself by expanding its support base of beneficiaries and creating new sectors dependent upon it and/or by effectively suppressing and fracturing the opposition by means of clampdowns, detentions and exile. The longer a party remains in opposition under such circumstances the greater the chances that its remnants will also consolidate and perpetuate themselves. Some may strike a bargain with the ruling regime enabling them to function legitimately or semi-legitimately as an opposition party with a margin of freedom to criticise from the fringes of political life, resulting in a kind of permanent loyal opposition that prohibits itself from so much as thinking about attaining power. As we suggested above, a party that resigns itself to eternal opposition and, for the sake of self- preservation, to operate semi-legitimately in accordance with the conditions set by the regime gradually forfeits its capacity as a political party and loses its politicised character. It survives solely by power of inertia, awaiting an opportunity that will never come because it has effectively thrown in the towel in terms of its structure, ideas, aims and aspirations for power.
One of the peculiar phenomena such a situation gives rise to is a critical political discourse crafted and packaged as "advice" so as not to upset the regime and call down upon itself the authorities' wrath. It will say, for example, "it is in the interests of the regime to change its policy and side with the resistance," or "the regime would be well-advised to examine the concerns it has in common with other Arab nations," or "it would do credit to the regime to sever relations with Israel," and so on. I imagine the authorities smile contentedly when they hear such "criticism". It performs a service for them as it reveals that the opposition is operating on the premise of the interests of the regime. Indeed, it elevates this premise to a national axiom above discussion while simultaneously putting paid to the political and social functions a real opposition party should perform. Offering advice is a task suited to an advisor not to an opposition party that hopes to expose the futility or misguidedness of a government's policies or the inability of this government to safeguard and promote the welfare of society and the people.
Another curious phenomenon occurs when the opposition -- Arab nationalist as a rule -- acts as though it has some claim to authority and pretends to take the hand of the regime, the king or president, as though it were a guardian figure imparting wisdom to a minor. Now surely a regime that has remained in power for decades, if not necessarily wise, is far from a doltish minor. The perpetual opposition, meanwhile, has yet to prove that it could govern if it ever came to power, let alone offer sound advice to those in power. A real opposition, on the other hand, concerns itself with establishing that the government is acting against the interests of the people and the country or contrary to the principles (or its understanding of the principles) that underpin the national consensus. In addition, by means of its ability to mobilise, lead and organise its followers and the people it also establishes its credentials as a potential candidate for power. If a regime made a strategic decision to place its country in the American camp and believes that its relationship with Israel will help strengthen its relationship with the US, what stance should the opposition take? Should it say that this is not really in the interests of the regime or should it say that this runs counter to the interests of the country and the people? Should the Palestinian opposition try to convince the Palestinian Authority (PA) president that he would be doing himself a favour by cooperating with the resistance? Surely he is more aware than the opposition that his perpetuation in power is contingent upon his alliance with the US and Israel and that to change this policy in a way consistent with national unity is to change the security basis on which the PA is founded and thus to change its leader. So, if it makes little sense to offer such advice to the head of a Palestinian Authority that has no sovereign capacity it makes even less sense to offer similar advice to fully-fledged regimes with decades of experience in perpetuating their rule.
If the interests of the regime are founded on notions and policies that the opposition believes run counter to the welfare of the country then it's the job of the opposition to expose this on the basis of facts and logical arguments that proceed from these facts. The opposition should make solid criticism its mission, even if the prospect of attaining power is beyond it or not on its agenda. In the pursuit of this mission it should take the interests of the country -- as opposed to the interests of the ruling regime -- as its springboard.