To reign, not to rein
If the monarchies of the Arab world believe they are untouchable they are mistaken, writes Ayman El-Amir
A common denominator of all Arab protest and revolutionary movements, including those in progress and others in waiting, is the spirit of rebellion against dictatorship. They reject the absolutism of a single man or a single party's rule, which is usually reinforced by the arbitrary legislation of emergency law. From Egypt to Algeria, from Syria to Saudi Arabia, autocratic rule has dominated for decades under different validations. Under entrenched pseudo-republican regimes it is a democracy based on the castrated will of the people, with a marionette-master orchestrating every aspect of the nation's life. In traditional monarchies, the word of God is used to justify the perpetuation of centuries-old dynasties in power, to rule and to possess, as agents of divine authority.
People in republican Arab systems rise against fallible, mortal individuals; in monarchies when they protest they are shown to be rebels against the doctrine of God and the tradition of the monarchy. In cohesive tribal societies, to rebel against the monarchy is to rise against the tribe that protects the interests of its individuals who, in return, owe it allegiance. Although rulers like Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Saleh in Yemen and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria behaved like demigods, they were essentially regarded as dictators who oppressed their peoples and were willing to slaughter half of the population for their own survival. Their catchword has been stability, the rule of law and constitutional legitimacy. However, to the people of these countries these words amounted to little more than a charade, and they rebelled.
It would seem easier to rebel against a man-made autocratic political order than to challenge an ordained one. The revolutionary uprising in Egypt that overthrew the 30-year-old regime of Mubarak in February was like kicking in a rotten wooden door. The regime knew it was corrupt and unpopular and it quickly panicked. In addition, the people faced the forces of the regime with an overwhelming critical mass in most major cities of the country, demanding regime change. In Yemen, the critical mass was mobilised and the revolutionary agenda was defined but radical change in Yemen is too much of a threat to conservative Saudi Arabia and is a scary scenario for the US that has long counted on President Saleh's regime to combat the influence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In Syria, the Baathist-led minority regime is confronting the growing protest movement with a stick and carrot approach, firing on protesters and offering some modest reforms, including the promise of lifting the 43-year-old state of emergency -- the mainstay of autocracy. It may take the wind out of the sails of protesters for a while, but the fundamental problems created by the Soviet-era system of feudal Baathism will hardly go away. If the Soviet Union could collapse, the dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt could fizzle out, why shouldn't Baath Party rule go also? With demonstrators marching against the regime in 12 Syrian cities, the critical mass is gathering irreversible momentum.
On the other side of the coin, time-hardened monarchies are tougher to crack. They seem to experience no self-doubt about their source of legitimacy, whether it was acquired in tribal wars, as in Saudi Arabia, or awarded by colonial powers, as was the case in Iraq and Jordan. Besides, the Saudi monarchy is the custodian of the Holy Places, which are revered by more than one billion Muslims worldwide. It also holds one-third of the world's oil reserves, which is crucial to modernised global populations with less spiritual interests. Above all, Arab monarchies are close allies of the US and Western powers, with no exception. US military presence in the Gulf Arab states, in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, manipulates their feelings of insecurity based on a whipped up sense of the danger of the rising power of Iran. The chances are that any potential turmoil in Gulf States will come as a result of internal dissent rather than external threat. The war of words between Iran and its Arab neighbours is escalating into a crisis situation.
Bahrain's brutal crushing of the protest demonstrations in March by the country's Shia majority was conveniently painted as an Iranian-inspired Shia conspiracy to cover up domestic grievances and invite military assistance from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The rule of thumb in autocratic regimes is to blame any domestic uprising on external interference. Gulf Arab States have now called for the cancellation of the next Arab summit, scheduled to be held in Baghdad in mid-May, because of the harsh criticism by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki of Bahrain's handling of the protest, including firing on demonstrators.
The revolutionary energy released into the Arab world by the successful Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions has touched off similar uprisings in Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco and a bloody civil war in Libya. Except for Bahrain, where the revolutionary uprising is held in abeyance, Arab monarchies remain nervously secure. They see themselves as untouchable, frozen in time by a divine-feudal mandate. In the fast-changing world of the 21st century, with the power of communication, the rising disparities between the rich and the poor and the assertion of human rights, autocratic monarchy will hardly remain unscathed. In approaching the issue, ruling Arab monarchs will have to realise that people are demanding fundamental change, not cosmetic reforms that have acquired a bad name. Shortly before the start of the Egyptian revolution, a close aide to former President Mubarak said that he had embarked on reform since 1982. The outcome was an endless extension of rule by the state of emergency, rigged elections and shameless tampering with the constitution to ensure hereditary transfer of power. Recent reforms announced by Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika were overwhelmingly criticised or rejected by most of the country's political powers as inadequate. In Morocco, King Mohamed VI's package of reforms that implied some significant restrictions on the power of the monarchy was met with two months of demonstrations in 30 cities.
Arab monarchies will have to weigh their options carefully. Brutal crushing of protesters by the use of military force will not curb demands for democratic change or ensure stability. Invoking the traditional respect for monarchy will not substitute for genuine democratic principles and practices. Maximising the spectre of foreign threat will not dampen long-overdue popular demands. There is no fireproof recipe to clamp down on protest.
True, some Arab monarchies are encysted in harder shells than others. Saudi Arabia has recently responded to demands for modest liberalisation of the rules of governance by strengthening the hand of Salafi institutions and doling out money to the general public. It is just buying time. Eventually, royal Arab regimes will all have to think of the unthinkable: change from absolute rule to constitutional monarchy with nominal political power. This will maintain the prestige and respect of the tradition of the monarchy and ensure a popular consensus on the preservation of the centuries-old tradition by choice of the people. Some Arab monarchies, like Kuwait, have tried to have it both ways by introducing laws, adopting a constitution, holding parliamentary elections but also retaining the power of royalty. It is not working as well as desired.
Qatar, which has maintained a carefully progressive movement towards liberalism, is a better candidate for bold, democratic change than Saudi Arabia. It could jump-start the move towards constitutional monarchy without rebellion or bloodshed. It could set itself up as a role model for other Gulf Arab monarchies. One discouraging factor is that Qatar is basking in the glow of the gas wealth, active involvement in regional and global affairs and the world-renowned influence of Al-Jazeera TV channel (which still keeps a distance from coverage of domestic affairs). The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, is a man of many attributes and initiative. Will he take the challenge of leading the path to Arab constitutional monarchy?