Parallel power lust
One response has defined the reaction of all Arab regimes that have faced protest and criticism: stay in power regardless of the price, writes Ayman El-Amir*
What Arab revolutions have revealed, whether those consummated in Tunisia and Egypt or others in progress in Yemen and Syria, is the tenacity with which the ruling elite has clung to power at all costs. With the exception of Syria's Bashar Al-Assad, all three other dictators have held power for three decades or more. It started as a concept of transient rule but slowly developed into addictive power. In the last decade, the concept was further elaborated by ageing dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to bequeath their power positions onto their children to ensure the continuity of their legacy and to protect themselves against accountability by a changed regime.
Veteran observers of the Arab scene will not fail to note that dictatorships copy each other. The ease with which Al-Assad was catapulted into power to replace his father in 2000 offered other pseudo-republican regimes a lesson in smooth power transfer when you have total police state control. Even the constitution was changed overnight to lower the age of possible presidential candidates to make Bashar eligible to run for fraudulent elections. The Egyptian ruling family watched with a mixture of admiration and envy, and wondered "Why not us too?" The tools were readily available: draconian police and state security powers, tailored laws and constitutional amendments to pave the way and a fictitious political organisation consisting of paid loyalists to fake popular consent.
In his farewell speech in 1961, former US president Dwight D Eisenhower warned of the insidious power of the military-industrial complex. He said: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence... by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." In Egypt, the power-base rested on an unholy alliance between political power and business interests. This developed into a coterie of corrupt businessmen whose crooked deals and plunder of the wealth of the country were protected by the regime in return for active loyalty through the National Democratic Party. They served as party apparatchiks, leaders of the legislative assembly and managers of the business sector. Suspiciously wealthy by shady deals, land grab and arms purchase commissions, they bribed their way to power and more wealth with the help of the ruling family. Their concept is that wealth begets power and more power begets more wealth. This created the phenomenon of scores of multi-billionaires living lavishly and driving the most expensive cars in a country where 40 per cent of the population subsisted on less than $2 a day. In return, they acted as foot soldiers of the regime and its royal family: they promoted the achievements, the victories, and lauded the compassion of the leaders, their sacrifices and accomplishments in a country that was wallowing in poverty and hopelessness.
The regime and its cronies lived in a virtual world where the country surged from one success story to another, while failures were blamed on the people. They ruled unopposed, controlled and distributed the wealth of the country. In the case of Egypt, the country soon turned from a republic to a fiefdom and was being brutally softened up to accept a new president, Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal. If the ruling family was doing so well for the country, at least by the account of its cronies, why shouldn't the son step into his father's shoes to continue the good work?
For 40 years, Libya was an unapologetic and crude dictatorship, ruled by fear and the torture chamber of what most Arab regimes considered a self-appointed maniac. Arab rulers, particularly those of the Gulf Arab states, did not hesitate to call for UN Security Council interventionist action. Western countries that had made peace with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for oil interests but never trusted his maverick behaviour did not hesitate for long either before starting their bombing campaign. While this has been portrayed as humanitarian intervention as in the case of the 1999 bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (and NATO repeatedly reiterated it was acting at the request of the Arab League), it still presents a problem to international jurists. The ouster of a head of state by foreign military intervention is not enshrined in international law, and it is done selectively. Western countries did not bomb apartheid South Africa to force it to abandon its segregationist policies. However, few people, if any, would shed any tears over the departure, or the death, of the "brother colonel".
Demonstrators in Syria, like other countries in turmoil, started by calling for freedom, respect for human rights and the end of corruption. When the regimes in power responded with a brutal crackdown, demonstrators called for the end of the regimes. Not since the Soviet era have governments used the full force of their armed forces, including artillery, tanks and even fighter-bombers to beat back peaceful protesters, killing and maiming thousands of them. In the second decade of the 21st century, Syria, like most other Arab countries, is ruled by a one-party mediaeval regime that bans political pluralism. All such Arab regimes are facing a life or death test: if they succumb to massive demands for reform they would be swept from power, and probably have most of their leaders stand trial. To resist change they have to use all violent means available to quell the rebellion. And they are abetted by ruling party thugs in Syria, convicts released from jails to spread mayhem, as was the case in Egypt, highly-paid government media officials and, above all, business tycoons, the ultimate beneficiaries of corrupt power.
Unpopular regimes that prevailed in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen perpetuated in power by fraud and fabricated laws contrived by make-believe legislative councils. Their origins are rooted in conspirators-led military coups that seized power and vowed never to cede it. Then they appointed and propagated themselves as "the saviours of the nation", no matter how many failures they inflicted upon their nations, as was the case in the June 1967 Egyptian-Israeli war debacle. Whatever model of governance they pursued, political pluralism, power sharing and building genuine democratic institutions by the people for the people were not part of the recipe. It boiled down to one- man rule in a police state.
Notorious Arab dictators ruled by a combination of subterfuge and fake laws. For 30 years, Mubarak ruled Egypt by emergency law, legislated and extended by the People's Assembly against the will and interests of the people. Libya's Gaddafi responded to protesters' demand for the end of his regime by saying he had no official position to resign; if he had he would have sent his resignation to every single Libyan. However, everyone in Libya knew that nothing moves in the country without his order, including the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 that killed 270 people in the air and on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled Yemen for more than 30 years by security forces, fake laws and by appointing family relatives and clan loyalists to every position of power. Syria's ossified Baathists cling to an atrophied ideology to maintain their cruel suppression of the people and denial of the simplest human rights -- the right to protest. Pent-up feelings of long-lasting injustices had to explode.
The problem with the spring of Arab revolutions is that they know what to tear down but are torn apart by what they want to replace it with. This is the challenge revolution makers will have to face in the months to come.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC.