The Arabs in transition
Finally the Arabs are responding to global winds of change. Not all, but all will in time, writes Ayman El-Amir
As the Syrian revolution reaches its pinnacle, with the ouster or termination of President Bashar Al-Assad in sight, other Arab rulers should begin to ponder the future of their regimes. It may seem that, cushioned with oil and gas wealth, these regimes, particularly in the Gulf Arab region, are more secure in their seats of power than politically troubled states like Sudan. However, revolutionary change has its own logic and rationale that are only belatedly perused, dissected and analysed by historians. It took Eastern Europe nearly half-a-century to break free from oppressive Soviet domination and overthrow their ruling Soviet agents; it took nearly one million Egyptians 18 days to topple former president Hosni Mubarak. Perhaps, the most predictable rationale is not just extreme poverty, political marginalisation, ideological indoctrination or iron-fist rule, but resistance to change. And resistance to change betrays lack of vision beyond continuing the status quo.
Obviously, there is a different course of historical development between Middle Eastern countries and Gulf Arab States. The first passed from Ottoman rule to the colonial era to post-independence nationalist dictatorships that were recently scrapped by the four revolutions that unfolded since 2010, with Yemen still in a limbo. The republican regimes that emerged in the post-colonial era were presumably changeable at the ballot box. However, they usually lasted for decades by fraud until the ruling dictator either expired or was overthrown by a military coup or civil war.
The Gulf sheikhdoms emerged from the Trucial States' status under British protection to independence in 1971. Except for Kuwait, they skipped the transition to the modern state condition to emirates followed by statehood without the attributes of a modern state or democratic institutions. With abundant oil and gas wealth they were accepted as newly independent democratic states by the United Nations, albeit without democratic institutions. They became dynastic monarchies that are striving to reach a happy medium between absolute monarchy and modern statehood. On the other side, republican Arab regimes were inching cautiously towards a form of republican monarchy, as the case in Egypt, Syria and Libya revealed. If the modern republican system provided that a head of state or government could be changed at the ballot box, or by fraudulent elections as the case may be, the substitution of rulers in monarchical emirates is effected only by succession in case of the death of the established ruler, or sometimes by a palace coup. The people who, in modern definition, have come to be the source of power and owners of the country's wealth, are far removed from the selection process, which takes place in a small group of senior emirs behind closed doors. The introduction, early on, of the post of crown prince is designed to pre-empt ruling family competition at the time of succession.
In the sea change that has so far engulfed five Arab countries, with more to come, how would hereditary, non-pseudo-republican regimes hold back the tidal wave? One way, perhaps, is to throw money at it. King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz of Saudi Arabia generously donated more than $40 billion in gifts to the nation last year. It was designed to placate disgruntled young Saudis agitating for wide-ranging reforms. But the carrot goes with the stick, too. About the same time last year, Saudi Arabia sent tanks, armoured vehicles and soldiers into Bahrain to help its government quell a protest movement by the dominantly Shia population of the country who were demanding reform. It was effective in both suppressing the protest and in sending a Gulf-wide warning that tampering with the monarchical status quo is hazardous and should not even be considered. In effect, the policy of security alertness, and crackdown when necessary, is the first, and probably the last line of defence for these states. While poverty may not relatively present a problem to the nationals of the emirate-state or, to a lesser extent, to migrant workers, issues of discrimination, tutelage of foreign workers by a national in return for a commission, or sub-standard living conditions, in addition to the rights of minorities, present latent threats to the stability of these countries. And the answer is usually to invoke the first line of defence, that is, security force, including arbitrary arrest and detention. That, however, was and remains the state security mechanism on which the four defunct Arab regimes were pegged, including 15 intelligence agencies in Syria alone.
The paradigm of forced takeover of power away from the ballot box has changed, though. Clandestine military coups of the 1950s and 1960s have now been replaced by the power of mass protest, armed or unarmed. For the past 40 years, Arab autocrats learned that the armed forces were the key to forced change of the regime. Therefore, they isolated them, pampered them or appointed their close family members or trusted loyalists to positions of control. Now, the paradigm has significantly shifted in favour of the people. When the Egyptian military command, for example, intervened in the clashes between protesters and security forces on 28 January 2011, it did so not according to its pre-assigned role as Mubarak's last line of defence, but to protect protesters and the masses of the people, as well as state institutions. In Syria, Al-Assad's army commanders are defecting in droves to the side of the Syrian protesters.
Ruling party propagandists and government-controlled media failed to persuade the impoverished masses of the people that they were living "the most splendid era of democracy" they have ever seen, in the words of Safwat El-Sherif, one of the closest confidantes of former president Mubarak, who is now on trial. Now the power of the people on the street has taken over revolutionary change, as was the case in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain. For Gulf States with small populations, high-tech security mechanisms are more than adequate to control protests. Protesters still do not have the critical mass to mount a full-fledged revolution. During the mass protest at the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, the joke went around Cairo that Bahrainis wanted to launch a million-man demonstration, but the total population was only 750,000. Could they borrow the rest from Egypt?
Revolutionary change in the Gulf Arab States does not have to be violent -- a people against ruler confrontation. The problem is that rulers believe their people are wallowing in petro-gas and oil wealth, and the benefits deriving from them, like no other people in the world. However, as the Bible says, man does not live on bread alone. Fundamental reforms giving the people a wider role in shaping their future and the way they are ruled are largely lacking. Activists are demanding fundamental freedoms and human rights.
The concept of constitutional monarchy was neither created overnight nor without suffering. The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, nominally owns Great Britain, but the people, with an elected parliament and representative government, manage national wealth and all institutions that have developed over many years. However, the Queen cannot lease Scotland, sell the River Thames or enter into business deals for her own benefit. She, as a monarch, does receive benefits approved by the House of Commons. Would this be a far-fetched idea for the Gulf Arab states? There are, of course, sovereign funds from plush oil and gas earnings that are kept for "future generations", but is it not a one-man rule that controls everything? There are associated huge business interests, of course. But to what extent can these be guaranteed in the future, even if they are deposited in foreign banks, funds or invested in foreign businesses? And at what cost in conflict and bloodshed?
The world is changing and the Arab region is, at long last, responding to these changes and to the principles that motivate the change. Nothing is sacrosanct anymore. Will the rest of the Arab region see the writing on the wall?
The writer is former corespondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC, and former director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.