Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Lethal errors

Threats to the very existence of Arab states are the result of decades of mismanagement, incompetence and neglect, writes Azmy Ashour

Al-Ahram Weekly

As an inclusive framework in which individuals concede a portion of their will in order to realise their general interests, no better entity than the civil state has emerged. After all the ills and injustices inflicted by wars precipitated by sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism, it was essential to search for a neutral polity that embodied the composite will of individual members: that polity was the state, with its government institutions and corpus of laws.

In the following paragraphs I will discuss the most salient mistakes that have caused the nation state in the Arab world to degenerate to a condition characterised by civil warfare, disintegration and partition, the spread of terrorism and the rise of Islamist emirates, the unfettered ambitions of neighbouring nations and the neglect of major Arab issues such as the Palestinian cause.
THE FAILURE OF THE ARAB NATION STATE TO DEVELOP: Certainly, if Arab states had adopted a comprehensive approach to development that covered diverse economic, political and social aspects, the condition of their societies would be considerably better than is the case now.
The responsibility for the thwarted development of Arab societies will continue to haunt all those who governed during this period. They deviated from the evolutionary process that governed the progress of other societies in both the North and South.
This has created what has been termed the “Arab exception”, or the Arab deficit, in the developmental process. It is not so much a question of deficiency as it is the failure of the policies of ruling elites and their dictatorial tendencies.
In Egypt one might argue that the Abdel-Nasser and Sadat periods had an excuse, given their wars with Israel. But what about the Mubarak regime? Why did it not use its 30 years to generate a process of comprehensive development that would usher in real democracy and engineer an economic revival for society, a large segment of which is made up of young people who serve as foreign labour in neighbouring states?
Even if we accept the limitations imposed by meagre resources, we still need to concede that the planning necessary for the development of national projects was absent. The regime survived on a kind of self-propulsion until it became mired in the question of succession. The question of who would assume power after Mubarak threw into stark relief the regime’s history of policy failures.

The same thing happened in Syria where Hafez Al-Assad, upon his death, was succeeded by his son Bashar ten years ago. Similar scenarios unfolded in Libya and Yemen, despite their different social and economic contexts. Iraq under Saddam Hussein attempted to pursue this course before his regime met its demise at the hands of the US occupation in 2003.

Instead of working to develop, the ambitions of post-independence Arab states shrank to focus on ensuring sons would inherit the palace. If the rulers had been able to show a successful track record in development and progress during their periods of rule their plans for hereditary succession may well have been accepted. But to have failed so miserably and then want to pass power on to your children was asking too much.

This phenomenon raises many questions regarding the mindset of these regimes. Is it really true, as some suggest, that they intentionally adopted policies that were designed to thwart development, foster ignorance and impoverish their populations so as to make the masses easier to control?
Or did the general passivity of the public and the grip of the security apparatus feed their confidence to the extent that they felt they could fail forever and the people would never rebel? Will a lack of resources, failed policies and dictatorial leaderships hasten the demise of the Arab nation states that have emerged since independence?
One cannot help but note that the governments that have fallen so far are the republican states. Kingdoms and emirates have remained intact, including less wealthy states such as the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco.

THE FAILURE TO BUILD DEMOCRACY AND INSTITUTIONALISED GOVERNMENT: Conditions would certainly have been better for Egyptian and Syrian society had there been democracy, strong institutions of government and peaceful rotation of power.
Six million refugees, 200,000 dead, the destruction of Syrian cities, some with thousands of years of history, and the emergence of fascist religious groups is directly related to the entrenched despotism of the Assad clan and its marginalisation of Syrian society, including intellectual elites and the middle class.

The same could have applied to Egypt had the Egyptian state been a product of foreign arrangements, the Sykes-Picot agreement in the case of Syria. But the central state in Egypt has thousands of years of history. It is deeply rooted, which helps explain why it was able to withstand the many challenges it faced following the 25 January Revolution, including the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule.
Yet it would be foolhardy to minimize the challenges to the Egyptian state posed by the processes of fragmentation and civil strife in other Arab societies, most notably Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
So what policies will best protect the Arab state, safeguard it from collapse and enable it to contend with the threats of terrorism at home and challenges from abroad?
Is a policy of tightening security sufficient, or would the health and continuity of the state be better served by promoting the restructuring of society in line with a vision of comprehensive development that stimulates economic growth in a way that incorporates new generations into a prosperous economy, that includes a strong educational component and that prioritises the values of institutional government, justice, civil and personal freedoms and democracy?
This was, in essence, the challenge the Mubarak regime faced. Its response was to tighten security at the expense of civic freedoms. But this did not spare it from the rebellion of its populace. Ignoring the principles of freedom, justice and democracy in the current phase will court similarly disastrous consequences.
Democracy and the culture of building accountability and realising justice have become key to safeguarding society from collapse, to which testify the experiences of countries such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen, where governmental institutions and rule of law were a hollow, empty shell.

The obvious way out of the cyclical syndromes derailing our societies is to institutionalise government and establish the rule of law within the framework of a nation state in which each individual is an effective stakeholder in his country.

This would mean that the traffic policeman applies the law without exception, the civil servant serves the people without a bribe, government jobseekers are guaranteed equal opportunity to available positions, and the police and the judiciary attain their positions without nepotistic connections.

Thousands of young people graduate from universities and colleges every year only to realise that the chances of getting a suitable job are hugely unfair, and that justice is warped in their countries. Naturally, some of these will become extremists, turning to those who listen to them and help them materially and, in the process, indoctrinate them into the beliefs that will turn them into terrorists hostile to the state.

THE HARMFUL EXTERNAL FACTOR: Since the middle of the last century, Arab societies suffered in part from the poor management of their foreign policies and the adventurism of their leaders. By adventurism I do not mean that these leaders were unpatriotic. Rather, they misread or failed to properly assess the nature of international challenges and therefore fell into the traps of foreign powers.
The process developed in four phases. The first occurred under Abdel-Nasser. Nasser’s bold and defiant policies brought him and Egypt into the crosshairs of international alliances, beginning with the Baghdad Pact, followed by the tripartite invasion of 1956 and culminating with the 1967 defeat.
Egyptian foreign policy was insufficiently astute to absorb or deflect foreign pressures. Instead, it goaded international powers, which upped the pressure and caused Egyptian leaders to fall victim to their miscalculations.

The second phase began with Saddam Hussein and the end of the Iraq-Iran war in the late 1980s. In 1990 he set in motion his adventure, the invasion of Kuwait, which in turn flung open the doors to foreign presence in the region. This presence has continued until today and includes, most notably, the invasion of Iraq by US forces.
The third phase is characterised by the rise of terrorism in the region. This phenomenon was used by major powers to justify interventionist policies. These policies included the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq following 11 September, interference in the domestic affairs of Arab nations to impose democracy and the “Greater Middle East” project and, after the Bush administration’s policies backfired, the series of accommodations struck between Washington and Arab capitals in favour of hereditary succession schemes.
All of these developments came at the expense of domestically driven development and democratisation.
The fourth phase was ushered in by the Arab revolutions. While much debate has centred on whether or not these revolutions were supported from abroad, the evidence so far indicates that they were primarily the product of the failure of the Arab nation state to promote development, to democratise and to meet the needs of new generations that have grown up in a globalised environment.
Subsequent developments in a number of Arab Spring countries created a climate conducive to foreign intervention. Syria has become a playground for vying international and regional interests. It would not be overstating the case to say that foreign intervention across the region is at an all-time high. Its aim is to partition states and empty them of their inhabitants.
These are only some of the many mistakes made by rulers of Arab states over the past six decades. If they had learned from the experiences of nations elsewhere in the world and followed, for example, the developmental approaches in Asia, our societies would not be in the shape they are in now.
Many are on the verge of fragmentation due to the compound effects of persistent domestic problems. Rulers should be wary of allowing the luxuries of palace life to prevent them from seeing the very real problems of the societies they govern.
They must, if anything, pay more attention to questions of freedom and democracy than to economic matters. Trust and the rule of law are the most powerful drivers of economic and social development.

The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.

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