Opinion: Between Arab states and their leaders, the ties that kill

An interesting opinion “Between Arab states and their leaders, the ties that kill” By Rami G. Khouri has appeared in the Daily Star.

He wrote:
We should keep in mind the important distinctions between state structures that are losing some of their historical relevance, and individual Arab leaders who are losing their current credibility or legitimacy.

The idea of “distinction” is important and I think that the distinction between the regime and the state was the basis of the U.S. decision of removing the Iraqi regime to ensure full Iraqi compliance to the international resolutions. This proposition is worthy of serious consideration in the relevant research.

Between Arab states and their leaders, the ties that kill
By Rami G. Khouri
Wednesday, August 03, 2005

In rapid-fire succession during recent weeks, one Arab country after another has come face to face with that very delicate zone of national leadership where personality intersects with politics. These instances include the succession in Saudi Arabia after King Fahd's death; Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's announcement that he will not run for another term after serving 15 years in office; Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's announcement that he will run for a fifth consecutive term after 24 years in office; the formation of a patchwork new Lebanese government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora - after uncertainty about whether President Emile Lahoud would serve out all of his Syrian-engineered three-year term extension; and the violence and uncertainty in Sudan after the death of newly installed vice president and former Southern rebel leader John Garang.

These are only the current cases - in just the past two weeks! - of a phenomenon that has long and widely plagued the Arab world. Long-serving Arab leaders who administer autocratic, intolerant, and often violent state structures are not just an issue of power-hungry individuals. They reflect a much deeper problem of underlying structures that are either historical anomalies, or that simply have not been managed very efficiently or humanely.

The result, painfully visible throughout the Middle East, is countries whose fate is intimately identified with individual leaders. In some particularly egregious cases where unending personal leadership converges with that of increasingly stressed statehood - Mubarak, Saleh, Omar Bashir in Sudan, Zein al-Abedin bin Ali in Tunisia and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya come to mind - we see most clearly the damage done by leaders who are neither meaningfully contestable nor accountable before their own people.

Ordinary citizens in all Arab countries do not have a credible opportunity to choose their leaders and define their government's policies; nor have they ever had a chance to ratify the basic geographical and political configurations of their respective countries. The enormous challenge that Iraq faces in writing a new constitution for all its citizens is common throughout this region: Who rules these countries? Who chooses and changes rulers? How can we have rulers and governance systems that fairly represent the wishes of the diverse citizenry?

Arab governance systems are brittle and vulnerable because they are being challenged by two powerful forces simultaneously. The historical legitimacy of the state itself is under pressure - due to both local and global trends - and current leaders are under pressure from angry and concerned citizens (or subjects, as the case may be).

The first force - frayed historical legitimacy - strikes me as the most powerful and dangerous one, because, in fact, three different and overlapping legacies of statehood are being challenged simultaneously in the Arab world. This occurs in the violent dictatorships, the more humane and citizen-sensitive monarchies, or the happy-face, police-run republics that increasingly base their legitimacy on unability to welcome foreign tourists and export inexpensive underwear. The three shaky statehood legacies are the following:

1. First is the modern "nation-state" that entered world history in Europe during the 16th century, and which was exported to the world through the colonial enterprise. This Euro-manufactured state system is evolving and weakening all around the world, due to globalization and other forces, with the evolving nature of sovereignty in Europe itself being the most dramatic example of this.

2. The second legacy being challenged in this region is that of the modern Arab state that was also mostly crafted by the Europeans starting around 1920. The modern Arab state that has been in existence for less than a century is deeply pressured by its own erratic ability to meet the basic needs of its citizens - whether in the realm of security, education, health, jobs or international competitiveness. (Iraq is fascinating today because it is the only case of a modern Arab state whose citizens are formally exploring the option of designing their own statehood, though this is offset by this experiment's disputed legitimacy, given that it has been the consequence of an Anglo-American armed assault that sought, intriguingly, both to preserve and change the Euro-made 1920s vintage Arab state.)

3. The third fraying legacy is that of the modern Arab security state, in which armed forces, police, intelligence services and others who have a formal mandate to use guns to protect the interests of citizens have tended to focus on protecting the interests of the incumbent regimes - often extended families and tribes. The frightening modern Arab security state was first suggested by army-run Iraq starting in the 1930s, developed institutionally in Nasserite Egypt after 1952, and came into its own after the oil-fuelled regional boom in the mid-1970s. Most Arab citizens are fed up with the humiliations they have endured at the hands of their contemporary Arab security states, and they seek more dignified, equitable governance systems that reflect the voices of ordinary people and also respond to their rights and needs.

All three of these historical state legacies are now challenged simultaneously throughout the Arab world. This is happening through peaceful and evolutionary forces of education, commerce, and globalization - and through violent or political contestation of long-ruling elites and their powers. We should keep in mind the important distinctions between state structures that are losing some of their historical relevance, and individual Arab leaders who are losing their current credibility or legitimacy. Sometimes these two forces converge, and sometimes they do not, but in any case they must be monitored in parallel.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for The Daily star.

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