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July 13, 2011

Crackdowns in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain

Dr. Ibrahim Hayani

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In the "Epilogue" of his fascinating and engaging book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, the renowned Arab/Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf, poses the rather intriguing question as to whether or not the Arabs and/or Muslims did really win the epic war against the European invasion of the Arab heartland.

The Arab heartland was to include the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, which lasted well over 200 years and ended up with the uprooting of the Frankish states of the Middle East after two centuries of colonization.

He argues that “appearances are deceptive.”  Since that time, the Arabs have endured two fundamental “weaknesses.”  At the time of the Crusades, the Arab world, from Spain to Iraq, was still the intellectual and material repository of the planet’s most advanced civilization, including science and technology. Afterwards, the centre of world history shifted decisively to the West.

Equally important, and perhaps directly related to the first “ intellectual weakness” was the second “weakness,” as manifested in the Arabs’ inability to build stable institutions, especially the creation of genuine state structures that guarantee peaceful and normal transfer of power or the succession of political authority without serious clashes.

The adoption of democratic systems by European countries has, over time at least and in more ways than one, enabled them not only to limit the authority of the monarchs and enshrine the supremacy of the citizens’ will, but also to solve once and for all the question of power transfer through free and transparent popular elections. Lamentably, the successive Arab and Muslim dynasties and regimes, all the way back to the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid dynasties in Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo, respectively, and up to the present time, have adopted a variety of despotic approaches which proved to be neither effective (in the sense of guaranteeing stability), nor conducive to economic, political, or intellectual progress.

Indeed, there are compelling reasons to support the notion that despotic rule is not only unstable and detrimental to development, it is also divisive and a major contributive factor to ethnic, tribal, and sectarian conflicts. The recent tragic separation of Southern Sudan, together with the virtual fragmentation of Iraq and the on-going civil wars in Yemen and Libya are but a living testament to the destructive nature of modern despotism in the Arab world.

Arab politics today suffers from the same “despotic curse” which has inflicted immense damage and suffering upon the citizens of the modern Arab states. What is so striking about this seemingly endless “vicious circle” is the fact that because they lack “legitimacy,” in the sense that they are not  the product of free and transparent elections,  the various despotic Arab regimes try to impose their legitimacy by force. But the problem is that the more force these “illegitimate” regimes use to impose their legitimacy, the less legitimate they become because legitimacy and force are inherently incompatible.

It seems that because of an inability to generate what professor Michael Hudson has referred to as “structural legitimacy” in his insightful and compelling book on Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy, Arab politics today faces two alternatives: either the emergence of “control” regimes whose stability is mainly a function of enhanced coercive capabilities or the emergence of truly democratic governments that not only reflect the popular will of the citizens of each Arab country, but also capable of responding to the aspirations of the people and of ensuring the peaceful and democratic transfer of power from one successive government to another.

The recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, together with the ongoing revolutions in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, have exposed a serious misunderstanding of the true character of Arab regimes by many Western observers. What outsiders took to be “stability” was a rotten foundation built on corruption and repression. 

Long-time Arab rulers most familiar to Western officials grew increasingly out of touch with their own populations, even as their empty promises of reform failed to address chronic social and economic problems. For far too long, the West supported the old regimes in the mistaken belief that this would maintain regional stability, but the these despotic and corrupt regimes were bound to fail, and their failures, at all levels, have become wide open for everyone to see.

The images accompanying numerous media reports of the latest crackdown by the despotic regimes of Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain are shocking, showing absolutely no regard either for the rights of ordinary people or the sanctity of human life.

Throughout the Arab Spring, the despotic Arab regimes have demonstrated the same pattern of brutality towards peaceful demonstrations. The sight of close family members occupying key positions making lucrative trade deals, gives the impression that governments in the Arab world are a family business. If the country is governed like a private fiefdom, the citizens will be regarded as tax-paying tenants at best or as mere slaves, who can be disposed of when they start to make demands, at worst. In the latter case, regimes will naturally behave like the masters, rather than the servants of the people.

Tragically, the oppressive Arab regimes are still trapped in the post-colonial era, desperately trying to maintain censorship, which has been rendered powerless by the Internet and mobile phones. All the efforts to circumvent the power of the information highway have failed. Consequentially, giving impetus to the Tsunami of people who are demanding that governments should be accountable and free from corruption and nepotism; they should be the servants of the nation and not its masters.

The ideas of freedom, democracy, dignity, equality, and social justice are today inextricable criteria for legitimate political order in the Arab world, as in most, if not all, countries of the contemporary world, and are, unfortunately, far from being achieved.  Despotic rule in the Arab countries has largely been responsible for the failure to adhere to these criteria. It is about time that the curse of despotism should be uprooted not only from the Arab psyche but also from the centres of power of the Arab Capitals.

Professor Ibrahim Hayani teaches economics at Ryerson University and Seneca College in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

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