The nature of Arab regimes
The typical Arab regime is both authoritarian and autocratic – authoritarian because it demands obedience and discourages questioning; autocratic because power is highly centralised and concentrated around the head of state. The head of state himself is modelled on the traditional Arab father figure: in concept, if not reality, he is wise and benevolent, commands respect, dispenses largesse and arbitrates between the conflicting demands of his sometimes bickering children. He may not be liked but he may nevertheless be admired for his rujula – “manly” qualities such as strength and toughness.
The term “patrimonial” – originally used by Max Weber, the German sociologist, in connection with a style of government found in early-modern Europe – can also be applied to most of the Arab regimes today. Essentially, it is a system where “the mechanics of the household are the model for political administration”.
Patrimonial government has several distinctive characteristics. It is built around personal relationship rather than hard-and-fast rules. In a patrimonial bureaucracy “the line between persons and offices [is] notional” and the holder of the office is often more important than the office itself: appointments depend more on who people are rather than their ability. This in turn leads to high levels of incompetence, which is one reason why chains of command are kept short, with little delegation of responsibility.
In patrimonial systems there is also a lot of discretion in the exercise of power: laws and regulations may be enforced selectively or waived according to circumstances and the people affected by them. There is minimal transparency and almost no accountability. Taken together, the personalisation of government, the discretionary use of power and the lack of transparency and accountability lead to widespread corruption, cronyism and nepotism.
To varying degrees, Arab regimes use coercion and repression to maintain power and crush those who oppose them, but that is not necessarily the preferred method. As Timur Kuran puts it, “states rely on violence insofar as they cannot accomplish their objectives through persuasion and economic incentives”.
No dictator – even one as brutal as the late Saddam Hussein – can coerce a whole nation single-handed; he needs a critical mass of allies within the society in order to survive. Wholesale repression risks creating too many enemies; it is far better to have a populace which is docile, submissive, acquiescent or even resigned rather than one which is angry and recalcitrant. So the goal, most of the time, is to secure people’s cooperation or even their indifference but not, on the whole, to deliberately antagonise them.
The impetus towards reform
IN RECENT YEARS almost all Arab regimes have espoused some kind of political reform, while usually insisting that they must be allowed to do it in their own way and – crucially – at their own pace. By 2005, even ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia had taken its first very tentative steps towards democracy with local government elections – elections in which women were barred from voting and fifty percent of the seats were still to be allocated by royal appointment. Starting in 2003, Crown Prince Abdullah (later to become King Abdullah) also organised a series of wide-ranging discussions that brought together a variety of different elements from across the kingdom.
Elsewhere in the region, the year 2004 brought numerous reform initiatives, among them the Alexandria Declaration, the Sana’a Declaration, the Doha Declaration, the Arab Business Council Initiative – even one from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Although these were mostly non-governmental in their origins, the Alexandria, Sana’a and Doha conferences had government backing.
Shortly afterwards, the Arab League’s summit meeting in Tunis vowed “to pursue reform and modernisation in our countries, and to keep pace with the rapid world changes, by consolidating the democratic practice, by enlarging participation in political and public life, by fostering the role of all components of the civil society, including NGOs, in conceiving of the guidelines of the society of tomorrow, by widening women’s participation in the political, economic, social, cultural and educational fields and reinforcing their rights and status in society, and by pursuing the promotion of the family and the protection of Arab youth”.
There is broad agreement about what needs to change. “All Arab reform initiatives share key common demands,” Mona Yacoubian writes. “These include calls for free and fair elections; constitutional reforms that feature a diminishing of executive power and a commensurate increase in legislative and judicial powers; the repeal of emergency laws and the abolishment of exceptional courts; an end to the practice of torture; and the lifting of restrictions on civil society, NGOs, and the media.” But Yacoubian, an adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the US Institute for Peace, notes that all such initiatives – whether from governments or activists – tend to suffer from the same problem: they make grand statements of intent but have little or nothing to say about how these goals might be accomplished.
Obstacles to reform
Actual reform, as opposed to talk of it, has been far more limited and those reforms that have occurred have usually been initiated from on high rather than as a result of pressure from below.It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of what passes for reform is just window-dressing for the sake of international respectability. “Few governments want to be seen as undemocratic,” Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch wrote, “Yet the credentials of the claimants have not kept pace with democracy’s growing popularity.” He continued:
Even overt dictators aspire to the status conferred by the democracy label. Determined not to let mere facts stand in the way, these rulers have mastered the art of democratic rhetoric that bears little relationship to their practice of governing ...
It is not that pseudo-democratic leaders gain much legitimacy at home. The local population knows all too bitterly what a farce the elections really are. At best, these leaders gain the benefit of feigned compliance with local laws requiring elections. Rather, a good part of the motivation today behind this democratic veneer stems from the international legitimacy that an electoral exercise, however empty, can win for even the most hardened dictator. Because of other interests – energy, commerce, counterterrorism – the world’s more established democracies too often find it convenient to appear credulous of these sham democrats.
Though willing to concede a desire for reform, the regimes are ultimately more interested in their own survival. The ideal survival strategy, in many cases, is to acquire permanent status as an “emerging democracy” without the need to ever fully emerge. Regimes in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere have adapted to electoral politics (mainly by manipulating them to their own advantage) and are probably stronger, not weaker, as a result. One way of achieving this is through “parties of power” which establish political hegemony but without genuine popular support ot any coherent ideology:
Parties of power develop from a ruling elite’s drive to maintain control over the state ... Being created from above, these parties are not meant to become autonomous political forces in their own right, but are utilised by the ruling elites as instruments of co-optation, sometimes even coercion and political hegemony. To begin with, they simply serve the regime to sustain a network of patronage relationships with the major sociopolitical, economic and administrative actors of the country.
By using the patronage networks, in fact, the regime seeks to ensure its very survival by granting these actors access to the spoils system of the state in return for their complacency concerning the existing order. What is more, such ruling parties also serve to provide regime-supportive majorities in the major elected institutions of the state ...
A truly competitive multiparty system cannot emerge within a system of parties of power, which unbalances the electoral game in favour of a single party or a set of political parties that thrive on the spoils of the state.
Source: What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, by Brian Whitaker (Saqi Books, 2009).