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The dilemma of the Arab state

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt has institutions capable of mobilising the people in the direction of change without being swept away by it

Abdel Moneim Said , Monday 17 Jan 2011
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My apologies if the title of this article sounds too academic —the type you might find heading a political science treatise or a doctoral dissertation, for example —and if the topic itself seems too complex and multidimensional to be treated in a small newspaper commentary. But there are times when one has no choice. There are certain crucial subjects, ones that cover a broad array of seemingly unrelated phenomena, which tend to lead us into mazes of diverse and intricate details causing us to lose sight of the larger forest. In such cases, it is necessary to take a step back and return to the basics, in order to broach the subject comprehensibly and systematically.

Over the weekend, it was Sudan that occupied our attention. But Sudan is certainly not the only instance of the dilemma of the Arab state that is unable to hold together and, simultaneously, unable to convince its people that the state entity is crucial to their survival; that it is the framework that can best ensure their collective security and safety, at least to a considerable extent, and that it is the only framework that can effectively mobilise and channel their energies towards the betterment of the common wellbeing.

A mere glance around the Arab region gives us numerous other examples of this dilemma. We see it in Iraq and in Lebanon, while the symptoms have already surfaced in the pre-state phase in Palestine and have raged out of control in the post-state phase in Somalia. The dilemma of the Arab state resides in that terrible antithesis between the state as a utilitarian political entity that regulates the relationships between individuals and groups within the state and between them and the outside world, and the state as a moral entity that stands for a nation and expresses a unique people distinct from others. This latter notion was never grounded in reality. There was never such a thing as the Iraqi people and the Lebanese never could live without a civil war of some sort erupting from time to time. Then, in between the flare-ups, come political contortions needed to patch together a semblance of political life, such as the year-long gymnastics it took to form an Iraqi government or that unprecedented Lebanese invention known as the “one third plus one veto power” that puts any government at the mercy of the whims and dictates of Hizbullah.

While the Sudanese case occupied centre stage, one’s attention naturally strayed to Tunisia. Unlike Sudan, ethnic and religious diversity was not the issue here, for Tunisian society is relatively homogeneous. Still, a month of political unrest succeeded in causing the political order to teeter and ultimately to collapse within the space of a single afternoon. It is not so much the events leading up to this climax that are revealing as the subsequent developments, which various media personalities were perfectly prepared to ignore, caught up as they were in the “thrill” of change, revolutionary fervour and the application of the verses of Aboul Qasem Al-Shabbi. In one television interview after the other one could not help but be struck by how familiar it all sounded. We saw it all before, in Iraq where there was an opposition that knew exactly what it opposed, which was the rule of Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party, but that had no clear idea as to what should come next. Also, as was the case in Iraq, the Tunisians did not possess the means to come to terms over an undeniable fact, which was that the order whose facade had just crumbled has its roots in the nature of the Tunisian state.

Simply put, the revolutionaries in Tunisia did not differ greatly from their Iraqi counterparts over, firstly, what to do with the “old order”, and secondly, the need to replace it with a “new order” that would be just and democratic, even though they were far from being in one mind as to what these terms meant. What surfaced was a profound spirit of violence and vengefulness. Pleas rang out for protection against criminals who were released from prisons. Fires spread as politicians wrung their hands over what to do and asked themselves painful questions. Will it be possible to perpetuate a system of government that extends from the Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali era, they wondered? If that system is abolished, how should the country be run in the interim? What kind of government should replace the old one? Should it include people who were in power until just a few days ago, or should there be a massive purge that will reveal that that no despotism in the world has ever existed without resting on a significant portion of the people?

If the revolution broke out because Mohammed Bouazizi couldn’t find a job, how will the new regime create employment for men like him and the 60 others whose deaths ignited and fed the process of change that has swept Tunisia? Of course, the uprising was not only about unemployment. It was also about corruption, poverty and destitution. There were also more obscure factors, though all pointing to rights that were abused and needs that were unfulfilled by a failed regime. However, will the new revolutionaries be able to alleviate these grievances whose very real existence was confirmed by a whole month’s worth of audio-visual testimony? Curiously, no one in Tunisia seems to be asking that question, let alone venturing an answer to it. There is great euphoria because a brutal man has fled, but there is not a single guarantee that an even more brutal one will not replace him. No one in what appeared to be the most democratic and competent state had ever brought up the subject to begin with, which is why developments immediately following Ben Ali’s departure suggest that his successor will be no less evil. No attempt was made to grasp the practical problems of the contemporary Arab state.

The Tunisia case was essentially a middle class revolution. The clothes and health of the demonstrators we saw on the television screens during the past few weeks inform us that this was not an uprising of the armies of the hungry and destitute. The streets through which the protestors marched were clean, well maintained, and not lacking in touches of elegance. However, the Tunisian middle class had reached the end of its tether. The economic system was no longer able to meet its needs and expectations. The political system was incapable of responding to its broadening horizons, knowledge, and contact with the world. It is an eminently classic case of a rapidly developing society that finds itself cramped by a slow-up in growth due to domestic or external reasons and frustrated by a government whose corruption or obsession with power have caused it to lose touch with society. Under such conditions, it takes very little to ignite the explosion. In this case, it was a vegetable vendor driven to suicide because of his economic plight and because the regime offered him no channel for his voice to be heard.

Ironically, it was this middle class that was the first to cry out after the Tunisian uprising erupted. After a debate over the application of the constitution and whether the prime minister should take over at a time when it was still uncertain whether the president’s flight was permanent, the speaker of parliament stepped into place as temporary president and Prime Minister Al-Ghanoushi assumed the task of forming a coalition government, as had been previously planned. Suddenly the middle class found itself faced with a situation that was all too familiar and was at a loss over whether or not to accept it. Then, as it grappled with its confusion, the streets were taken over by forces that see things from a different angle, one in which there is no time and space for the state and ample room for destructive, rampant and aimless chaos. In the history of mass uprisings and grand changes, the revolution is either stolen from above by a military or civil dictator, or stolen from below by forces of destruction that sweep away the revolution and the state altogether.

The contemporary Arab state is caught between the need for change and the need to be able to handle the consequences of change at the right time, before it is too late. The dilemma of the contemporary Arab state is how to mobilise energies and resources efficiently while meeting the needs of justice and equitable distribution of returns. The problem is compounded when the country is as small as Tunisia, which has only 10 million people, as opposed to a population of more than 85 million, such as Egypt, and when it does not offer a diversity of public and private media that offer a considerable scope for free expression, analysis and investigation, as is the case in Cairo. Nor does it help matters when there is no autonomous judiciary with a supreme constitutional court that can overturn unconstitutional laws and a higher administrative court that can compel the government to obey the law, as is the case in Egypt, or when the political space can not expand to accommodate a diversity of political parties, syndicates, thousands of NGOs and nearly 800 foreign journalists who are free to transmit and criticise what they see, which so happens to be the case in Cairo, and not in Tunis.

Was the point of the previous paragraph to draw a comparison of the sort that occurred to many and that a few have tried to bring to the attention of Egyptian and Arab society? The answer is an unequivocal yes. The critical mass of Egyptians is, indeed, different from the critical mass of Tunisians. It has not yet abandoned the wisdom that tells them not to leave a place until they know where they are heading. However, this does not mean that there are no lessons we can draw from the Tunisian case. We must contend with the dilemma of the Arab state whether we like it or not. Perhaps the true difference between Egypt and Tunisia is that the former has the institutions and agencies capable of monitoring needs. Still, it will remain important to respond to mounting frustration in the middle class, because economic reform is not proceeding as it should, in order to meet their aspirations and expectations, and to ensure that political reform expands to accommodate to the effects of change and the broadening horizons of the middle class. These are very difficult and complex challenges, but the ability and ingenuity it takes to meet them also exist and are, indeed, boundless.

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