High shadow of Tunisia

The second Arab Economic meeting in Sharm El Sheikh could not avoid the high shadow of the Tunisian situation. The Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, warned the leaders: “The Arab citizen has entered a stage of anger that is unprecedented. The Tunisian revolution is not far from us.” The declaration was on the first page of The New York Times.

This made me wonder: didn’t they know? Of course they knew it. The overall crisis in the Arab world has made the unanimity of the Arab experts who drafted and produced the PNUD Human Development Report in 2004. This unanimity was even made official during the Arab summit of May 2004, which recognised that “the political field, specifically the structure of the Arab state, is the very place of the impairment and its axis, and it is here therefore that reform must begin.”

Let’s recall some key-points of that important report.

Despite the apparent differences between the regimes (royalist/republican, rich/poor, radical/moderate…) the report recognised some common features that are strong enough to suggest the existence of a regional structure and similarities of methods so that we can reasonably talk of an “Arab type of power.” This type was labelled in the report: “the state of the black hole,” because of the strong centralisation of the executive and the government bureaucracy.

In the “state of the black hole,” the enormous powers enjoyed by the Head of State, in addition to specific mechanisms dependent on the executive (such as the party in power when there are parties) mean that everything revolves around one person. In this state “the parliament becomes a quasi-bureaucracy appointed by the executive,” having nothing to do with the notion of representing the people.

The system works through what is called “ignored corruption.” But another important feature of those regimes is the central place enjoyed by the security and intelligence apparatus, so that they are also referred to by another label: “police state” (dawlat al mukhabarat). The report noted a structural similarity between the regimes concerning their submission to the same hegemony: that of the apparatus of police, intelligence and security.

The main particularity of such regimes is therefore their inability to transform and democratise because of a structural deficiency characterised by the ability to “marginalise strategically” all institutions and social forces.

It is normal that in such a situation we talk of a crisis of legitimacy, and that is what the report just did. In fact, it mentioned several of these crises.

First there was the crisis of traditional (religious –” tribal) or paternalistic legitimacy (emerging from the battle for independence and for the construction of the new State) in front of the elite with radical, Left-wing or Pan-Arab tendencies, etc… It lasted at least two decades (the 1960s and 1970s).

Then, with the rise of the hardliners’ movement since the 1980s, a new crisis of legitimacy emerged: facing hardliners, some regimes were struggling with slogans praising their “achievements” and even claiming to lead the battle for Democracy and Human Rights, which made people say: the democratic discourse has become another myth for salvation. Maybe is this the worse distortion that can strike democracy: being “supported” by an authoritarian regime that uses and abuses of the discourse on democracy and human rights to better violate them. It is for this reason that the report talked of “legitimacy of usurpation” whenever a regime justifies its own continuity (in tyranny) claiming to be a lesser evil compared to a hardline set-up or anarchy.

Consequently, the crisis is expressed through symptoms that speak volumes about the disease that corrodes the Arab societies, such as the repression and impoverishment of the political parties by means of weakening them and the marginalisation of the civil society. The fact that in some countries there is a plethora of political parties is not necessarily a sign of good vitality.

The Report interpreted it rather as a symptom “reflecting the divisions of the political and intellectual elite and the maneouvers of the rulers to divide opposition.” Result: no opposition party is enough powerful and convincingly attracting to win elections and take over. Hence, an overall exhaustion and a general apathy related to politics. Moreover, as noted by the report, “the governments are in a hurry to freeze and ban the parties that become popular.”

Thus, the barriers to participation in political life are so oppressive that there is a general deficiency of the political process accompanied with a loss of public confidence. The result revealed by the report is expressed in two aspects:

First, the marginalisation and neutralisation of some parties and a lack of confidence in the whole political process have incited some of them to opt for underground political activity, and even to resort to violence, terrorism and political negativism. On the other hand, the closing of the political space has led some researchers and activists to think that relying on the civil society organisations is more advantageous, particularly the trade unions and professional organisations, considering them more suitable than Arab political parties to conduct the Arab society towards development and democracy.

But the problem is that the civil society’s institutions are not in a better situation. Far from it. First, some of these organisations (trade unions or human rights associations, etc…) are handicapped by their allegiance to the ruling party that uses them as a nice shop-window while continuing a policy of containment and repression. Others adopt the discourse of civil society as a strategy to combat rivals, especially if they belong to the hardline opposition. Thus we see why “despite the existence of tens of thousands of civil society organisations in the Arab world (…) their influence is still very limited.”

Other symptoms of the crisis were also identified by the report, including: lack of transparency in business and economics, lack of control and corruption. All this combined with an unhealthy climate in which the security apparatus dominates the society and the state, making the law their servant instead of serving it, shows that there are “bridges” between economic corruption and political decay.