Arab rulers face hour of truth: reform or leave

The Age :

Written by Soumaya Ghannoushi
January 30, 2011

WE ARE witnessing the breakdown of the Arab state. The Arab political establishment has never looked weaker. It is either dying a protracted silent death, or collapsing in thunderous explosions.

Tunisia, which toppled its dictator two weeks ago, is by no means an exception. The symptoms are evident throughout the region, from the protests in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan, or the increasing polarisation of Lebanon’s sectarian politics, to the near-collapse of the state in Yemen and Sudan, and its complete disintegration in Somalia.

The postcolonial Arab state has always carried deficiency as part of its genetic make-up. It emerged as a substitute for the complex network of local elites, tribal chieftains and religious groupings through which imperial authorities had maintained their grip; and its mission was the regulation of the population. This system of indirect control specifically required a ”state” that was capable of keeping the population under check and maintaining ”stability” at home, but too weak to disrupt foreign influence or disturb the regional balance of powers.

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The first generation of postcolonial Arab leaders were able to soften the repressive nature of the Arab state by virtue of their charisma, and promises of progress. With their exit, and the entry of a new class of colourless autocrats and crude generals, the Arab state lost any cover of legitimacy, and became synonymous with oppression.

The turmoil plaguing the region today is traceable to its diseased political order. Its degeneration has wrought havoc on the social sphere too. It has led to weaker national identities, and to individuals reverting to their sectarian affiliations, sparking conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, Copts and Muslims.

Beyond the Arab state’s aura of physical might lurks a moral vulnerability and a dearth of popular allegiance. This paradox has been laid bare by protesters in Tunisia and Egypt. Demonstrators are discovering the frailty of the instruments of repression that have long crushed and suffocated them.

These events are harbingers of a change long impeded. Were it not for the international will to maintain the status quo, what happened in eastern Europe and the USSR in the late 1980s could have occurred in the Arab region too. Arab rulers – aided by foreign allies – have been able to steal more than two decades of their societies’ political life. Today they face the hour of truth: either radically transform the structure of authoritarian Arab rule, or depart for ever. The trouble is, an entity that has made coercion its raison d’etre and violence its sole means of survival has left itself no option but to sink deeper in the quagmire of tyranny. And for its sponsors, who have made its preservation the cornerstone of their ”stability” strategy, they have no choice but to blindly stick with their ”friends” to the last breath. That is why those demonstrating on Arab streets feel they are not only rebelling against corrupt local despots, but against their foreign backers too.


Soumaya Ghannoushi is a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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