A Quest for New Forms of Legitimacy in the Arab World

Article Summary
In the view of Sulayman Taqi al-Din, genuine democracy is based on a comprehensive framework linking state institutions, the political authority and the aspirations of the people. In the Arab world, the prevalence of systems of government dominated by the military has hampered the development of democratic frameworks, and those now working to promote this kind of system are thus bound to encounter additional challenges. The Arabs will have to reject forms of legitimacy based in the military or religion if they wish to establish truly democratic forms of government, the author argues.

However we [attempt to] address the concept of democracy, and whatever criteria or indicators [we follow], democracy is primarily about the structure of a state and society, and is not merely about a political system. For a [political system] to meet democratic standards - as understood by most political, legal and social disciplines - there should be an organic relationship between state institutions and the political regime or authority. Elections alone do not [constitute] a democracy. A representative [political] system alone is not a democracy. And liberalism and certain freedoms do not [make a system democratic].

A democratic [system] requires a modern state and a modern civil society. It also requires that a democratic culture be implemented in practice, not just through democratic ideology or democratic slogans. Throughout human history, representative systems have produced phenomena inconsistent with the concept of [true] democracy.

Many research studies, books and theories have been produced on this issue. But it is useless to discuss [these theories] given that we can look at the events happening before our eyes, and the ongoing experience of democratic change in the Arab world.

Demands for democracy in the Arab world have grown in the past three decades, having previously been put down by authoritarian regimes. These regimes adopted a [two-fold approach]. one component of this approach was synergy (social cooperation). [The other was] an organic approach (those who adopt nationalist ideologies place the value and rights of the community above the value and rights of the individual). [These regimes] considered the nationalist issue a top political priority.

This [new] reality has produced states and communities (states shape communities and control their development) with certain characteristics.

[The characteristics of] the [new] states are as follows: Rule by the military and security [apparatuses]; a [sprawling] bureaucracy [tasked] with multiple jobs; ideological dominance over the authority of the state; and the formation of socio-political elite [classes] with a factional, dignitary and tribal dimension. [These characteristics are complemented by] symbolic and ineffective political institutions.

[The characteristics at the social level are as follows]: A weak civil society; socio-economic components stuck between modernity and tradition; a traditional political culture [accompanied] by modern technology; tense coexistence between the various [social] structures, tribes and sects; [populist] political institutions (political parties in particular) that carry on the legacies of violent conflicts, restrictive thought and patriarchal [mentality].

The legitimacy of the state in the Arab world - that is the comprehensive moral authority - is derived from the following sources: religious legitimacy, familial tribal legitimacy, legitimacy [resulting from] a coup, legitimacy [resulting from] a struggle, and legitimacy [based on] sectarian allegiances.

These types of legitimacy have evolved over time. [So-called legitimate regimes] acquired sources of support and sustenance and turned into rentier or ideological states (based on a nationalistic ideology). These states established their institutions under different names, but they all shared the following elements:

The army became the backbone of the state and society in all Arab countries - with no exception. [The army] has been the authority’s main sinew and the most coherent organization in society.

The various armies of [Arab authoritarian regimes] were an organized and efficient force. They interacted organically with the community. They were also the most modern and independent - in the political sense of the word - of all political institutions [in their respective countries].

Some believe that the role of the military is linked to the historical legacies of the Middle East which has been ruled by successive military empires. [The Middle Eastern region] also witnessed wars, conflicts, running military invasions and conquests.

Different types of research studies have converged on the special importance of armies in the Middle East and the third world. [The countries in these region] assigned themselves the task of struggling for independence and national liberation. They later had to manage the processes of development and liberation. The army undertook these tasks due to the inability of modern civil forces - namely liberal forces - [to carry out the tasks]. [Furthermore its status was elevated by] the presence of regional military challenges and wars.

But these armies did not only take on military roles. They also furnished the bureaucratic institutions [in their respective countries] with elite cadres. This was the case in more than one Arab country. Furthermore, most [of those active within the military] took on roles in political institutions which were often times devised with a nationalistic approach.

Most [of these] states established representative institutions that fell under their authority and imposed restrictions on political and civil freedoms. Thus, elections were not a means to achieve political participation as much as they were a way to build-up a political elite close to the regimes to support their legitimacy. Indeed, elections that brought about results unfavorable to the authority were rigged or annulled. In all cases, executive authority was limited to the head of the political pyramid. [The same went for] the security and administrative tools subject to the authority or to those who were charged with making political, economic, security and administrative decisions.

Democracy requires "preconditions" - such as a developed level of education, a high level of income per capita, a large middle class, an active and organized civil society and strong, independent public institutions. [Achieving democracy also requires] political parties that have a national foundation. [These parties] must adopt distinct programs and a [foster] a political culture open to tolerance, debate and compromise.

Certain circumstances have become characteristic of the partisan experience in the Arab world. For half a century, parties affiliated with the regime adopting a collective (nationalist) ideology held power. Real parliamentary parties were never formed. Political Islamic movements controlled the [populist] political arena. Their legitimacy was derived from their religious culture and its institutions (the mosque, advocacy associations and charities [that took the form of] endowments, donations, alms and Khums [one-fifth tax on all earnings required from Muslims). This was an effective social system in its own way.

Arab societies are characterized the predominance of a religious - namely Islamic - culture, as Islam is the religion of the overwhelming majority of Arabs.

Arab theories of governance over past centuries emerged from this vast cultural environment. [The Arab world’s] political systems have historically been based on loyalty to the legitimacy of Islam - be it an Arab or non-Arab Islam. [This order persisted] until the end of the nineteenth century with the emergence of the nationalist ideology and nationalist movements. However, the nationalist ideology did not break away from this cultural heritage, but it rather integrated it into its identity in various ways and to different degrees. The [nationalist ideology] highlighted Arab identity and citizenship as part of the identity of the nation.

The nationalist ideology itself is a “collective ideology,” which places the interest of the nation and the group above the rights of common individuals. Nationalists were sometimes criticized for being "slaves to the state." They viewed the state is the principal actor in a nation. In contrast, a liberal ideology asserts that [a nation’s] members are the critical actors within it.

The nationalist experience - by thought and practice - which had ruled most Arab countries, ended with a failure to establish a nation-state and [concept of] citizenship. This is the primary and real reason behind the political revolutions taking place across the Arab world, in which the issues of national pride and human dignity are still being raised.

Turkish writer Gul attributes the current rise of Islamic movements [to the following factors]: The failure of secular nationalist elites, lack of political participation [on the part of the general population], the crisis of the minor bourgeoisie, petro-dollars, unbalanced economic development and cultural assimilation.

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