How many dictators have you known, or known of, in your lifetime?
My career has allowed me to know many sole rulers in the Levant, the Rub al-Khali and the Maghreb, up to the borders of Chinguetti, now known as Mauritania.
I have known some who used to be soldiers, who abandoned the ranks of stars and crossed swords. I have known civilians who gave themselves the highest military ranks in the world; one of them became the “supreme commander,” outranking any leader in history. I have known “civilians” who found it necessary to raise their stature with military ranks. I have also known tribal elders who made themselves kings and princes via tribal swords and oil wells, which they protected for others.
I knew one who was simple, modest, asked a lot of questions, and sometimes admitted that he doesn’t know enough. But then he became full of delusion and assumed that he no longer needed to ask questions because he had become the “seal of science” and a source of all answers, whether religious, temporal or government-related. He started opposing prevailing customs and traditions.
I knew one who stayed behind the scenes and made decisions that carried another person’s signature. But that duality soon bored him, so he decided to become the direct ruler and started wielding his sword in the face of those who would defy him.
I, as others, knew someone who came to power by taking advantage of “a disagreement between the strong” who plotted against each other, thus giving him an opportunity to become the referee. And when he took that role he became the sole ruler after liquidating the others one by one.
I knew someone who thought himself immortal. I sat with him and heard him repeat his story. When I asked him a question related to the governing and decision-making process, he asked me suspiciously about why I asked that question and whether it was the result of specific information or just a personal hunch.
I also knew someone who acted very humbly and asked me obvious questions, but then claimed to know the answers to affairs of religion, the world and everything in between, from philosophy to medicine and astronomy. He even changed the story of how history began and renamed the months of the year.
Politicians and journalists would know someone well but then preferred to use their knowledge to make deals, for their own notes or to keep as semi-secret information so that they wouldn't get assassinated.
I had to postpone my conclusions and appreciate that we, the Arabs, live “outside of the state,” which we never truly knew. Then I had to lighten my judgments on the “system” in Lebanon, which runs the country without a state, while in every Arab country — those near and far — the state takes the form of an absolute ruler who eliminates the “state,” which we read about in books or which we see abroad.
We live in communities with multiple divisions — communal, sectarian, tribal and artificial political entities that collide with geopolitical and demographic realities.
In the Arab Levant in particular, political entities were established via decisions by the European colonizers who inherited the Ottoman Empire. They divided the area based on the legacy of past centuries in a manner that was different from the Ottoman project, which “united” all its subjects, thus preserving their race, religions and sectarian affiliations.
Western colonialism used these affiliations to replace “nationalism,” and the colonialists subdivided what was already divided according to religious or sectarian bases. Thus they added part of one entity to another entity — forcibly and according to their interests — keeping only “Palestine” as a prize for world Zionism in order to form a sectarian-racist entity with a superior military force, which would prevent any attempt to unite the entities that had been torn apart according to religion, sect and oil interests.
Thus, all the Levant countries were made unstable, as exemplified by the successive military coups. The dictator was then accepted as the unifier and as the one who would bring some stability (albeit temporarily), even if he becomes the absolute ruler by using a range of security services that could then be camouflaged by the slogans of the “leading political party.”
So it’s no surprise to see the collapse of states headed by dictators who were supported by the security services. And it’s no surprise that the imprisoned society would gradually move away from the “state” that became a dictatorial central authority that frightens the people and oppresses them — because the “state” is the symbol of unity and the protector of this unity and the legitimate reference for all its subjects, who were never “citizens.”
The sole ruler doesn’t build a state; he doesn’t need one. In fact, it contradicts his existence. He may keep the shape of the state but empty its institutions of any meaning. A state and a “visionary leader” cannot coexist. He alone can represent the state. All he needs are some assistants and a lot of intelligence personnel — internal and external, in every ministry and every administration, on the street and at home — and then to install a state agency to monitor the work of the other agencies and ensure their loyalty. Everybody starts spying on everybody.
When the president is the constitution and is the one who orders the constitution’s writing in a way that suits his ambitions, and when he is the one who supervises the enactment of a law that makes the president the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense counsel, then how and to whom can one object?
When the president is all the government — the interior and foreign ministers, the army, the police, the health care system, education, the judiciary — then the state becomes a palace to rule, and the government a group of administrators, and all departments and institutions become part of the president’s office.
A complex problem appears when the president dies, although that’s the exception. When the president dies, the entire “state” is in danger of collapse. The state dies with the president. And the people have to wait for a series of miracles to preserve the “state” pending the arrival of a president to take on the important task of rebuilding the state in the absence of its dead builder and in an opposite shape of the previous state.
It has become commonplace for a state to “die” with the death of its president. The state of Gamal Abdel Nasser died with him. Then came the “opposite” state of Anwar al-Sadat. It was the opposite in politics, economics, in the face of the Israeli enemy and in dealing with social issues (agrarian reform, peasants' rights, factories, workers’ right to form trade unions, the independence policy as represented in the nonaligned movement, equal relations with the major powers and in accordance with national interests, the question of Palestine and the duty to protect it, etc.). And that’s in Egypt, the oldest state in history.
The state of Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, fell as a result of his miserable military adventures (he attacked Iran after the outbreak of the Khomeinist revolution. Then he occupied Kuwait, which prompted many Arab regimes that live under the care of the US as well as the oil-producing countries to participate in the attack on Iraq and destroy its state, under the pretext of freeing it from the tyrant). The state met the same fate as the tyrant.
The Libyan model collapsed as a result of a popular explosion whose causes Moammar Gadhafi could not understand. He ruled for more than 40 years. He had eliminated the “state,” which he never believed in (because having a leader is enough).
In Yemen, after more than 30 years under Ali Abdullah Saleh, who became an officer accidentally, the country broke down into tribes because he ruled via the tribe, which became his army. So the conflict between the tribes returned to what it was. It became impossible to remove tribalism and restore state power to a central government in a society that never knew the state except superficially.
The rest of the states depend on the presence of oil, because oil is their raison d’être, and those who need that oil created those states. They protected those states and will continue to protect them until the oil wells run dry. Then the people of those states will go back to their original nature.
Egypt remains a model for the state, provided that its regime protects the “state,” which could become a focal point for this vast world called the Arab world.
Morocco has a state with a solid throne, with a neighboring state living in the memories of its revolution.
The remaining states were created via caesarean section for colonial purposes or else are living because of their underground riches, which ensure their protection through an international presence that asserts its influence and that isn’t too bothered by slogans of independence and pride-filled political speeches.
The state is the Arab future, and it will only be achieved through the state.
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