Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Remaking the Arab State

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Remaking the Arab State

Article excerpt

The Arabs face a formidable task-nothing less than rebuilding the entire state structure and system of government in countries as diverse as Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, too, the Ba'athist state is almost certainly doomed, whether President Bashar al-Assad survives at its head or not. It has lasted 48 years, ever since the Ba'ath party seized power in 1963. If it is to outlast the present uprising, it would need to be profoundly recast and remade in order to accommodate several neglected forces in Syrian society-sects, ethnicities, tribes, disgruntled intellectuals and the rural poor among others.

What form of government will replace the rickety Arab structures, some of which have already been brought down, while others are still fighting to survive? What state structures will replace the old autocracies, with their bankrupt one-party rule and their all-powerful military and security apparatus? This is the key question posed by events not only in Damascus, but also in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli and Sana'a. This is the great unknown.

The monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula (with the exception of Bahrain) stand out as islands of relative stability in the current upheaval-possibly the most radical since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. They are protected by their oil wealth, but not by that alone.

Modernized and reformed over the years, their traditional systems of government have, in most cases, proved responsive to the needs of their citizens. They have provided reasonably good governance, whether in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, in Kuwait or Oman, or indeed in Saudi Arabia itself, the dominant power in the Peninsula. Good governance would seem to be the secret of their continued legitimacy.

We all know-because it has been said so often-that the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring want social justice, jobs, freedom from police brutality and arbitrary arrest, a chance to advance in life, better prospects for themselves and their families, a fairer distribution of their country's resources, an end to corruption by a privileged elite, dignity and respect from their rulers. In a word, good governance.

That, above all, is what the Arab world would seem to want, rather than democracy on the Western model, of which the Arabs have had little experience; and for which they have little appetite, if it means any form of Western tutelage.

A problem as yet unresolved is the future role of Islamic parties in the countries which are experiencing, or have experienced, revolutions. In Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen these Islamic movements are now above ground and will undoubtedly figure prominently in the new structures of power. In Syria, the Muslim Brothers-the regime's main enemy since the 1970s-cannot be indefinitely suppressed and will have to be accommodated, one way or the other.

Al-Qaeda-a radical Islamic movement not to be confused with the Islamic mainstream-is active in Yemen, engaging in almost daily gun battles with government forces. In Algeria, an Aug. 26 terrorist attack, claimed by al-Qaeda, against a barracks at Sharshal in the north of the country, killed 18 and wounded many others. Algeria has so far refused to recognize Libya's Provisional National Council precisely because the Council and its agencies include jihadists wanted for crimes in Algeria. Some members of Qaddafi's family have fled to Algeria and found refuge there.

For many Arabs, indeed for most Muslims, the West is highly suspect, and its current rampant Islamophobia a source of angry bewilderment. …

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