I must admit that sometimes I am a bit confused by how some very good people frame their analyses of MENA issues. A recent case in point is a blog by Frederic Hof, one of my favorite writers on the Levant. He writes that the major question for the Arabs is “what will follow the Ottoman system as the true source of political legitimacy? The emerging answer is that for governments to be legitimate, they must ultimately derive their powers from the consent of the governed. This, in my view, is the meaning of the Arab Spring.”
Well, historical antecedents aside…that is a useful, as yet un-validated, position. He goes on to write, “Since the downfall of the four hundred-year empire only ninety years ago, Arabs have struggled to find the location of the stabilizing political legitimacy that once resided in the system of the Sultan-Caliph. Legitimacy has nothing to do with whether people approve or disapprove of the performance of a particular leader or government. It has everything to do with the right of a government to govern, whether it does so well or poorly. It is the system that is important; not the person.”
To speak of the Ottoman system or any of its predecessors as having the “right” to govern the Arab lands any more than other colonial powers turns history a bit on its head. However, his point that “it is the system that is important” is a hypothesis worth testing under the current tempest of transitions in the MENA region.
Perhaps the first consideration is where political legitimacy resides. Since the only clear example of retained legitimacy in North Africa after the Arab uprisings is Morocco, which was not ruled by the Ottomans and certainly did not cede legitimacy to the French and Spanish occupations, the legitimacy question is more applicable to Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. None of these countries yet has a constitution as the basis for governing, and so the jury is still out on the “system” of governance. In the contestation between Islamic parties and their “secular” counterparts, it is unclear where the mantle of leadership will be awarded by “the consent of the governed.” Those who are not fans of the Islamic government in Egypt should as well be concerned about the “tyranny of the majority” from the left or the right.
In a recent Viewpoints paper produced by the Wilson Center, Marina Ottaway analyzes the steps secular parties can take to be more competitive in Tunisia and Egypt. Her central theme is that “the secular opposition…has been unable to develop a clear message, build viable political parties, or overcome its fragmentation.” It is a telling assessment when combined with a recent remark by an Arab head of state visiting Washington, DC, who said that “there is no Arabic or Hebrew word for strategy,” focusing on the need for Arab countries to consult more seriously on complex issues such as Syria and the peace process.
While it may be that political leadership in these countries is still in flux, the bottom line, according to Ottaway is, “The transitions that started with the 2011 uprisings will not lead to a democratic outcome unless a better balance is established between Islamist and secular forces…The real issue is that democracy does not depend on the behavior of one party or faction, but on a pluralistic and balanced political spectrum. And that balance must be established in the electoral arena.” [emphasis added] And here is the challenge of history: How do societies wherein political, religious, ethnic, and socio-economic differences have been exploited for generations regard others as fellow seekers for justice and equality? How do elections, which historically have been engineered to satisfy narrowly defined constituencies, all at once become an expression of the will of the people, of “the consent of the governed?” How do issues of emerging political identities avoid being strapped with religious or personality-driven labels that stereotype their agendas before they are subject to the realities of the political marketplace of negotiation?
Ottaway offers several prescriptions to secular parties on how to capture the high ground in the political landscape: develop a clear message; develop an organization; and unite their leadership. She points out that the Islamic parties in Egypt and Tunisia have yet to articulate clear economic platforms that define their actions for governing. The secular parties “have also failed so far to suggest their own remedies in a way designed to gain broad support.” Let me suggest that perhaps this is an area where the Morocco experience may be helpful. The government’s economic plans are well articulated and targeted but have foundered in winning Parliamentary approval. At least the people know what they voted for, even if it has not yet been delivered.
Ottoway believes that the lack of cohesive secular political parties reflects, in many ways, the “social distance that separates the secular leadership from much of the population.” Again, when I look at Morocco, where the PJD and Istiqlal parties have maintained solid support among their members, they stand in contrast to less cohesive parties elsewhere. As Ottaway remarks, “….they need to decide that the non-glamorous task of building machines is worth the effort and they do not appear to have done so thus far.” This is a lesson across the Maghreb where public patience should not be taken for granted.
Finally, there is the issue of leadership, where “Individuals who in theory share the same ideals of a democratic country that protects human rights and individual freedoms, respects diversity, and takes its place among modern nations are showing little inclination to work together for the common goal.” It is counterintuitive for politicians, who seek the limelight to illuminate their positions, to defer to others and trust in coalition-building in which they are not prominently featured. Many people in the region have long lamented the lack of an Arab Nelson Mandela, but hand-wringing does not enlarge the capacity for thoughtful and effective leadership in the region.
As the Arab peoples embark on perhaps their first realistic opportunity in modern times to own their political legitimacy, the first step may be to actually build a consensus of the governed rather than proclaiming their differences.