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Towards Comprehensively Reforming Arab Governance, Resource Management

Towards Comprehensively Reforming Arab Governance, Resource Management

Tuesday, 3 December, 2019 - 14:45
Marwan Muasher
Ex-Minister for Foreign Affairs in Jordan
The first wave of Arab revolutions that took eight Arab countries by storm led to very different outcomes. In Syria, Libya, and Yemen, the uprisings descended into ongoing civil wars. In some countries like Morocco and Jordan, they led to the implementation of limited reforms that did not radically alter institutional structures or create a balance between them. In other countries, the regimes retained power, and in fact, became even more authoritarian.       

Tunis, however, is unique in that it is paving a different path. This started with a new social contract that achieved balance among institutions, guarantees individual and collective rights, and ensures that no social group is favored over another. However, democracy in Tunis has yet to adequately address the grave social and economic problems facing the country.          

After the wave of protests was limited to Arab countries where people feared that the situation would degenerate into what it did in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, inaccurate conclusions have been drawn and disseminated by many Arab states as a way to avoid discussing the elephant in the room, namely, that the Arab world does not have the modern tools necessary to manage resources. These range from the principles of equality and citizenship, individual and collective rights, respect for diversity in opinions, religions, and gender, and institutions that protect these principles and guarantee that no group’s interests are advanced over another’s. These institutions would achieve sustainable development based on meritocracy, justice, and equality of opportunities.       
 
Basing their theories on foreign interventions in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, some have suggested that these revolutions were the result of conspiracies. These interventions, however, began after people had rebelled peacefully against authoritarianism, corruption, lack of opportunity, and lack of social justice. They started only after the overt violence and arbitrary murder of citizens practiced by the regimes in those countries. It has also been suggested that what happened in these countries was exceptional and was due to circumstances unique to those countries and that generalizations about the region cannot be made.    

Our notions of democracy, or let’s say, at least of everybody being beneath the law and including more people in decision making, and institutionally challenging corruption, are problematic notions to many Arab governments. They have been entirely ignored or denied as primary reasons behind the revolutions and were responded to by giving out financial packages or limited reforms. The “there is no alternative to the authority other than chaos or political Islam” mantra was repeated on every occasion, and that this binary forces people to accept the status quo, as vacuum is the only alternative. This was most demonstrated in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. 
 
Many societies were believed this dichotomy, as the first wave of Arab revolutions was curtailed after 2013. People returned to their homes, not because their problems were addressed or their demands were met, but because they were afraid of vacuum and the unknown.

The Arab world could have accepted the primary lesson learned from what had happened: we politically and economically lack mature governance. This, however, happened to a minimal extent, while the need for fundamental change in how resources are managed and for strong institutions does not cross the authorities’ minds. Instead, people leaving the streets quickly led to the conclusion that the Arab Spring brought nothing but destruction and that it has been expelled to no return.      

Not only were the economic and political challenges ignored, but another factor was also added in 2014 as oil prices fell to less than 100 dollars per barrel, perhaps for good. The rentier system that rules over some states, some which import while others export it, was consequently weakened. Indeed, this has strained the economic and political systems that rely on financial revenues from oil to sustain themselves.     

Today, waves of protests have swept four more countries in the Arab world that were not part of the first wave, including Sudan, Iraq, Algeria, and Lebanon. These have ignored the aforementioned precautions and warnings. It is no longer possible to say that the Arab Spring has ended. Also, after reaching 12 Arab countries out of a total of 22, it is no longer possible to say that what had taken place was an exception or a foreign conspiracy. This wave is distinguished from its predecessor by political maturity and stubborn insistence on peacefulness even when it is confronted with terror and violence. 

More importantly, what sets aside the second wave is the absolute rejection of the authoritarianism/chaos binary, claiming that it has given the former more than enough time to show its seriousness in changing its ways. Perhaps the Lebanese slogan, “All of them means all of them,” best illustrates this wave that has come to prefer starting from scratch over the status quo entrenched in corruption, unemployment, debt, and hoarding decision-making. The people of these countries have shown resilience despite being ignored and sometimes even repressed by the regime. They are no longer satisfied with alternatives that cover the old administration in a shiny wrapper. Similarly, the Sudanese were not satisfied with replacing Omar al-Bashir with a military council until they achieved their demands. The Algerians are still rejecting any election supervised by the army and are suspicious that that would lead to any change. Iraqis are dying in the hundreds and have not left the street, and the Lebanese are rejecting any old formulas that maintain corruption as it is.

How can protests turn into a serious project addressing political, economic, and social challenges? The first step is to accept that all prior means have been exhausted and cannot be relied on to maintain civil peace. The Arab world lost its means to terrorize using a violent army in 2011 and has lost the means to incentivize financially in 2014. It is necessary to understand that keeping civil peace has new requirements that include broadening the base for decision-making, implementing the law on everyone, adopting economic systems that are based on meritocracy and productivity. As for the old formula, they are no longer viable in the 21st century.

There is an urgent need for Arabs to revise their approach to governance and resource management comprehensively. This revision should include all social groups and be based on effective theoretical frameworks. While no one should advocate for a vacuum, it can only be avoided by changing the old way of doing things and real inclusion in decision-making. For change is smoothest and most beneficial when it emerges through conviction rather than force.   

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