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Opinion: The Problem with Arab Political Elites | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration calling for the departure of the Islamist-led ruling coalition at Kasbah Square where the government headquarters are located, in Tunis in this file photo of November 15, 2013 (REUTERS/Anis Mili)

For the political elites in the Arab world to accept the idea that their societies are witnessing a real period of tribulation whose consequences cannot be postponed, they not only have to rethink the nature of their development policies, but also adopt political reforms and develop freedoms in their countries. But they also need to carry out an intellectual revolution in terms of scrutinizing basic intellectual concepts, without which any reform will be meaningless.

The way in which some of the ruling elites act, make decisions, formulate policies, and sign conventions and agreements is necessarily the product of a certain political culture.

From this perspective, it is impossible to continue with the official political culture prevalent in the second half of the twentieth century. Given the developments and transformations in society, this culture is neither valid nor accepted today. For instance, the concept of political power should be detached from authoritarianism, the top–down relationship between the state and people, patriarchy, and seeing the people merely as subjects. On the face of things these issues may appear irrelevant. But it is impossible for patriarchal mentalities ruling republican regimes to produce a modern political culture that is responsive to the global values of humanism and modernity.

The core concept that concerns this article is that of the prestige of the state. It has been one of the most controversial concepts recently circulating in Arab media and political statements. As a concept, it is, I believe, a good example to look at and will help bring things into focus.

Is today’s concept of the prestige of the state the same as the one prevalent during the 1960s when Arab countries began to gain their independence one after the other? The concept of the prestige of the state was then based on two principles: first, political legitimacy, which was then associated with achieving independence from colonial control; second, the nature of Arab societies at the time and the Arabs’ readiness to be subjects rather than citizens due to their educational, cultural and economic situation. We can conclude that the political elites ruling in the early stages of the building of independent Arab states somehow deliberately mixed national prestige and dictatorship together. This confusion persisted, with relative differences, in many countries.

Within this context, we can partially understand the way in which the ruling and cultural elites, as well as the opposition and many Arabs in general, felt protective towards the prestige of their states—and their condemnation of what they saw as any attempts to undermine it.

The image of the politician is surrounded by a halo of sanctity in the Arab imagination. Yet, some in our societies follow with pleasure how newspapers in France, Britain and the US scrutinize and criticize their political figures.

The aim of tackling this topic is not to defend chaos and disorder, which is unrelated to freedom of expression and its social and communal practices. The aim is to alert people to the need to reexamine the concept of the prestige of the state, and for people to understand the idea that criticism—however bitter—does not damage the state as much as it shows how politically advanced and open to criticism and the freedom of expression a given country is. I believe that the purely political concept of the prestige of the state is a thing of the past. The majority of the recent Arab protests that violated the prestige of the state had purely economic demands. Even Arab revolutions are basically the product of economic disappointment and governments’ failures to live up to the expectations of Arab societies, particularly the youth. Within this framework, we can conclude that the economic dimension has become a key component of the prestige of the state—in contrast with the idea that this prestige is purely political.

The economy is the beating heart of a state’s prestige and legitimacy. The more capable the economy is of solving social problems, the more stable the country. Therefore, pompous speeches about the prestige of the state and the glories of history are meaningless. The relationship between the state and society is based on a clear and accurate contract. The most important terms of this contract are the government’s economic commitments, because only unemployment, poverty and a rising cost of living can mobilize people—particularly Arabs.