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The King and the Elephant - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In an interview with “Al-Arabiya” satellite television channel, Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former Syrian Vice President (1984-2005), said: “I expect them – the pillars of the Syrian regime – to be in prison within three months”. Yet the veteran politician did not explain to us how that would happen.

Perhaps the biggest misconception surrounding the Arab uprisings – or the so-called “Arab Spring” – is that the will of the people changed, or will change, the regime. But the facts on the ground tell a different story. There has been a change in the pyramid of power in two countries, Tunisia and Egypt, thanks to the intervention of the army in both cases, either to expel the president or force him to resign. In countries where the army, or at least some sections of the military, still stand by the president, the uprisings remain unable to change the regime despite months passing and hundreds of demonstrations and public protests.

Where is the Twitter and Facebook generation, with regards to the events taking place in Libya, Syria and Yemen? It has become clear that those in possession of arms and men still have the ability to fight cases of civil disobedience, and play for time until the popular momentum subsides, and the masses return to their homes. The majority cannot demonstrate every day if they do not see any response to their sacrifices, both internally and abroad.

There are those who argue that the Gaddafi regime in Libya, or the Baathist regime in Syria, can no longer continue to govern, and that the justifications for their survival have been exposed. Thus we will not have to wait much longer until change occurs. The problem with this interpretation is that it assumes that change will be better than the current reality, and that the departure of these regimes is all that is needed to convert the popular uprisings into pluralistic democratic systems of government.

In fact, these people are guilty of making the same mistake committed by the Bush administration when it occupied Iraq and dismantled its institutions in 2003. The removal of the tyrant and the symbols of the regime – whose images were printed on a pack of playing cards – did not succeed in bringing peaceful and civil change to Iraq. With the exception of elections that were overshadowed by sectarianism, Iraq as a state has failed to restore normality to its economy and security, not to mention the government’s provision of services, and the country has transformed into an arena of sectarian warfare, murder and terrorism. The country is now a mere extension of Iran’s influence. The only thing preventing the total disintegration of the state is the fact that U.S. forces remain stationed on the ground.

There is a looming catastrophe facing the Arab countries which have been ignited by the fire of uprising and rebellion, namely the possibility of becoming failed states. In the case of Yemen, the threat of division, poverty, and the spread of al-Qaeda is clear. However in states such as Libya and Syria there is the threat of civil war, or the possibility of encountering a crisis which would weaken the chances of civilian rule.

The advocates of the “Arab Spring” – or the revolution – in our region are right about the tyranny and corruption of the existing regimes, but the political crisis in the Arab world cannot be reduced to the dictator and his corrupt inner circle, rather our regional countries suffer a structural problem in their systems of governance, in addition to the problem of tyranny. This structural problem stems from the absence of a stable economy and institutions.

Arab countries do not produce, and their economic performance is extremely modest, with the exception of Libya which has oil. The rest, like Syria and Yemen, are experiencing an economic failure that will be difficult to resolve even after the overthrow of the regime. The regimes in these countries, despite their negative traits, have the ability to conduct the affairs of the state, and here the Arab uprisings are facing a closed door. If they succeed in toppling the regime they may not be able to create a better system due to the lack of institutions required to establish a new constitution, regulations, and legislation. Furthermore, how will these revolutionaries be able to create a better economic and industrial reality, in order to meet the aspirations of those demonstrating on the Arab streets?

Perhaps this is what the Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has realized, warning of the unsustainable “revolutionary” situation in Egypt – especially with regards the “constitution first” campaign. This situation is weakening the Egyptian economy, and delaying the opportunity for the country and the people to return to normality.

With each day that the regimes of Gaddafi, al-Assad, or Saleh are able to continue in power, this means a decrease in the ability of the uprising to produce a successful change. It is true that the days of these regimes are numbered, but their ability to delay the inevitable will lead to the failure of the entire experience. This will, over time, allow chaos to reign in these countries, ruining their economic capabilities, not to mention the human losses [that will occur as a result of this].

I am not trying to defend the status quo here, but it would be extremely beneficial for those who encourage –or welcome – the revolutions to bear in mind that popular uprisings are transitions with uncertain consequences, opening up to different scenarios, some for the better, and others worse [than the present situation].

These countries have ethnic, sectarian, and regional problems, and are still underdeveloped in terms of their institutions and economies. For them to enter a transitional state now may only add more fuel to the fire, in countries that are already ablaze.

Let me draw your attention to Beji Caid el Sebsi in Tunsia, Hussein Tantawi in Egypt, Mustafa Abdul Jalil in Libya, [Abdul Halim] Khaddam in Syria, and the members of the Joint Meeting Parties [in Yemen]. All of them were part of the former regime and are now leading the process of change, or aspiring to do so!

Why is that? Hundreds of thousands initially took to the streets to protest about the situation, then demands [for reform] became Fridays of Departure, but nobody knew what should happen next. Thus it was not surprising that men and parties with political expertise took over control of matters from the demonstrators who were united only in their anger. Therefore, those who imagine that the Arab world will transform because of the ability of the people demanding freedom, justice and democracy are being extremely optimistic. Demonstrations alone do not produce better regimes; rather good governance stems from ideas and production, i.e. a mix of institutional development and economic growth.

With regards to that, British Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell warned that the more serious problems will come after the removal of the regime, namely the attempt to build a state of institutions and rights, on the ruins of an already fragmented society. In a 50-page report consisting of proposals for a transitional plan in Libya, there is controversy over whether or not to disband the army and security institutions following the departure of Gaddafi or whether to establish committees to investigate their practices. Preserving the unity of the army, and pushing towards reconciliation and amnesty would create a peaceful transition for the country – even taking into account Gaddafi’s modest [governmental] institutions – because dissolving the existing regime does not necessarily mean that there is a capacity to establish new institutions in their place.

If this is the attitude towards Gaddafi’s regime, which does not have any genuine institutions, only people’s committees – not to mention Syria and Yemen, which at least have some of the fundamental elements of a state – then the revolutionaries’ call for comprehensive change may only serve to further complicate the situation in these countries.

In his masterpiece, “Elephant, the King of All Times”, Saadallah Wannous (1941-1997) tells the story of a king who owned a huge elephant that he liked so much that he released it to wander the city, rather than be confined to a cage. Yet the elephant wreaked havoc in the city, eating whatever he saw before him, running over people and breaking things without anyone daring to chase it away, or use its bridle to transport it somewhere else. The chaos and damage inflicted upon the people of the city and their property prompted them to go to the king and complain, but the guards and ministers intervened at this point, since their livelihoods and security were at stake. In other words, they were beneficiaries of the elephant’s existence. Thus when the people came before the king to complain, they could not present their case as they wanted, and instead one of them said: “Your majesty, your elephant feels lonely, so we came to suggest that he get married”.

Popular uprisings in the Arab world may have been able to remove the president, or besiege his regime, but they may not be able to overcome the political, religious, economic and cultural obstacles that created this totalitarian reality, and gave rise to men like Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Bashar al-Assad.

The president may leave, but the elephant of underdevelopment will still wreak havoc in the city.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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