It is not contentious to admit that the character of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, killed earlier this year, was not fully known until after his assassination; an earthquake that shook Lebanese local politics and left a lasting impact on the region. Obviously, everyone knew him as a successful businessman and a shrewd politician with a wide range of foreign connections. Many Lebanese were recipients of his social and charitable work. However, what his assassination revealed, and what most observers hadn’t realized, is the wide popularity of a man who constituted a new and unique type of leader, in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab World. It is the model of the businessman with a social and political project who entered the world of politics through civil means and invested his foreign associations and his capital for the service of his country, Lebanon, and its citizens.
It has long been the case that crossing from the world of business to that of politics was frowned upon in the Arab World. This unwelcome attitude can be explained by the negative image the political and intellectual elites have of those involved in business activities, judging them to be exploitative, selfish, and greedy. It can be explained by the ambiguous relationship between business and government which seeks to control the former, and the belief that politics operate in a dangerous world.
With this in mind, it is no surprise to record the absence of businesses form the major political events in the region, both in pre-independence times of national liberation struggles, and in the post-independence era. Two models have largely dominated the Arab political arena. They are that of the ideologue master and the revolutionary officer. In fact, the convergence of these two types constituted the engine of Arab politics.
The master of ideology was responsible for formulating the slogans and ideals that ruled the Arab World after the failure of the “reformist Imam” model whose most prominent example was Mohammed Abdu, the open-minded Egyptian reformer of religious institutions, and the failure of the “enlightened intellectual” type summarized by Taha Hussein, the scholar who was well acquainted with Western culture and wanted to incorporate modern liberal values in Egyptian society. Arab ideological and political organizations, whether nationalist or leftist, were mostly attached to the “ideologue master” type, such as Sati Al Hussari and Michel Aflak, or Al Mahdi bin Baraka. The Islamists also had their master ideologue in Imam Hassan Al Banna. Just as with the revolutions in the Far East, the master of ideology in the Arab World joined forced with the revolutionary officer, who often belonged to the same social background, and adopted a similar set of ideas which supported the revolution and brought both to power in a power sharing agreement. However, the most important change in Arab societies in the last decades was the emergence of a new character on the scene, the businessman, by two routes.
In the first instance, businessmen entered the political arena by way of the economic liberalization of many Arab countries in the 1980s and 1990s under the pressure from an exacerbating economic crisis. This happening through the process of privatizing the parts of the economy that were, previously, under the control of the state. Eventually, this weakened the state’s ability to manage and control social mobility and to integrate its citizens. A rising bourgeois class benefited from inheriting the bankrupt state’s privatized assets, bought in mostly mysterious and illegal circumstances, and the new freedom to communicate with the outside world, which, in turn, opened avenues of activity beyond national boundaries.
These men of business became economic and social actors who even, in some instance, managed to surpass the capabilities of the state in providing employment, whilst remaining independent of it. Some businessmen also invested in the economies of the future like the media and entertainment sectors (television, cinema, and satellite communications) which caught the imagination of people.
Businessmen also entered the world of politics through the strong connections between business and civil society which depended on private capital for its growth and developments. Clearly, these organizations have an important role to play in societies that are going through a period of democratic transformation such as ours. With Arab businessmen now involved in politics, it is wrong to try and sideline them or neutralize their influence in this process. In fact, the Arab businessman plays an vital role that we can’t afford to denigrate as some leftists would want us to.
Opponents of the late Prime Minister Hariri belatedly acknowledged they were wrong in their evaluation of the Lebanese leader when they accused him of bringing wild capitalism to the country and of undermining the economy by running huge debts. After his death, his rivals realized that the economic development after the Lebanese civil war could not have been achieved by anyone other than Hariri.
A word of warning is in order, in this instance, against the financial world being given permission to corrupt politics, as has occurred in many Arab and international countries. It is important to recognize, however, that political liberalism has always organically been attached to national capitalism which has found in the values of freedom and positive competition an intellectual and ideological framework that is necessary for political mobility. Capitalism, as such, will always remain loyal to liberal values. But we ought to always distinguish between capitalism that serves nationalist and developmental goals and the corrupt organized criminal organizations that usually flourish in between the crisis of the nation-state and the penetration of the financial and industrials lobbies representing the multinationals.