Exhausted by war, searching for peace
TAHER NASHAT AL-MASRI Former Prnime Minister of JordanI would like to address you about the chronic weakness of civil institutions in the Arab World and the role this weakness has played in the chaos we are witnessing in the region.
The issue of institutional strength has preoccupied me from early in my public service. In my time as a public official, I have been supportive in the effort to build institutions that would flourish irrespective of the presence of a particular leader. This, of course, would seem like an obvious thing to do and not something for which one should receive credit. In reality, of course, many developing countries continue to suffer from weaker institutional frameworks, often overshadowed by a strong central leadership and security apparatus that considers personal loyalty to be more significant than institutional robustness. So while it is self-evident that a leader should build a country’s institutional capacity, it is frequently not the case. This trend toward a weaker civil society and a stronger security state is a key and unintended consequence of the post-9/11 world, with so much money pouring into intelligence and security services at the expense of civil institutions.
By the way, it is not difficult to identify leaders who care about doing their job objectively – and building the institutions of their country – from those that just want to curry favor with their supervisors.
Listen to their speeches: those who spend a great deal of time praising their leadership usually fall into the second category. Thus, the focus by leaders on building power over effectiveness has led to a failure to build strong civil institutions. The state revolves around a person or a group, not around the needs of
the broader society. This is the “Personalization of the State,” with the leader becoming the state, a Middle Eastern interpretation of “l’etat c’est moi.” In Libya, 42 years of rule by Gaddafi, representing the state in almost every sense, resulted in desolation. A country with millions of citizens aspiring to live in dignity witnessed little development in its civil institutions.
When Gaddafi was swept away, there was no state around which people could rally. In many third world countries including states, diversity should have been a source of strength. Instead, it was viewed by the leadership as a threat. Again, the institutions of civil society were kept weak while the security apparatus gained power. Indeed, one can devote an entire lecture on the consistent inability of Arab societies to embrace the diversity within them and to build on it. Instead, a regrettable number of communities have focused on insulating themselves from others. (This is manifested in so many ways: as Kurds, Sunnis or Shiites in Iraq; as Muslim or Coptic in Egypt; as Arab or Mazices in Algeria; as Sunni or Shiite across the Gulf; and as many of those combined in the incredibly diverse Lebanon).
The personalization of the state is of significant importance on many levels. Locally, it leads to bad services for citizens. But on a more macro level, consistently weak institutions create weak states, with citizens that neither trust the state nor feel loyalty to it. You need citizens who believe in the nation in order to build it. So a weak judiciary leads to citizens that cannot depend on the unbiased enforcement of laws, who seek alternatives to protect their rights and who thus question the supremacy of the law. It is therefore not surprising that Arab states fare poorly in the rule of law index published by the World Justice Project.
Likewise, a poor health care system leads citizens to find alternatives and to feel that their state is not satisfying their needs. Where the state’s institutions are not capable of satisfying the needs of citizens, alternatives will present themselves. Thus Islamic groups – on both sides of the equation – stepped into the void created by weak state institutions in many Arab states. Weak states with weak institutions have opened the door for the chaos that we see around you.
The conclusion of the consistently weak institutions of the Middle East is that we are witnessing the systematic destruction of the nation-state, leading to a series of humanitarian and other catastrophes that are engulfing the region and spilling over into Europe and the rest of the world. There are many causes for these catastrophes, but a major one is the fact that the Arab world failed to create the state with strong institutions, with institutional memory and responsibility, with independence and competence, and all the other attributes of strength and stability.
Instead of building a state, Arab systems, concentrated on building narrower institutions run by loyalists. In Arabic, the differenc is between “Nitham” and “Dawleh,” or roughly translated, the difference between a regime and a state.
I will not dwell on the difference between the regime and the state, since you are all experienced public servants. Suffice it to say that the imperative driving regimes is self-perpetuation and not democracy, fairness or objectivity. Regimes often undermine the strength and independence of institutions and subjugate them, while states seek to build them.
So what will happen to the Arab World, with its weak institutions and weakening states? What will happen to the countries, like Jordan or the GCC states? They have to adopt new policies and methods to transform their societies and reform their countries. Hopefully, they will be strong enough to withstand any shocks that may come their way. We are seeing very important reforms in many of these countries; notice, however, that these reforms are rarely about political or democratic inclusiveness. They are about economic efficiency, which is a worthy goal but ultimately not sufficient.
Young populations with access to social media are increasingly aware of their rights; it will be important for the stable countries of the Middle East to ensure that they can give a voice to these populations. What will happen to those countries engulfed in conflict, such as Libya, Syria, Iraq or Yemen?
It is hard to say, but I fear that the picture is not bright.