Sunday, February 4, 2007

Reform and the Rentier State

Washington, Arab regimes, opposition, reform: a Gordian knot, as Azmi Bishara explains

The democratic transformation of Latin America and Eastern Europe came about when the ruling elites of those countries found it impossible to perpetuate their rule through the usual means and instruments. As social stability verged on total collapse the security services began to think twice before facing down the opposition with a massive campaign of repression. Sometimes they refused to obey, or advised their commanders to change, orders.

It is difficult to grasp the significance of the moment when, in the early 1980s, Lech Walensa and the other leaders of Solidarity realised that they were not about to be liquidated. The days of Prague 1968 and Budapest 1956 were over.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union it is difficult to know just when and how eastern Germans realised the army was not going to open fire on them when they took to the streets in ongoing protests and even rushed the Berlin Wall and started to tear it down. It is hard to pin down the historic moment retroactively. Change had long been in the air in Eastern Europe. It did not swoop down; it unfolded gradually. Every day people would rub their eyes in disbelief that such and such a criticism could be voiced openly and that a protest demonstration would not draw fire, until it eventually dawned on them that no one owned the state and the master of the house was absent, or else too confused to act.

Often, when things reached this stage, the regime tried to change its style of rule, as was the case with Gorbachev, or made concessions to the mass movement, as happened in East Germany. Then, not long afterwards, the reins of initiative slipped out of its hands entirely.

In all cases an alternative project had been brewing and acquiring increasing potency as its constituent political forces, democratic cultural elites and syndicates with political ambitions, demonstrated their credibility. Where did all those opposition members come from so suddenly? Where had they been before then? Such questions are often indicative of ignorance, or an unwillingness to know what one does not want to know. Supporters of socialist regimes did not want to know how many or what type of opposition intellectuals or politicians were in exile, in prison or pacing helplessly in their homes and offices. The important thing is that when official reform remedies fell apart there were political forces ready to take advantage of the opportunity and equipped with the will and the programme to rule. Then, many opportunistic members of the old regime climbed on board.

In the 1980s the Arab world experienced several waves of reform in response to mass uprisings, but the initiative remained securely in the regimes' hands. Heads of state introduced parliamentary elections, "platforms" within the state party and even multi-party systems. Soon, however, it became apparent that real power remained exactly where it had been and the newly established parties quickly became part of the status quo and fought to protect it. In Morocco, Egypt and Jordan political parties came to perceive any threat to the regime as a threat to themselves. When, in Algeria and Sudan for example, the regime lost the initiative the army quickly intervened to restore it.

Arab countries have not undergone democratic transformation or substantial political reform. Leaving aside such debatable questions as the nature of the Mameluke state and its despotic legacy, the fact is that the Arabs are the largest group of people yet to receive their right to self-determination. Citizenship has been deferred, as has the problem of the institutionalised state, the role of the army in modernisation and in the development of a state-based -- as opposed to a pan-Arab -- national identity. Allowing for a rather rough generalisation, I would argue that the particularity of the Arab situation can be attributed to three fundamental factors.

The first of these is the rentier state, with its ability to use oil revenues, remittances from abroad and other such revenues to purchase loyalty and create release vents for economic and political pressures while keeping the fundamental relationship between society and the state and the economic and political orders intact. Fluctuations in oil revenues have affected large sectors of the Arab populace that migrated in the search of work and then returned to their homelands. They appear unlikely to migrate again and are likely to grumble.

Oil money has corrupted the media and a considerable segment of erstwhile critical intellectuals. The rentier condition has, at its most extreme, transformed entire states, such as Lebanon, as they embark on one huge spending spree. Money is spent on construction, on services that become the substitute for an economy, on forms of consumption commensurate with revenues from abroad rather than the capacities of local production. The volume of Lebanese exports is less than $1 billion while its imports exceed $6 billion. These figures speak volumes. How does the country make up the difference? How can the Lebanese afford all this extravagance, including importing servants from countries whose balance of trade is a hundred times better than the country that is importing the servants? It is paid for by the income generated from things produced elsewhere that find their way through various channels into the country. Under such conditions social classes are not social classes, values are not values and the national framework is not a term of reference.

A second factor is the crisis of legitimacy which is associated with the espousal of pan-Arab national causes and/ or the Palestinian cause. The latter issue has functioned as both a stabilising and destabilising factor. Regimes have used it to draw attention away from domestic conflicts, to export internal contradictions and to otherwise postpone having to address deeply rooted domestic problems. The regimes' opponents, on the other hand, have used it as a means to crticise those in power. There is no need to dwell at length on this issue. The legitimacy crisis has worked to obstruct the construction of an Arab nation by its people. It has created a situation whereby the potential collapse of government threatens the collapse of society because what keeps society together is not a national economy or an overarching national affiliation but rather the regime and its network of relations within the framework of regional states, some of which are totally artificial creations.

The third factor, Islam, works at various levels. Arab regimes have used Islamic rhetoric as an alternative means for establishing their legitimacy, while simultaneously exploiting the rise of non- democratic radical Islamist movements as a way of intimidating their societies. Meanwhile, state repression of the non- democratic Islamist alternative works to make that agenda the only apparent alternative. Political movements without a martyrdom cult tend to withdraw quickly from the fray when faced with repression. And Islamist rhetoric and terms of reference reverberate deeply among the masses as well as among the ruling milieu, even if the Islamist movement is a modern and unfamiliar phenomenon.

To the foregoing we can add a fourth factor: the existence of oil in this region, which has made the US adopt stability as a priority and, therefore, oppose any change, especially during the Cold War period.

Some longstanding champions of democracy, and some latter day democrats who climbed on board, whether in the pursuit of their own interests or because it is now fashionable, came to believe that domestically the situation had settled into a face-off between the regime and non- democratic forces. If reform is to come, they believe, it has to be given a push from outside.

The Americans gave that push, at the cost of enormous bloodshed. No one can deny that the behaviour of Arab regimes towards protest demands has changed remarkably, except with respect to Islamist movements. Many democratic activists feel the regimes have their hands tied and that a form of panic has set in however much those that are panicking try to deny it. However, the alternative has not presented itself yet. The regimes themselves have scrambled to come up with alternatives, up to and including entire cabinet reshuffles. The order established by the 1952 Revolution in Egypt remains intact today, in spite of fluctuations in policies and the appearances of entirely new casts of characters. So, too, it has been possible to maintain the system of rule in Lebanon following the Syrian withdrawal.

American belligerency towards this region may have been "positive" in this respect, but it has not brought forth a democratic alternative, neither here nor anywhere else in the world. That old- school infant terrible of the US national security establishment Richard Haas let the cat out of the bag when he wrote that democracy is not exportable. It is not just an electoral system, or an "electocracy", he argued, but a question of the distribution, balancing and checking of power. These systems and values cannot be exported. The bloody and incomplete venture in Iraq and the degeneration of the new regime there into rival militias fuels claims that the US is unqualified to export democracy.

Fine -- the Americans cannot impose democracy, assuming for the sake of argument that this is what Washington really wants to do. So, where does that leave reform?

In an attempt to please the Americans Arab regimes have managed to produce some cosmetic alterations. Others, more cunningly, sought to evade outside pressure for reform by bartering their stance on US hegemony in the region or moving as close as was comfortable to the Israel-US stance on a just solution to the Palestinian cause. In all cases they have struggled to keep hold of the initiative, all the more so after the US sent out a couple of very disturbing messages to its non- democratic allies. The first was that Washington will not stop raising the alarm over the power of the fundamentalist Islamist movements. After Iraq it has become increasingly convinced of the need to reach an accommodation with the vast Islamist trend which, precisely because it is so vast and variegated, will reform itself if given the opportunity to participate freely in the political process. The second message was that preserving stability is no longer a priority. "Constructive destabilisation" is the new catch phrase. It arose from the conviction that the perpetuation of existing regimes produces neither stability nor democracy, and without these the global threat that manifested itself on 11 September will remain.

Meanwhile, right-wing and pro-Israeli circles in the US are disconcerted by what they consider to be the second Bush administration's backsliding on its aggressive strategy to combat terrorism. It let Iran negotiate its entry into the WTO without compelling Tehran to relinquish its strategic aims. It wants to keep Saudi Arabia as stable as possible, because all that interests the US in that country is the security of oil production and the stability of prices. And, it is going far too easy on the PA.

The fact is that both sides in this imaginary dialogue are mistaken if they think that exporting democracy is an American creed or that Washington has "given up the fight" and regimes can now breathe easier. There are ideologues in the White House who are now borrowing slogans once touted by the Arab left. Arabs and democracy are not mutually exclusive they are saying in a marked reversal from the racist claim to the contrary which was used to justify American policies in the past. The latest neo-conservative tack of denouncing the racism of that claim is a form of do-gooding with far-from-angelic designs. The aim of playing up to Arab sensitivities, here, is to impose a new form of American hegemony that overlaps very neatly with Sharon's policies. However, there are also those in the White House who believe that Washington's function is to safeguard American interests not to teach people how to rule themselves and certainly not to embark on wars for that purpose.

From this perspective, American policy appears riddled with inconsistencies. It is not about to escalate tensions with China, let alone go to war with it, so that it can teach it all about democracy and how to rule itself. With Libya and Saudi Arabia it has shown consummate patience, while it has turned up the pressure on Egypt and has openly clamoured for regime change in Syria. If Washington no longer holds preserving stability and the status quo sacred, this does not mean that it now holds destabilisation and change sacred, or at least not for all countries. Meanwhile, it also realises that it can't hurt to keep up the pressure for reform. As a form of blackmail it has worked to keep Arab regimes on the defensive and scrambling to placate Washington, and even Israel, while forestalling any solidarity between them.

Arab regimes might find themselves restrained as never before in their ability to repress opposition forces. This, however, does not obviate the need for democratic forces to formulate a strategy for change. The dilemmas facing the process of democratisation remain the same. The US will not solve them, and may even exacerbate them as the tragic Iraq escapade demonstrates. It is up to Arab democratic forces to produce the alternatives. These must take the form of a national democratic agenda that clarifies the form of the democratic alternative and provides answers to the problems of the rentier state and the distortion of values it produces, to the question of the nation state and its relationship with pan-Arabism and to the relationship between an Islamic legitimisation of the regime and the Islamist justification for overturning regimes. Any strategy that fails to address these complex issues will not be equipped to hold its own.