x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Habits of authoritarianism still hang over Arab states

Newly "free" countries in the Middle East still are plagued by the same crimes and abuses of the dictatorial days. It is economics, not revolutions, that will make the difference.

The news from the Arab revolutions does not make for happy reading. In Libya, the medical relief organisation Medecins sans Frontieres has pulled out of the city of Misurata because its doctors were being asked to patch up detainees as they were being tortured by the victorious anti-Qaddafi militias.

In Iraq, the government has hanged 34 people so far this year, and these are the ones who did not have the cash to bribe the security forces, who are regularly accused of being the country's largest extortion racket. Egypt, meanwhile, has suffered its worst football disaster, with more than 70 fans killed - either crushed to death in a stampede or knifed - during rioting at a match in Port Said.

It is an old and discredited journalistic trick to take three unconnected incidents and declare them to be part of a "trend". But it is still worth asking what connects these news items and if there are any lessons for the future.

To start with Egypt, football hooliganism is a worldwide phenomenon, and safety at stadiums can only be guaranteed by the most attentive policing, carried out with the active support of the people. In the case of the Al Ahly - Al Masry match, the Egyptian police were clearly incompetent. Having been driven off the streets a year ago by the anti-Mubarak protesters, they looked lost and leaderless.

But even if the disaster is the fault of the police, in the current political vacuum, where many are on the look-out for the "hidden hand" of old regime provocateurs, it will cast a long political shadow.

As for Libya and Iraq, the easy explanation would be to point out that in these countries the dictator was not forced out by popular protest but by foreign forces, overtly in Iraq by the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, and more discreetly in Libya by the semi-hidden hand of Nato.

But that is only part of the explanation. In Arab republics the legacy of authoritarianism - the impunity of the security forces, unequal development and sectarian and regional tensions - cannot be blamed only on the fallen dictator and will not be wiped away by that dictator's fall.

Egypt has been ruled by the security services since the 1952 Free Officers coup. As for Iraq and Libya, the struggles now being played out have been inherent in those countries since independence: first and foremost competition for control of oil revenue and ministerial posts with the vast patronage they bring.

Against the backdrop of this struggle over resources, there is the eternally unresolved problem of the relationship between the capital and the provinces and which region or sectarian group should control the army and the police.

We see this in Libya where the militias are resisting incorporation in the national army until the issue of where real power lies is resolved. Is it Tripoli or Benghazi? How will the oil revenues, on which the vast majority lives, be divided among the regions and their affiliated tribes?

These issues can only be solved by open debate. Egypt and Tunisia have newly elected parliaments. They are going to have to grapple with the burden of power, and the need to seek compromise across political divides. This will be a harsh training ground for the Egyptian parliament's 70 per cent Islamist majority, divided between the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies on the one hand, and the Salafists, led by the Al Nour Party, on the other.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is still reaping the rewards of its years of opposition, will have to take responsibility for governing the country as it is, not as it ought to be, with all the loss of prestige that this implies. The Salafists, whose commitment to parliamentary democracy remains to be proven, will have to decide where they fit in. Perhaps these coalitions will splinter under the strain. The football disaster, and the country's catastrophic finances, leave little time for learning.

Parliaments that are mere talking shops, or stages for posturing politicians, do not last long. They can be shut down by the military, and if they have no record of achievement, the majority will curse the deputies as they are dispersed.

Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, identifies a further problem in the way of parliaments achieving the goal of replacing army-led authoritarianism with a fairer division of power: crony capitalism.

Over the past 10 to 20 years, Egypt and Tunisia have seen their economies grow, but with most of the spoils going to business connected to the ruling powers. This effect of globalisation has heightened social tensions, especially when the beneficiaries are clearly identified as the kin of the ruler.

Only a strong, globally connected small and medium business sector, such as has grown in Turkey under the influence of the European Union, can give the new parliaments the stamina to challenge the military and other entrenched interests.

Unless that transformation happens, Dr Sayigh argued in a recent talk in London, "it is difficult to see where the constituency is that has the votes to empower parliament and to help the politicians in government roll back the armed forces". In the case of Egypt this is required to move the country into genuine democracy, with perhaps some reasonable compromises with the army.

To follow this line of argument, the case of Iraq is not inspiring. Nine years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, new power blocs have formed, but they do no more than argue over the spoils of the Iraqi oil state. Parliament barely functions and corruption is rampant. The prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, seeks to concentrate power in his hands.

With its longer history of constitutional rule, and forced to make its way in the world without the cushion of ample oil revenues, Egypt has a better chance. But if Dr Sayigh is right, then the "Turkish model" is at heart an economic one. Only when you sweep away the crony capitalism and empower a new bourgeoisie will the revolution be complete.



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