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A Re-Interpretation of Arab Political Transformation

Mar 13 , 2015
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The year of 2014 witnessed the most serious fallout of the promising political transformation of the Arab world, dubbed the “Arab Spring” in the West. Several Arab nations were still in varying states of turmoil while ISIS began shaking the regional order. Despite increased attention on the region and even discussion of intervention, the rationale and dynamisms of the transformation have not been sufficiently explained academically.

It is actually the competing political intentions of different actors that have been guiding the interpretation of the movement. The West regards the transformation of political systems as moving from an authoritative dictatorship to a more democratic western model. Thus the name “Arab Spring.” Due to the Western media dominance, the concept of “Arab Spring” has become widely visible in the world. As the U.S. had been promoting democracy in the region all along, President Barack Obama even excitedly claimed that the U.S. would stand on the right side of history.

Ever since the very beginning, the Islamic Republic of Iran labeled that same movement as the “Islamic awakening.” As the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said on May 2, 2011, the people’s awakening in the Middle East and North Africa is a continuation of the Iranian nation’s great movement (Islamic revolution). Hence, Iran established the Islamic Awakening Conference with Akbar Velayeti, a veteran diplomat, as secretary general. Iran also organized the first international Islamic awakening conferences on September 17-18, 2011, and the international conferences of youths and women respectively on January 29, 2012 and July 10-11, 2012.

These are the two typical, but also competitive, interpretations of the Arab political transformation. Though both of the arguments do have merit, the movement in the Arab world in the last four years is neither a transformation from authoritative political system to western democracy, nor from secular to religious. It is nothing but a reconstruction of political legitimacy. And the transformation can be regarded as successful so long as the regimes of the Arab states can reconstruct their political legitimacy, whether they are the old regimes under challenge or new ones as a result of the turmoil.

In political science, legitimacy usually refers to the popular acceptance of an authority, in particular, a regime. The West regards a general election as a main, if not a sole, source of legitimacy. It is reasonable for their own cases since they believe theirs are more advanced politically, economically and socially. But it does not mean that that criterion should be put on the countries with other cultural backgrounds and with less developed economies.

It is academically recognized and politically accepted that there are two other kinds of sources of legitimacy in addition to election. The first category should be the values and ideologies that a regime abides by as well as the charisma of a leader. While Arab nationalism used to be enshrined as a major ideology, Islamism has all along been deeply attached to emotions. The charisma of leaders like Yasser Arafat of Palestine and Gamel Nasser of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s are also part of the authority’s legitimacy.

The second category should be the tangible achievements of a particular government. The achievements could be political advancement and popular foreign policy. Above all, economic development is particularly important.

Though the concept of political legitimacy is always present, different eras demand different legitimacies. During the years of movements for national rights, Arab nationalism and charisma were major sources of legitimacy. In the post-nationalist movement period, people became more concerned about economic development and their livelihood.

Political legitimacy is a result of construction based on solid and objective facts. Legitimacy first and foremost is something objective. A rose by any other name smells sweet. Something that is not a rose can never smell like a rose. An economically collapsed state by whatever means cannot have its people believe its economic success. The people can feel it.

The breakout of the “Arab Spring” is not because their political systems are founded on illegitimate causes, but because they failed to meet the needs of the people. Gamal Nasser led the Free Officers’ movements toppling down the Farouk Monarchy in 1952, founding the Arab Republic of Egypt, and later led Arab nationalism across the Arab world. He personally was applauded as a hero not only in Egypt, but in the rest of the Arab world. It could be said that leaders with similar charisma include Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Hafez Assad of Syria.

Other leaders of the Arab world also had different kinds of charisma. Hosni Mubarak used to be regarded as a hero because of his wisdom and bravery in the war against Israel. It was Mubarak, the Commander of the Air Force that had orchestrated the famous surprise attack on Israeli soldiers on the east bank of the Suez Canal in 1973. During that battle, Egyptian pilots hit 90 percent of their targets. Ben Ali of Tunisia had also been regarded as a hero when he replaced aging Habib Bourguiba through a bloodless coup d’état in 1987.

But unfortunately, all these Arab heroes in the era fighting for national rights had not been able to meet the needs of the people in the post-nationalist movement. They failed to deliver economic benefits to their people, indulged in political nepotism and cronyism, were unwilling to have fair and transparent elections, and were even ready to pass down their supreme power to their own next generations. By these, they not only distanced themselves from the people, but also eroded the legitimacy of themselves and the regime as well.

The future decades will see the most difficult efforts for the Arab world in constructing their political legitimacy. For Arab states, To obtain legitimacy, effective elections, balance between religion and secularism, and economic improvemetns will be necessary. Those who do the best in the three areas will have the biggest success in transformation; those who fail to deliver the three will have to deal with instabilities.

Though domestic affairs per se, the political transformation also needs external assistance. But what external actors like China and the U.S. can do is not recommended for models of governance, since the Arab world will have to decide upon one of their own. However as major economies,, both China and the U.S. can enhance their economic involvement, which should include economic assistance and investment for the purpose of improving the livelihoods of people across the Arab world. That will serve to enhance the legitimacy of their regimes.

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