A confluence of unprecedented challenges has added renewed urgency to finding answers for a question that has long confounded politics in the Arab world. Competing theories of power, fledgling hegemonies, and strange new diplomatic arrangements are poised to deliver some kind of “new” Middle East in the coming years.
However, no amount of change has managed to substantially transform governance in Middle East and North African countries. This lack of progress, or even substantive discussion of such an important issue, is likely to imperil the fresh surge of optimism in a region quickly embracing dialogue over force of arms and ideological purity in order to resolve some of its most intractable issues.
For the Arab world to successfully chart a path to enduring stability, leaders and governments should not just lean on increased opportunities for dialogue with each other, nor go all in on rapprochement at the expense of everything else. Granted, most of the region’s ills are usually cross-border affairs, but the key to ensuring that negotiated solutions can be implemented, and endure the test of time, lies inward. Unfortunately, the internal dynamics of many Arab states are dominated by intense rivalries and clashes between a new crop of vocal, idealistic forward-thinkers with visions of a responsive state, and an increasingly draconian cabal of ascetic hardliners tethered to antiquated worldviews.
For decades, the latter have consistently failed to determine the exact form of government that is better adapted to a fast-changing world, particularly in terms of addressing the mounting demands of the former. The formula of exchanging government services for public consent has become anachronistic and ineffective, due to massive demographic changes and new societal behavior.
The past decade alone has dramatically transformed Arab people’s perceptions of what their relationship is to the state, and what to expect from their government. In the interim, the lunge toward illiberalism after the “Arab Spring” turmoil appears to have nurtured an apathetic citizenry, resigned to defeat and deference to paranoid regimes. However, as time goes on, the continued failure to rewrite social contracts to deliver solutions instead of woes will lead to another cataclysm that would dwarf the upheaval of just over a decade ago.
So far, however, there seems to be no awareness of the urgency of a rapidly deteriorating situation. The new crop of leaders and the nascent political movements in their wake keep failing to put together coherent and self-sustaining visions of what most Arab publics have come to believe is the role of the state, and what form of government can best deliver on their evolving needs.
This was despite an overwhelming pro-democracy surge in 2011, followed by prolonged internal conflicts, pandemic-induced crises, and endless political malaise. In Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, Sudan, and even Algeria, these internal developments were key turning points for the opposition to launch their visions of the state, and properly center the need for governance reform in their campaigns. Had they done so, not only would nascent political movements have dominated national discourse, they would also have better managed the transformation of popular mobilizations into serious legislative gains needed to oversee the next phase of transition toward inclusive democracies.
Now, however, it is uncertain whether any organic momentum in the pursuit of governance reform will ever emerge, let alone survive repression from the top and apathy from the bottom. Unlike several years ago, thefew remaining opposition movements no longer enjoy broad support from citizens still overwhelmed by crises, and increasingly expectant of state intervention in the consistent provision of social goods, services, access, mobility and security.
Instead, any plans to undo the status quo are met with either deaf ears or derisive dismissals. As a result, an aging class of political elites and the connected few simply continue perpetrating their vision, in which the state is only a vehicle to uphold a limited definition of sovereignty, personified by despots and accessible only to a minority.
The combination of COVID-19, economic disruption, political paralysis, and social unrest, will again test the integrity of governance systems across the Arab world. This is especially true in the civil war-torn states, where actors are still unable to compromise on their visions of the state, and how best to govern through a transition period. It is likely to be even worse for societies that elected to defer their aspirations for hard-won inclusive governments in favor of short-term stability and the comfort of the familiar.
For now, the region is limping along, despite successive pandemic waves, high levels of unemployment particularly among women and youth, sluggish economies, and growing pessimism about the future. Fears of climate change-induced mass migration, food and water insecurities, renewed conflict, and more draconian regimes cloud predictions of what the future has in store for a region that must now fend for itself. Worse yet, the region's laundry list of challenges is even less of a priority going forward as great power competition intensifies in the Indo-Pacific and eastern Europe, while most of the rest of the world is far too preoccupied with their own domestic woes to bother brokering fragile settlements between squabbling rival actors.
Effective governance is important because if the Arab world is not keen on becoming yet another backyard for some other great power, or a battleground for competing interests, it must solve its own problems. However, effective solutions are not going to come via an avalanche of high-level talks or top-level settlements, while ignoring the glaring governance deficits at home. Without reworking citizen-state relationships, establishing responsive state structures, and restoring credibility to participatory mechanisms, any progress toward regional peace and stability will only be fleeting.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a enior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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