Understanding obstacles to democracy and dialogue in Arab countries [Archives:2007/1030/Opinion]

March 5 2007

Dr. Mohamed Al-Qahiri
Chaos, immobilism and rent are opposed factors to the conditions of economic prosperity and democracy. Given its traditionalism, the dominant coalition despises minorities, women, intellectuals and artists. That explains other obstacles to the democracy and dialogue in the society. In similar situations modern Medias cannot play a major role. In fact these Medias represent a communicational revolution not an informational revolution; the last requires philosophical and thought maturity and not only a speedy communication. And advanced Medias are two edges arm; they can more likely convey the traditional information and thoughts than carry modern thought or contribute generalising and establishing dialogue culture.

One can consider the obstacles to democracy and dialogue in Arab countries by applying behavioural theories and models of modern analysis. In a research of mine I applied game theory's principles to the case of Arab societies. I have found that some results apply to the deal in Arab countries. In Yemen, we have first three groups as players: (i) tribal sheikhs; (ii) military officials; and (iii) religious group. Although these groups represent a minority of population they have the greatest political influence in the current structure of societies. Often these groups form dominating coalitions upon politics. The main characteristic of these groups is traditionalism. So, from here we design them by traditional coalitions. The players share roles in a way that sheikhs and officials fulfil military tasks (coercion apparatus) of the coalition and religious group fulfil the ideological task (propaganda apparatus). At the end the performances of both apparatus are implicated in the traditional ultimate goal of intimidation and submission.

Historically, religious groups played the role of ideological apparatus of the traditional coalition. But in the periods the nationalist and socialist thoughts appeared, the nationalist and/or socialist intellectuals replaced the religious group playing the role of ideological apparatus of the coalition in power. Such coalition can be classified as a nationalist or patriotic. But even in the period of such coalition the situations of chaos and immobilism followed. And generally the period was short and regimes returned to the arena of traditional domination under tribal, military or religious leadership. There is another case where big farmers and/or business men replaced tribal sheikhs; the coalition in place toke a deformed liberal pattern which depended on external support. It did not serve the conditions of prosperity and democracy.

Of course, the traditional coalition in power used to integrate some intellectuals, business men, technocrats, etc. to the administrative, partisan and Medias apparatus of the power. But the integration was often done according to a sharing formula. The formula implies that these modern groups accept to serve as a facade without influence in decision making of the coalition. In counterpart of that role they obtain rent from secondary sources (posts, business monopoly, corruption, bribes, etc.). While sheikhs, officials and religious groups keep for themselves the leadership of the coalition, the decision making and the main sources of rent linked to the state budget (oil income, credit and aid funds, centralisation of public revenues and expenditures, sharing and intermediation in foreign bargaining, etc.)

The domination of the traditional coalition has two results. The first is the domination of traditional politics that rule out the material and cultural conditions of democracy. Often the progress of democracy takes one of two routes. Either the progress of an economical (say capitalist) class whose interests depend on the conditions for economical and social integration in which individualism rise in detriment of tribal and religious appurtenances and allegiances; or, by another way, in which the modern groups can dominate politically thanks to a maturity of philosophical and enlightening culture (Marxist or social democracy) that set new values opposed to the traditional ones. But the traditional domination excludes these two ways.

The second result is that the power of the traditional coalition and the rent extortion are long lasting despite the internal cyclical conflicts like coups d'etat or brief disputes between the coalition's components. The political change resulting from cyclical conflicts is in one hand only a change of the leader group among the three of the coalition and in the other hand a change of the kind of the rent. In the real world, it follows from these changes two alternative cases: either chaos or immobilism.

We observe that when sheikhs or military group is the leader of the coalition the situation gets into the chaos (in the sense of disorder or lawless state). While when the religious group is the leader the situation is led to an absolute immobilism. Chaos is explained by the fact that sheiks or military officials seek a material and large rent destined to wasting and ostentatious consumption. The chaos (wars, kidnapping for examples) is preferred since it permits pillage, confiscation, robbery, ransom and corruption. In addition, this group has a trivial culture and is incapable to use ideological mobilization as a mean to involve people's support and to control the chaos. Contrarily, the group may not worry at all about chaos since it possesses coercion tools. With those tools it can prevent chaos from reaching its power and leave that chaos risking the destruction of the society. At the end, the generalisation of chaos ruins the conditions for economic progress and democracy which benefit to modern groups outside the coalition.

By contrast, when religious group becomes the leader of the coalition, we have the alternative case of immobilism. Immobilism may be explained by the fact that religious group seeks a symbolic rent like the domination of its ideological vision. This entails that people listen and respect the group's discourse. So the group worries about chaos and has propensity to control and regulate the situation. In addition, thanks to its deep culture (even thought traditional) the group makes good and intensive use of ideological discourse as a cheaper mean to involve people following its vision. Hence it imposes and stabilizes its power and ideology. And as a price of that, the group may live far from ostentatious consumption and even in austere conditions. The regimes of such groups are generally likely to maintain subsistence economy and closed society vis-a-vis the external world. But, subsistence economy, hard regulation and the army of propaganda's agents lead to the oppression of liberties, to cut off information resources and thus lead to immobilism in thinking, economics and politics. So modern social groups and democracy would not evolve as needed.

Dr. Mohamed Al-Qahiri has a Ph. D. in Economics, and is a lecturer at Sana'a University.