The Middle East Channel

Twilight of the Arab republics

The Arab world watched in awe last week as brave Tunisians overthrew their corrupt president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, of the past 23 years. As in other Arab "republics" established in the populist ferment of the 1950s, Tunisians have been suffering from rampant corruption and economic deprivation for decades -- leading to frustration that eventually boiled onto the streets despite their government's tight restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.

Leaders of the other republics in the region are no doubt nervous as they watch the aftermath of the Tunisian uprising play out across the Middle East. During what academic Malcolm Kerr referred to as the "Arab Cold War," former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser envisioned that these governments would finally throw off the shackles of colonialism and become representative of their people's wishes. (In a great moment of historical irony, Ben Ali fled Tunisia on what would have been Nasser's 93rd birthday.) But today, a quick scan through the list of countries inspired by his ideas -- from Yemen to Egypt, Iraq to Libya --reveals a who's who list of failed and autocratic states in the Middle East.


Meanwhile, it is the Gulf city-states of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha -- all of which are ruled by an assortment of emirs and monarchs -- that offer the most compelling path forward for the Arab world. Despite a lack of Western-style democracy, talented young Arabs have flocked to these states in search of a better life. By 2004, an estimated 3.5 million Arabs had immigrated to the Gulf states for work opportunities, coming mostly from Egypt (almost 1.5 million), Yemen (0.9million) and Palestine/Jordan (0.5 million), according to U.N. statistics. The secity-states have also become havens for some of the Middle East's more recognizable proponents of democracy who have been exiled from their native lands, such as Iraq's Adnan Pachachi and former Yemeni vice president Ali Salem al-Beed,who lived in exile in Oman for many years.

The Gulf emirates also score higher than the Arab republics on a wide variety of human development indicators. The 2010 U.N. Human Development Report shows that Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates surpass the Arab republics in life expectancy, years of education, and income. The majority even score higher on gender equality as well. The report also named Oman, another Arab monarchy, as the nation that has made the greatest strides in the past 40 years, particularly in education. At the end of the day, gradual liberalization and institutional development have proven much more important than sham elections.

Of course, it helps to have vast oil and gas reserves. Yet the success of the Gulf emirates is not solely the result of their hydrocarbon wealth. Algeria, Libya,and Iraq are blessed with substantial energy reserves that far outstrip those of Bahrain, Dubai, and Oman. The monarchies of the Gulf have simply proved themselves more adept at channelling their natural resources, and developing the human capital of their populations, than their "republican" counterparts.

The largest of these Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia, generally perceived to be bureaucratic and cumbersome, ranks 11th globally on the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business index and continues to promote economic reform aimed at attracting international investors. A 2010 U.N. report found that approximately 3 percent of world emigrants live in Saudi Arabia, making it one of the top 10 destinations in the world for expatriate labor. And through institutions like the KingAbdullah University of Science and Technology, the kingdom is scooping up highly skilled Arabs from Europe and North America to recreate the so-called Arab House of Wisdom, the Baghdad-based society that became the intellectual heart of the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.

Some may wish for a wave of democracy to sweep through the Middle East, bringing with it good governance and social development. But in the meantime, most Arabs would settle for a dignified and secure life. And that is precisely what the Gulf states are providing. Just look at the social milieu of the Gulf, where Lebanese students migrate because of the lack of jobs in their home country and Iraqi expatriates are quick to point out their former dictator's brutality.

These Arab republics have so far given "people power" a bad name, and it will take decades to reverse the damage that Nasser's ideas have done to Egypt and Syria. It is too early to tell how the Tunisian uprising will turn out, but in the meantime, it is the Arab monarchies that are offering young Arabs an opportunity to live in dignity without leaving the region, and hope for a better life.

Sultan al-Qassemi is a columnist for the UAE-based The National and a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government.

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The Middle East Channel

Ben Ali may be gone but his constitution is not yet forgotten

Tunisia, which had two presidents since becoming independent in 1956, has now had a series of three people claiming the post in less than 24 hours. What is going on?

Yesterday,President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left the country a bit too hurriedly to either resign or leave instructions. So the prime minister stepped in front of television cameras and claimed he would temporarily assume presidential duties. He cited Article 56 of the Tunisian constitution. Its provisions allow the prime minister to assume the role of acting president when the president is temporarily unable to serve and issues a decree deputizing the premier.

Politically Ben Ali may have been dead, but constitutionally he was just on vacation. Opposition leaders cried foul.  In legalistic terms, where was the required decree? And in practical terms, this was a partial step at best. The regime stood as it had before, minus its head. There was no time limit to the "temporary" measure, and no new elections were scheduled.


So today,under continuing pressure, the scrambling and panicking regime moved down to Article 57, covering vacancy in the presidency. The Constitutional Council can declare the president incompetent to serve, allowing the speaker of the parliament to take the post as long as new elections are held within 60 days.

Do constitutional provisions really matter in a place like this? Can't rulers just do what they like? Is the opposition likely to accept a set of rules tailor-made for an authoritarian regime? The answer to the first two questions is yes. Constitutions can matter even in a place like Tunisia. The answer to the third question is more difficult -- use of the constitution would be a mixed bag for the opposition.

In normal times, constitutional provisions matter in a place like Tunisia because they give the rulers the tools to do whatever they want. Even authoritarian regimes need clear chains of command and authoritative structures just as much as liberal democratic ones. So they almost always issue constitutions and generally follow them -- it is just that the constitutional provisions are neither liberal nor democratic (and what seemingly liberal and democratic provisions exist are qualified out of meaningful existence). Of course, they do not want to have that constitutional language that will restrict them in any way. If that happens, they will show fewer scruples. But that is why Article 56 was so handy. By relying on it, Tunisia's remaining rulers seemed to be saying: "We are still in charge and we can still do what we want." That was why the step was less than satisfying.

But that also leads us to understand why constitutions can matter even in times of crisis. Today in Tunisia the constitution provides the only framework for the interim regime and the opposition to negotiate. Of course, revolutions in which constitutions are completely forgotten certainly occur. But not all regime changes happen that way -- sometimes they can be negotiated through existing constitutional mechanisms. That often happened in 1989 when communism fell in Eastern Europe, for instance. And in a case like Tunisia, in which decades of political repression have led to an opposition with weak leadership that has little ability to develop a detailed and unifying program, following the constitution may give it the breathing spell it needs while allowing state institutions to continue to function in the vacuum.

But Article 57 -- if that is what is used -- is a very mixed blessing for the opposition. The problems start when you read the fine print. The presidential elections have to be held according to the current constitutional provisions, and those allow only the Potemkin parliament (and a few other officials) the ability to nominate candidates. And while the acting president is serving, no constitutional amendments are allowed. In other words, invocation of Article 57 kicks into gear a process that was carefully designed for Ben Ali. It is designed for a figure handpicked by current top leaders, not for a truly open election.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.