Story Highlights

  • Arab world protesters are proving their regimes are illegitimate
Tunisia protest AFP
Demonstrators in the street of Tunis, January 18, 2011. Photo by AFP
Text size

Hypotheses abound regarding the reasons for the ugly wave now sweeping the Arab world - some of them intelligent, others highly unconvincing. They include rulers' plans to pass the reins of government to their offspring, unemployment and economic shortages, youthful rebellion in a population whose median age is just over 20 and a longing for democracy.

The truth is that the crisis mostly derives from perceptions of the legitimacy of these countries' regimes. In liberal democratic regimes of the sort we know, legitimacy is founded on the sovereignty of the people. If the people are satisfied, they express confidence in their government, and if not, they oust the government via an orderly transfer of power. Even when the elected government is securely entrenched, the opposition sits in parliament, ready to take the reins of power when the time comes.

In the Arab world, in contrast, sovereignty rests with absolutist or semi-absolutist rulers - with military juntas who have seized power by force or presidents who were "elected" on single-candidate ballots. As they aged, some founded "republican monarchies" in which their illegitimate power is passed on to their sons, just as it is in monarchical regimes. So long as the ruler governs, the opposition sits in jail, not in parliament.

In both these types of illegitimate regimes, rulers invent justifications for their power to take the place of the nonexistent social covenant between ruler and ruled, a covenant holding that a ruler who does not fulfill his obligations to the people will be ousted in the next election.

A third type of regime, the Islamic one, derives its justification for power from the supremacy of Sharia, or Muslim religious law. Sharia gives the rulers divine legitimacy, as in the cases of Iran, Sudan and the former Taliban regime. Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone, and since the laws of the Koran are absolute, mortals cannot amend them in any way. Thus only the ruler can claim to govern legitimately.

All Arab leaders seek to justify their power, usually either by relying on Islamic law or by using anti-Israel and anti-Western ideology as a pretext to force unity against the outside world and confer political legitimacy. Thus the king of Saudi Arabia calls himself "the defender of Islam's two holy cities," while the King of Jordan, on whom Israel dubiously conferred the status of "the guardian of Al-Aqsa," uses this title to claim legitimacy and to repulse the Muslim Brotherhood, which threatens him. The king of Morocco terms himself one leg of the holy triad of "Allah, homeland, king."

And secular leaders like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the Assads in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria or Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, none of whom were genuinely elected, rely on the tradition of "revolution" - that is, the forcible seizure of power - or on hatred of Israel to extract a semblance of support from the people for their warped regimes, which would never stand the test of free elections.

Added to all this are the peace agreements that Egypt and Jordan forged with Israel and the American umbrella that shelters all these illegitimate regimes. Both factors increase hatred of the regime among the masses, who, nourished by Islam, are readily disposed to accept the promises of blood, sweat and tears spouted by preachers who have waited in the wings for their moment of opportunity. These preachers have made a point of living modestly and showing concern for the plight of the masses, in contrast to the corrupt leaders who perpetuated their power partly due to support from the hated West.

These are the enraged masses of Tunis, Cairo, Amman and other places. When an earthquake occurs in one place, the shock wave quickly spreads elsewhere in an unstoppable tsunami.

U.S. President George W. Bush was correct to view democratization as the antidote to all these ailments. But President Barack Obama - like Jimmy Carter before him, who supported the shah of Iran and called him an "island of stability," then turned his back on him and threw him away like a squeezed lemon - erred when he did not have a word to say about democracy to Mubarak, Saleh, Ben Ali and their colleagues. Obama even pledged support for the Arab world in a speech delivered in corrupt Cairo, which was perched atop a volcano about to blow, then hastened to abandon the regimes the moment the flames erupted. His secretary of state behaved the same way.

These two inexperienced, ignorant and unimaginative leaders brought disaster to the Western world and paved the way for troubled times in the Arab world. If only we were not the ones who will have to pay the price for these mistakes.

 

The author is a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem