One of my goals last year was to expand my own understanding of the different countries in the Arab Middle East. I had been travelling to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE for a few years already. But despite their tallest buildings in the world, brand named museums and universities, the grandest hotels and the opulence in general, these state-of-the-art GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) cities always left me feeling inadequate in understanding anything substantive about the Arab world.
On the business front, my thoughts are always on how to extend The Asian Banker’s business model to the Middle East and other emerging countries anywhere in the world. On the intellectual front, I have this desire to connect all the dots of world history in my mind, especially Arabic and Islamic, of which I understand little.
I managed two whirlwind tours that covered Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar in the course of the year. Kuwait is undergoing a construction boom driven by delayed investments due to the uncertainties related to events in Iraq in the north. Bahrain and Qatar use the same language as the UAE to sell themselves as transparent, business-friendly and open economies for global players to plant roots in.
In my mind, the taxi queues in the Dubai shopping malls resemble the airport scene in the movie “Men in Black”. People of all creed and colours, shapes and sizes, tall and short, in all sorts of garb from everywhere in the universe and alien to each other stand in civil queues. Coming from Southeast Asia, at the cross-roads of east-west trade, I always thought we were a very cosmopolitan people. But it appears that the Arab world has cultivated an even greater diversity.
But underneath that veneer of a cosmopolitan universe, the real Arab world, where people work and interact with each other falls neatly into a benign feudal formula that nobody really challenges openly. At the top are the Arab chairmen and board members. Below them, a relatively small but pompous retinue of retired gentry from the UK serving as CEOs and advisors. The Arab masters have held this fascination with the white man since the days of the Prophet, so we are not dealing with a new phenomenon here, except that the Arab man is the boss now.
Below that the armies of Indian, Filipino and other professionals with a glass ceiling over their heads that they would never be able to cross by accidentally being really good at what they do. All applying their energies to bring the Arab dream into reality. Somehow, all hanging together.
A long standing joke amongst the Indians is that Dubai is the “best run Indian city”. If so many Indians can make Dubai work, surely they do so for an Indian city. But they can’t, because for some reason, the idea of a well run Indian society tends to happen only when they work under the yoke of a foreign overlord, whether it was the Moguls or the British in India, or the Arabs in Dubai. But that is a different conversation.
The real challenge that these small GCC countries have been unable to crack though, has been in mobilising their own indigenous population. All have fewer indigenous Arab people than the hordes of foreigners brought in to create infrastructure that will survive the time when the oil money runs out. Only about 35% of Kuwait’s three million people are Kuwaiti, less than 50% of the one million people in Bahrain are Bahrainis, and just under 20% of 5 million people in the UAE are Emiratis.
The small numbers of indigenous people are then spoilt with considerable tax-free and state-sponsored entitlements, much more than the privileges that the Malay Muslims (mostly immigrants from surrounding Indonesian islands over the past 400 years) enjoy in Malaysia, the other example of people who are positively discriminated for, with unpalatable consequences. Also, the Arab cultures are themselves just less than a generation away from the days of being nomadic tribes, so rushing to instil the values of a market economy is not easily accomplished within one generation.
We were invited on a couple of occasions by various banks to propose trainings to help in the “Emiritization” programme – a government sponsored process to motivate the indigenous UAE nationals to actually take work and their careers seriously. The laudable programme is to use that process to put them into positions of responsibilities so that they will eventually be able to be at the core of their own organisations, instead of the foreigners, over the years. Such programmes works to different degrees of success, depending on the size of the indigenous population.
The ambitions of Middle East states are always driven from the very top – the benevolence, directions and visions of their rulers drive everything or nothing at all. So, it is Sheikh Mohammed’s name that you hear repeatedly in Dubai, Sheikh Khalifa in Abu Dhabi, another Sheikh Khalifa in Bahrain, the “Family” in Qatar and so on. It is sometimes odd hearing the same western gentry who espouse the virtues of democracy and egalitarianism in their home countries extolling the “great benevolent leadership and wisdom” of this or that ruling family that they work for. It is under the patronage of these rulers that they derive the kind of income that they could no longer imagine in the “rich” nations (as the Financial Times and the Economist call their own) they come from.
Having said that, there is no denying that within the constraints of their feudal formula, these are very progressive societies. They have a plot. They stand in contrast to Brunei Darussalam, for example, where without a plot the unmotivated population just languish in the backwaters of time, without even a desire to build on the oil money they enjoy. Egypt, to which I will return shortly, is in some ways just an over-populated and tragic version of Brunei and the antithesis of this drive to progress as a society, despite their feudal straightjacket.
On one occasion last year, I slipped into Oman, at the extreme east of the Arab peninsular, for a weekend diving trip in the cold waters off the Gulf of Oman. There I was pleasantly surprised to see indigenous Arabs working their own boats, the dive shops and running the real economy in general. The reasons for these were population size, history and the economy. In Oman, there was a critical mass of two million indigenous people out of a population of three million. Just a right mix such that they worked hand in hand to build the economy. Also, the country had a history of sea-faring empire building, at one time extending from Africa to what is today Pakistan. The cobalt blue pigmentation used in Chinese ceramics was sourced from this region since the Tang dynasty.
I never thought I would ever say this, but it was not until I travelled to Saudi Arabia, that I finally felt I was able to grasp the nettle of this amazing region. For all the perception of Saudi Arabia as an ultra-conservative country, I found it the most “real” of the domestic economies of the GCC region. It was also here that I found the tension, between what it means to be Arab and modern at the same time, played out in the most dramatic of ways.
Having a population of 19 million, with enough of a mass of young indigenous Arabs with middle class careers and lifestyles defines Saudi Arabia. This is a good thing in my view. They have to work. The Saudi government has been forceful in creating a working economy. There are many erroneous perception of the modern Saudi Arabia. They mostly can only afford one, not four wives, albeit many children. I met very competent indigenous bank managers and staff both at the head quarters as well as at the branches of the local banks where I was brought for site visits. The foreigners, mostly Western and Indian were mere facilitators, not managers, of the process.
Beneath the veil of Saudi Arabia’s seemingly restrictive society, many of the young educated women actually studied for years in the US and other Western countries. One book I enjoyed reading was “The Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea, about the inner thoughts and aspirations of four high class Arab women in their otherwise restrictive societies. Families watch American, European, Egyptian and Lebanese movies and holiday in Malaysia where couples can hold hands and still be in a Muslim society. Some of the educated women generally want to, not have to, dress in the ultra conservative fashion that they do, and they can defend their case in a Western way.
There is a lot of happening under the skin in Saudi Arabia – primordial instincts of all kinds jostling with each other – and a population that tries to cope with the old and the new in insidious ways. It was also in Saudi Arabia that I caught a glimpse of the institutions that were facilitating change. At the Riyadh airport and in hotel lobbies, some women simply pull away their head-to-toe veils to be comfortable in the jeans and t-shirts they wear underneath.
Some people I met intimated to me that it was difficult to purchase alcohol in bottles in Saudi Arabia, officially banned, only because you can only get them in crates, smuggled into the country by the truckload. Most foreigners and many Arabs maintain a bar in their fortified homes, where the religious police can’t reach them, and so the charade goes.
The televisions in the public areas for foreigners in Saudi broadcast Lebanese talk shows and Egyptian entertainment shows, hosted casually by women wearing low cut dresses with ample cleavage to gawk at in public. In this way, the prohibited outside world is just right there. I had always wondered about the impact of free-to-air television in the Arab world. Regardless of which Arab country you were in, you had access to 70 TV channels and more.
In the Middle East, the Western TV stations – CNN, CNBC and BBC – all have business channels and programmes dedicated to and funded by the various Arab governments. All have talk shows, debates and forums sponsored by state-owned agencies, discussing global and regional issues in an open and erudite manner that was not possible in any other forums inside these very same countries. Al Jazeera, the Arab version of western media, is funded by the Qatari government.
The television channel, is an institution of devious aberration, a tool that the Arab rulers use to project the image of their countries as transparent, consultative and progressive without being so in reality. This skill, of managing the external and the internal differently, the Arab rulers have cultivated with such flair that one has to stop to think about it before realising that the erudite King of Jordan or the president of Egypt that the West finds so agreeable, are also the same people who do everything to postpone real social change and progress within their respective systems.
Watching some of these TV programmes, I always asked at the back of my mind, when will these programmes start to reflect back on these countries. They talked about democracy, representation, the role of women, Israel, the economy, the world, almost everything. For the love of money, the western TV channels knew how to exercise self-censorship, always refraining from discussing the most explosive domestic issues in the countries where the show was being broadcast from.
The audience in these programmes were always privileged, English speaking young Arabs, many schooled in the “American Schools” found everywhere in the Arab world. A very small minority of a very small population. They talk and talk and talk. There was not a single day on television where they were not talking about all of the modern things in the world and more, so much that the foreign observer is lulled into an acceptance that nothing really needs to change as long as they keep talking.
But I guess that it is the process of the talking, the academics call it the art of the discourse, that ideas become implanted, consensus starts to form and the stage becomes set for the kind of revolution that eventually emerged in Tunisia and Egypt. Still, those who live in these countries are surprised when the revolution actually happens.
In my view, the institution of greatest subtle change must surely be the modern Shopping Mall, taking off where the magnificent souks and the traditional majlis (informal forums) end. Testosterone charged teenage boys and perfectly veiled girls from wealthy families interact with each other, right under the nose of the secret religious police, by using the “Bluetooth” device on their mobile phones to “talk” as they passed each other. Again, primordial instincts at war with the prohibition, until the tensions become just a game, and young people triumph over the old, again and again.
Texting on the mobile phone is the other great institution of change that men and women of all ages are a part of. Arabs text each other incessantly across social or marital standing. If we were privy to the conversations taking place on the SMS alone, we will find a completely different Arab world, one that existed in an parallel universe that was almost already the paradise that they are promised in the Islamic afterlife. No prohibitions, no secret police, just whatever you imagine life to be.
All these are things I could see. What I could not see was all the chatter on the internet. On the Internet, the Arab young people use avatars to be themselves, and exude the personalities and beliefs as they want them to be. Now that we have seen what the realm of the Internet has done to Egypt, the warning is clear and out there to all governments and power-brokers: seek resonance with what your people actually think, or risk being booted out, no matter how sacred you think your mandate is.
So, with all these glimpses, the only Arab country left for me to visit was Egypt, on the west end of the Arab world, where the south of Europe touched at Alexandria, and Africa in the upper reaches of what is still and always the source of the oldest great civilisation of the world – the river Nile.
I finally visited Egypt over the year-end holiday period. After catching a glimpse of most of the other Arab states, nothing prepares one for Egypt.
One experiences Egypt at several very different levels all at once.
The first level one comes to terms with about Egypt is its nearly 90 million population. Not one million as in Bahrain or five million in the UAE or even the 15 million in Saudi. Immediately out-sizing all its neighbours combined and then tripled. That scale alone tells us that we are discussing a different Arab world from the rest. Also, the rate at which it grew from just 16 million in the 1930s did not give this country time to come to terms with the fact that it is a very different country than even the people alive since that time would like to admit. This country has not had the chance to take stock of what it has become in terms of population.
Cairo itself is an impossible city. It is an embodiment of everything that has not been done in the past 30 years out of sheer neglect. Except for tourism, the city of 15 million had been largely neglected to the point that the only way left must surely be to abandon it. The Chinese city of Chongqing, the world’s largest with 37 million people, appears much less formidable. The railway station for Cairo is in Giza, 20 km and two hours away in constant heavy traffic. Tahrir Square, the site of the protests to ouster president Mubarak, is in the only modern district anywhere in Egypt, forcibly cleared up and modernised mostly as a showcase for the upper echelon of Cairo society who see nothing of the rest of real Egypt.
All other hints of modernity – multinational businesses and the plush homes of the Egyptians who have made it abroad – are built outside Cairo, on that long dessert road to Alexandria. Alexandria, that proud sea-front city whose Muslim residents still feign kinship to that great Greek conqueror, appears more bearable only because it is less populated and faces the Mediterranean sea.
The second level of reality that one has to come to terms with is that this is a country where practically nothing has been done in the past thirty years to keep up with the modern world. Notwithstanding the sniggering commentaries in the West about the success of the Dubais, the Abu Dhabis and Qatars of this world, you realise that it is better to be countries whose leaders have a plot for the future, then to be one that is ruled by an aging despot who has no other cheap trick than to send screaming fighter jets into the city to try and frighten his own people when they revolt.
The only other pillar of the Egyptian economy, after you have discounted the military and the civil service, is tourism. Egypt is the embodiment of the worst of the negative impact of tourism in a country without other economic pillars to rely on. Because of its rich history, more than 20 million tourists visit Egypt every year. More than 10 million of its citizens are embedded in this industry, many because they have no other choice.
Because the government neglected to establish an efficient distribution of food and economic necessities, these are carried de facto on the back of the more expensive tourism industry network, resulting in persistent inflations of up to 15 percent. I always believed that countries without the efficiencies of a real economy of their own, should not think that tourism will save them. It has the propensity of destroying the local economy, while the tourism dollar itself is dissipated through corruption into foreign bank accounts.
An entire generation of young people have now grown up, watching their neighbouring countries on the television, through the internet, and through the eyes of the planeloads of tourists descending on them every single day. Reminded just how unskilled or prepared they are themselves for the future. Egypt actually has a curious education system that does well in mobilising its bright and cheery children into a very decent elementary school system and then frustrating the very same children as they grow up into high school.
One young travel agent in his twenties, with whom I had extensive conversations with, related to me that the then minister of education, himself an engineer, had said recently that Egyptians do not need education in the computer sciences because … “he did not think it was important”. It was so easy for the elite to deny the growing population of the very basics so blatantly.
If only, the government had invested in some education, many more Egyptians would have been working abroad, like the Filipinos and Indians, and defused the need for a street revolution at home for many years, as the people of the Philippines and India have done. Unlike the Emiratis and the other Arabs, Egyptians have a good attitude towards work. You see this in the discipline and the professionalism in the tourism industry, even as the government official may be corrupt. 10,000 tour guides, most with work only part of the year, because there are so many of them.
In the Arab world, the Palestinians, who do not even have a functioning country to their name, make up a surprising number of the professionals – the engineers and doctors – many working in the GCC states, and in the West. The Lebanese are generally the business managers, the traders, the entrepreneurs. The Egyptians as a class cannot be profiled in this manner, although there is evidence of Egyptians who have excelled in the sciences, including also being the only Arab country with not one but four Nobel Prize winners (chemistry, literature and two peace winners).
The street protests did not start about being about ideology or political conflict. It was just about an entire generation of under 30 year olds, more than half of the population, turning up at the doorsteps of power and saying, “give us our future back.” On the one hand, we marvel at the power of the internet to make visible what was in the minds of thousands of people.
But despite the camaraderie and the initial positive outcome in Egypt, when you realise that the protestors themselves have no other plot, no real leaders and the future has not even started being articulated yet, this at the moment can go either way as the French revolution did. What held the people together was simply a common enemy – the small elite.
In the years of being thumbed down by a repressive regime that kept telling them that they will never be good enough, the Egyptian masses, of all creed, formed a sort of camaraderie, a sharing of resources, a brotherhood, a common destiny or a common enemy, depending on which way you saw it, that we saw displayed in Tahrir Square. At the end of the day, whether someone was a Muslim, or a Coptic Christian or a Nubian in the upper reaches of the Nile, they were all equally poor and equally deprived.
The western commentators are hoping it is about a craving for democracy. It is, at the moment, not at all. Egypt’s young society is a lot simpler in their ideals. They are puzzled as to why they are not entitled to the same jobs and lifestyles that the 20 million tourists who visit them have. They are ready for it. They want it. They are angry with a leader who has done nothing to prepare them. But they have just started the long and arduous journey of describing it and nowhere near building it.
The raw material that the Egyptian masses have in building that future is currently raw indeed. From more than 30 years of autocratic rule, I noticed that ordinary people have cultivated a mind for conspiracy theories. Anything that has gone wrong in the country – from the assassination of the former president Sadat to the economic malaise prior to this year’s revolution – has been described by various people as being Israel’s fault, notwithstanding the evidence.
I also noticed a culture of quick association between different groups of strangers that come together to quickly solve a problem and then disappear. A people under stress have a way of looking out for each other as if they are all brothers, and we saw the best of this in the Cairo street revolution. This unfortunately is also an element of mob rule, in the absence of the rule of law. It masks other more complex divisions – between the Muslims and the moderates for example – that we have not seen yet. The same internet driven camaraderie that brought Egyptians together can easily turn ugly as well.
The most damaging impact of 30 years of autocratic rule has been the lack of a wealth distribution system of any kind. I just marvelled at how long any country could survive without a system by which wealth created by the state, whether it is from public works, tourism or whatever could trickle down to the masses, and how long the masses could tolerate it without something being done about it.
One evidence of this is that for a country of more than 82 million people (some say 90 million), Egypt has only two domestic state-owned banks worth talking about, lending only to state-owned enterprises, and the rest of the banking system is dominated by HSBC and a nonchalant French bank, BNP Paribas. Another evidence is that it takes more than two years to get a state licence of any kind to operate a business and more than 90% of landowners in Cairo do not have title deeds to the properties they say they own. One study I read suggested that 80 percent of Egypt’s wealth is non-monetizable. It’s crippling.
All said, I did not expect Mubarak to be toppled so soon. I guess he was a victim of his own lack of understanding why institutions of certainty are important, something that I notice Arab leaders particularly reticent about building until they absolutely have to. In the more stable Asian countries, when it is clear that a leader must go, usually the leader finds an institutional process to go without losing face, in his own time.
In Malaysia for example, this happened twice – once when the founding father of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, could not manage racial riots in 1969, and the second time, when an incompetent prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, lost a general elections in 2008. In both cases, they took nearly 18 months each to leave office. But they could do this in their own time with their heads held high because there is a process, institutionalised vested interest and a generally well run economy to protect. Mubarak created for himself none of these options to fall back on.
What is really appalling was that the investment bank research teams did not see it coming as well. These research teams hob-nob with and took their the cues from the less than one percent privileged Cairo-ites who by no measure typify the country. No less than HSBC’s chief executive, Michael Geoghegan, used the term CIVETS to mark Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa as the next layer of emerging market countries, after the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to watch. We need to ask him, on what basis did he put Egypt in the same category as Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa – countries that have profoundly better developed economic, social and democratic political institutions?
The most recent IMF Country Report for Egypt in 2010 spoke only about the glowing future of this country. Even the Wikipedia description of the Egyptian economy, obviously edited by past government officials, reads as if it is one of the most progressive countries in the Arab world, when in fact it was one of the most backward. A signature of how much delusion is possible despite so much information in the world today. It is for this reason that revolutions will catch us more by surprise today than ever before history of mankind, and it is the wise leader who can read the tea leaves better than others.
I remember in the early 1990s, long before the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, almost all investment bank Q&As for Indonesian companies seeking international capital started with “what will happen when the president falls,” which eventually did happen. There was no such warning for Egypt, a sign that the over-educated investment banking community were hob-nobbing with the wrong people.
But the street protests have not thrown up any real alternative leaders. No one has stepped up to the plate. They know they don’t want Mubarak. They have not articulated what they really want in exchange. One woman who looked very middle class, interviewed on BBC said in English, “we have done nothing for the current generation when we had the chance.” Indeed they have not and the young generation have arrived at their adulthood clueless.
It is tempting to try and find parallels between current developments in Egypt with its Pharaonic history. Some of the commentaries I have read stretches the associations somewhat. But there are two loose ones that in my mind helps us not take modern day Egypt at face value. The first one is the character of its people. There is an erroneous perception that the pyramids and all the temples in ancient Egypt were built by slave power. This was especially perpetrated by the Geek historian Herodotus when he visited the great pyramids and to some extent by biblical accounts that suggest that the Jewish people suffered under the yoke of the Pharaoh as slaves before the prophet Moses liberated them.
The actual evidence, apparently, is that during the reigns of the Pharaohs, Egyptian civilisation reached a point where it had large cohorts of artisans and skills workers who worked for wages, lived in their own homes that showed evidence of pets in them when excavated. Again and again, even in modern times, we see the population of Egypt today rising up to support modern day Pharaohs if they had a great cause – the former president Nasser with his great dams to tame the Nile and the former president Sadat in his triumphant victory against Israel (and a decisive cut with long shadow of patronising British subjugation) in the 4 October (also known as the Yom Kippur) war of 1973.
Both were desperate attempts are sealing the rulers own legitimacy at a time when Egyptians were economically de-motivated. It would appear that whoever becomes ruler of Egypt, immaterial if it is through a democratic process, will also have to earn that right through a grand gesture.
The second loose association with the ancient past is the moral authority of the rulers. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaohs went to great extents to demonstrate their great authority to rule came from the gods, with whom they enjoyed a special association through spending days in the “holy-of-holies” (I entered several shells of burnt out ones, that I have become completely disillusioned with this myth that found its way into the Jewish and Christian religions).
The real authority, in my view, came from the Pharaoh’s association with the long retinue of priests and temple servants in the many temples of all kinds scattered through the then polytheistic country. I have a theory that polytheism was an important infrastructure for the economic viability of the larger ancient kingdoms. The temples were in my view, the earliest distributors of wealth, in the absence of a banking system. As long as silver and gold, and wheat and corn was distributed down the temple system, the people allowed the pharaoh his divine right.
All this was tested when the Pharaoh whom I found most intriguing, King Akhenaten (circa 1353 BC-1334 BC), attempted to build the first building blocks of a monotheistic religion around a Sun God, that introduced personal accountability that bypassed the priest system. He was trying to by-pass the distribution system of the more corrupted polytheistic system, but the ideas simply could not survive King Akhenaten. The Egyptians abandoned it and went back to the system they were familiar with after he died. His ideas had to wait until a smaller tribe, namely the Jews of Palestine, presumably through Moses, took up the theme of monotheism again two centuries later.
Post-Mubarak, the country has to re-build, from scratch, a wealth distribution system that is sustainable for the 21st century. The fact that the dictator has been toppled does not mean that other impediments to the building of this system have as well. If the army has proven itself to be the friend of the people, it still has to be dismantled so that money can go into other aspects of the economy. The civil service is the corrupted interlocutor of the modern economy. Dismantling it forcibly will mean throwing thousands of people into the street without a job, and without an idea of whose side the government is on.
Arab people are not interested in democracy in the way that the Westerners like to think they are. They are interested for their concerns to be heard, of course. But they are most of all, waiting for a leader who will lead them from the front. A wise leader, as President Sadat was when he first came into power in 1971 in the midst of a crippling economy, would make it his business to legitimize his power, without which any agenda he would want to put in place would be impossible. In his case, it was executing the 4 October war with Israel in 1973. It is such a shame that the lasting peace that he put in place was not built upon by his clueless successor.
His predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser was similar, but more constructive, in that he put Egypt on the global non-aligned movement map, and built huge and bold infrastructure like the dams on the Nile to legitimise his own power. Mohammed Ali, the Ottoman ruler who is regarded the father of modern day Egypt waged war to establish that legitimacy. In this regard, in all likelihood, the next Egyptian leader will have to do something of grandeur – whatever that means in today’s context – to legitimize his rule. Egyptians have this social contract with their pharaohs, they need to be driven by something larger than themselves.
So what is the impact of what has happened in Egypt on its other Arab neighbours? As the events in Egypt were unfolding, King Abdullah of Jordan simply called all his opposition parties together for a meeting and handed them money, and gave his government employees a pay rise. Likewise the Syrian leader and the Kuwaiti leader. You begin to see the desperation.
As for the other GCC countries, they have smaller populations, and despite the imperfections, they have also put their people on the path to a modern world. Only some of the institutional reforms they have been sitting on have to be made in a bit of a hurry now, but nothing unsettling. The insurgencies within Saudi Arabia are not driven by economics, but by primordial tribal politics, which have a different driver that will not take its cue from the Egyptian experience.
At the end of the day, the Arab Middle East will have to find a resonance point that makes sense of its historical and cultural heritage with the modern world. I have to emphasize that the ordinary Arab does not mean the same thing when he says he wants “democracy”. He wants to be heard, but he also wants a benevolent leader, from his own tribe, to whom he can commit his own future.
When you ask an Arab you watch crying democracy on television, who would make a good elected representative, he will in all likelihood rattle off names of this or other aristocrat and how he knows them. The exception are military leaders. The armed forces, the great equaliser in the Arab world, giving generals from peasant stock with a bit more gumption, as much access to power as the sheikhs and princes.
The problem with the role of the military in Egypt is that despite the fact that they were the friend of the masses during the revolution, the masses are about to find out the military’s dark side. They have come to dominate every single aspect of social and political life in Egypt today – government jobs, licences, monopolies, land, food subsidies – that it will be very difficult for them to give up the power and wealth accumulated.
In this regard, Egypt has to look to Indonesia as it’s teacher. The late president Suharto, for all the criticisms hurled at him, was instrumental in extricating the powerful military generals from everyday life over a long period of time. It is a qualified reality today. The current president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is still a retired general himself. Actually, the stories of Thailand, Vietnam and Burma attest to the fact that this process of retiring the military generals from civilian life is a very slow, generational one.
Neither are the Arab states that practice so-called democracy themselves what they appear to be. One evening, in the hotel in Bahrain, I saw three Arab men, in full ethnic regalia, head-dress and all, locked in full embrace with each other like three amigos, walking out of the bar flushed drunk.
Unrelated, the next day, in the local newspapers, I read that the duly elected parliament discussed a member’s petition to ban alcohol completely in Bahrain, which is allowed in hotel lobbies and private homes. This petition apparently had been brought up in a past session the year before. Parliament discussed the merits and demerits of banning alcohol in international hotels (lose of foreign investors and tourists not good for country etc). Then opps, one member of parliament pointed out that since it was the last day of this session, the discussion should be postponed yet again to the next session, one year from then.
The propensity to postpone decisions, the imagination that problems go away if you don’t deal with them, is a signature Arab trait, that I also see in Muslim societies in other parts of the world. Sometimes, the non-Muslims trying to help them think that the problems resulting from non-decision are philosophical or even theological. Nah, it’s drawn from pure intellectual laziness and has resulted in any number of miserable consequences for all.
I found out later that the Shiite, although a majority in parliament and aligned to Iran, are constantly thwarted by the king, who is of minority Sunni stock, and aligned to Saudi Arabia. So in the case of Bahrain, this propensity to postpone facilitates its own version of a Bolsheviks versus Mensheviks standoff. Except that this charade is based on primordial tribal instincts, not intellectual differences.
Clinically speaking, if democracy is about throwing out leaders who have lost the people’s mandate, this is actually exactly what has happened in Egypt and other Arab countries several times in the past century alone, as in the days of the Pharaoh. Leaders who have lost the mandate of the people do incur the wrath of the people and are booted out ignominiously and not ceremoniously as in a functioning democracy.
The West of course has behaved disingenuously with the Arab Middle East from the days of the Crusades. Even from the days of the Shah of Iran, the West has supported only the rulers who are aligned with them, not caring what the people on the ground really want.
Now that real democracy might throw up an Islamic party in Egypt or a Shiite-majority government in Bahrain, Israelis are writing to the international press saying they prefer no democracy in the Arab world if the result is a fundamentalist Islamic party in power. Notwithstanding the exhortations from the White House to the Arab world, we will track this unfolding story better, if we measure everyone involved by what they do, not what they say.
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