Saturday, August 27, 2011
Arab Rebels Must Defer To Legitimacy
By Rami G. Khouri
Libya these days reminds us that all Arab countries in political transition must answer how they will deal with the men and women who held senior posts in the former regimes that they overthrew.
The issue has both practical and political implications. Countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – which are working hard to move from their former conditions of political autocracy and socio-economic stagnation and mediocrity to a new era of stability, democracy, growth and social justice, – need governments that are efficient at delivering citizens’ basic needs, while also responding to the demand that those who govern have integrity, credibility and, above all, legitimacy. How to strike the critical balance between legitimacy and efficacy will challenge Arab societies for months to come.
Tunisia and Egypt threw out their former dictators swiftly, and those societies had no serious opportunity ahead of time to prepare for the transition to a new governance system. The Egyptian armed forces took control of the government, with popular broad approval, because they were trusted, and because there was no real alternative at that dramatic moment of change.
Libya is a different case, as will be other countries that experience revolutionary changes in the year ahead. It is a sign of realism and responsible maturity that rebels and revolutionaries now challenging the old orders on the street are also working in their homes and hotel rooms abroad to chart a transitional process to a new democratic era. How that process happens, in terms of efficiency and credibility, will be a crucial determinant of the condition of society in the years following transition.
We have a better idea now of how this process should work, because of the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences. Both were striking for revealing how strongly citizens felt about removing the vestiges of the old regime from the new system. In both countries demonstrators came back to the streets to demand that previous officials be removed from transitional governments.
This reaction clarifies a powerful, politically critical dimension of the transformations in several liberated Arab countries: the intangible element of “dignity” is more important to ordinary citizens than consistently pertinent issues like jobs or wages. This mirrors the reasons why citizens have changed governments of three Arab countries and are challenging others.
In one Arab country in the throes of a domestic revolt, I have learned from insiders that an unpublished survey was commissioned a few months ago to help the leadership gauge the range of sentiments among demonstrators. The survey revealed that “dignity” was the single most important reason, and by an overwhelming margin, for why people took to the streets demanding change, with material issues very far behind.
This fact is now also clear from the three North African experiences, and will remain operative as transitions take place to democratic governance systems. Getting the balance right between dignity and material well-being will be a critical determinant of how smoothly societies transition from the dark old days to something more promising.
The Transitional National Council in Libya has now moved to Tripoli from its Benghazi, and will have to deal with this issue quickly as it changes from a rebellion to a ruling government. If a single word captures the complexities of this challenge, it would be “legitimacy.” This means that those who served in the old regime could continue to hold positions in the new system, but only if they are seen to be legitimate in the eyes of their own people.
Such legitimacy should reflect several elements: whether officials were technocrats or ideologues; whether or not they were involved directly in security abuses and excesses; whether they express genuine regret or contrition, if appropriate, for their previous roles; whether their positive core values were seen to persist in the face of the brutality of the regimes they served; and, whether their service to the state was seen as a reflection of their sense of national duty or a more crass desire to share in the spoils of dictatorial power.
Not all former officials in the deposed governments are crooks or criminals. Some, like former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil who heads the Libyan transitional council, embody the triumph of nationalist and democratic values over the burdens of their past complicity in Gadhafi governments. Countries that pay attention to the centrality of the legitimacy of new government officials will have an easier time addressing the enormous challenges of rebuilding governance and, most important, giving expression to citizens’ sense of their own humanity.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 27/08/2011