Rami Khouri paints an interesting contrast between the evolution of change in Egypt and Syria.
by Rami G. Khouri
Agence-Global, 28 Jul 2012
BEIRUT — Two new men who appeared on the fast-changing stage of Arab politics this week — the defected General Manaf Tlas in Syria and newly appointed Prime Minister Hisham Kandil in Egypt — may play pivotal roles in shaping the evolution of their countries. Some of what they represent makes you proud and hopeful to be part of this evolving Arab world. Some of it also makes you want to vomit in disgust. Changing orders are like that, full of diseased and distorted values and also resplendent with new and invigorating impulses.
Most of all, however, these two men highlight the single most important criterion that I believe will continue to come into play as Arab political systems evolve away from their recent half-century of family-run autocracies towards more participatory and accountable systems. That criterion is legitimacy. More than efficacy, more than democracy, more than popularity, I believe that legitimacy has emerged as the critical determinant of what will be accepted by Arab populations who have fought and died for their liberties and the opportunity to reconfigure and revalidate their governments.
The appointment of Hisham Kandil as prime minister of Egypt by the elected president, Mohamad Mursi, is a quiet milestone and critical turning point for Egypt and the Arab world. A democratically elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood appointing a fellow Islamist as prime minister, without any major opposition or turbulence, is an extraordinary sight to witness. It confirms that most of the fears and warnings we have heard from many Arab and Western voices for decades — that Islamists will take over and ruin the Arab world — are, as American political scientists put it, a bunch of baloney.
This smooth and incremental assumption of power — limited power, to be sure — by Islamists in Egypt is happening because it respects the will of the majority of Egyptians as expressed in elections, an open press, political parties, civil society and a judicial system that arbitrates the whole package. This is also the result of an ongoing negotiation among the Islamists, the military, the remnants of the revolutionary youth from Tahrir Square, and other smaller groups in society, i.e., it is a legitimate process that reflects the will of the majority and respects the rights of the minority, and that is why it occurs and it endures.
The Islamists who now shape the presidency and the cabinet will soon be joined by a newly elected parliament, where Islamists will also have a significant bloc of votes. This will mark the single most important moment in this transition that has been going on since the January 2011 revolution — the validated incumbency of an elected Islamist-dominated government system that must respond directly and quickly to the demands of the citizenry. The citizenry wants results, services, jobs, equal rights, and respect, not slogans, defiance and rallies as the Islamists mostly provided in the public political realm during the old days. Delivering on citizen demands will determine who maintains power in the emerging new order, because incumbency is now more directly linked to the bestowal of populist legitimacy, as expressed mainly in elections.
Manaf Tlas’ story in Syria is a whole different world of values and possibilities. This dashing fellow (like his father the former defense minister) has been close to the ruling Assad family his whole life, and has now defected from his post as an armed forces general in order to join the opposition to Assad. He is being touted by some as a potential pivotal payer in a post-Assad transition, and he says he wishes to play a unifying role among the opposition.
It is very hard to take any of this seriously, given his grim lineage and record. Yet the mere fact that Tlas is now considered a player in the imminent transition reflects the sickness and desperation that pervade parts of the Arab political order. Tlas went to Saudi Arabia this week to perform a ritualistic pilgrimage to Mecca, presumably for a combination of personal piety and political support. The legacy of his entire adult life in the service of the brutal Assad security state, however, cannot be erased by such expediency, for he lacks the legitimacy needed to do anything meaningful beyond appealing to other Arab leaders or clueless Western leaders and analysts. If Tlas wants to play a role in the transition and beyond, the first thing he should do is acknowledge the mistakes he made in the past, and apologize to the Syrian people for his complicity in the decades of cruelty that he was instrumental in managing.
The glamorous Manaf Tlas lacks legitimacy, and the legitimate Hisham Kandil lacks glamour. There is no doubt in my mind — and I suspect hundreds of millions of other Arabs — that most Arabs would rather have Kandil than Tlas run their government. We shall soon discover if legitimacy really matters, or if it can be trumped by expediency and money. I will bet on legitimacy, any day.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Phi Beta Iota: Emphasis added. Those who have intelligence and integrity, such as the varied professors and authors at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army, have understood this point for a very long time. LEGITIMACY is the foundation for the consent of the governed and the optimization of political-legal, socio-economic, ideo-cultural, techno-demographic, and natural-geographic assets. Underlying legitimacy–morality. Without morality, legitimacy is not achievable. This was perhaps the most important point made by Will and Ariel Durant in the Lessons of History, the capstone summary of their multi-volume Story of Civilization.
Max Manwaring, Edwin Corr, Robin Dorff (eds.), The Search for Security: A U.S. Grand Strategy for the 21st Century (Praeger, 2003) and Review by Robert Steele: 5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, Coherent, Holistic, and Above All, Sane, July 4, 2003
Rami G. Khouri, “A Massive Moral Black Hole,” Washington Post, 26 February 2009