Elite failures

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

Comments on the ongoing regional turmoil.

The crises in Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Iraq cannot be reduced to civilians versus the military, nor to pro-democracy versus pro-dictatorship camps. They are not about rich versus poor, corrupt versus ethical, or traditionalist versus modernist. Such dualities have often led analysts to stray from the central question concerning the survival and progress of the state. They particularly appeal to Western think tanks fond of casting everything in terms of good versus evil. In their eyes, civilians are democrats, liberals and tolerant. Their adversaries, the generals, thirst for power, wealth and privilege, the corollaries to which are prisons, torture and sick minds. Religious extremists, jihadists and just plain fundamentalist also see the world in such black and white terms. They divide people into the faithful and the heretical. The former are “blessed”, so when they are in power their countries prosper. The others are doomed to hellfire and deserve nothing but destruction.

Many Arab countries have suffered dearly from ignorance of the fact that there can be no progress in the absence of a nation state that is stable and governed by a capable, effective and united political elite. The confessional-ethnic quota system implemented in Lebanon and Iraq does not resolve the problem of the state; it just postpones it. In the meantime, it occasionally breaks down, giving way to civil strife.

Sudan is a variant of the same problem. It unfolds in an endless cycle of rotation between military and civilian rule in the course of which not a single problem of the state is resolved. So there is no effective unity and no economic or social progress. This has been going on ever since independence. A civilian elite comes to power, crumbles and is swept away by a military coup. Some years later, the people rise up and get rid of the dictatorship. Sudan has had political parties and elections, but never a step in the direction of progress. The masses rise up in a fury and a decade later they rise up again. On and on it goes, in an endless, futile cycle.

This is because there has been no national project to found a state to which all political elites belonged and towards which they all felt duty bound, responsible to prevent its disintegration and, of course, to protect it against aggression from other states. Generally speaking, political elites of this sort are civilians, not because they are not professional soldiers but because they represent a polity that believes in a national project. Without such a polity and its project there can be no stater at least no homegrown one. With a state founded by external forces, such as colonialism, you have elites split between right and left or the kind that jump from one side of the fence to the other.

The so-called Arab Spring gave us elites who cried “The people want the fall of the regime” and shouted at the top of their lungs “Leave!” in the hope that the president would do so. These slogans expressed no project of any sort. They said nothing about the purpose of the state or its raison d’être. They presented no plans for new cities or new streets, let alone ways to promote innovation and progress, to increase economic growth or to improve minds and elevate the intellect. In the absence of anything constructive, the country was handed over to a religious movement to whom political power was not about leadership, responsibility and rule of law but pietism, dogmatism and no end of charlatanism and opportunism. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt and Ennahda became the majority in Tunisia’s parliament they brought nothing but confusion, chaos and preparation for war against real or illusory enemies. They opened doors to everything but the path to a healthy economy, technological progress or a better life.

Sudan is currently in the grips of such leadership failure. The Sudanese had their promised spring. They struck a power-sharing formula giving the generals sovereignty and the civilians control of government. In other words, both sides had the opportunity that had presented itself so often before, plus the time to search for a way forward or a national project around which to rally all the people. They had two years to do this. During that period the elites were taken off international terrorist lists, the government’s debts were rescheduled, and the taps to aid and loans were opened. Yet the anger continued to flow because the price to pay in return was profound economic reform. As every country that has to go through it knows, reform comes with a lot of pain. But being frank about that was of little avail. The people had been promised that with the overthrow of Al-Bashir, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, milk and honey would flow and life would be wonderful.

Of course, real life does not work that way. No country has ever attained its aspirations as soon as the tyrant was eliminated. In fact, it is when the tyrant is eliminated that the hard work begins, the work it takes to build the state. People have often asked how the Germans and the Japanese managed to make such progress after all the destruction and disintegration of World War II, not to mention the suffering caused by atomic bombs. How did they salvage the remnants of their state after overthrowing the Nazis in Germany and imperial military rule in Japan? The answer is that they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Colonial powers have invaded many countries and the US has liberated other countries. But no country has risen from the crucible of colonial domination or from liberation unless it had the elites endowed with the necessary will, persistence, intelligence and foresight to lay the foundations for a state and then seize all available opportunities to consolidate and build on such foundations.

In the Arab countries, people take to the streets and squares because the price of state building is not clear to them. They want change, but most often they are looking for a magic wand that might change some things on the surface but in reality makes no difference. So when the government lifts subsidies, it is caving in to the “imperialist” IMF, and when it floats the national currency to give it real value, it is trampling on the “national character”. There are reasons to reject everything and more than enough accusations to hurl at every decision. As a result, those who are in power find themselves bound to distribute non-existent wealth and, in the era of Facebook, to appease the virtual crowds that speak of the people one moment and delegitimise the government or the state the next. Sometimes affiliations along religious, sectarian, ethnic and regional divides elbow forward, raising threatening fists and preparing to veto the entire state project.

 Sudan has already been split in two: a Sudan in the north and another in the south. But apparently that was just a rehearsal for more divisions to come after a revolution that brought no project for unity apart from high hopes and vague slogans about freedom, justice, equality and change. Freedom for whom and how much? What kind of change? Towards growth, prosperity and progress? Or the redistribution of poverty? Will the pursuit of justice promote competence, hard work, knowledge, ability and efficacy or just more sloganeering and underdeveloped skills.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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