Despite the grim realities we face on so many fronts in the Middle East today, there is reason to be optimistic about the long-term political trajectory of the Arab world. Arabs—especially young Arabs—are finally beginning to answer, on their own and from the ground up, the key question of the past century: what will follow the Ottoman system as the true source of political legitimacy? The emerging answer is that for governments to be legitimate, they must ultimately derive their powers from the consent of the governed. This, in my view, is the meaning of the Arab Spring.

Since the downfall of the four hundred-year empire only ninety years ago, Arabs have struggled to find the location of the stabilizing political legitimacy that once resided in the system of the Sultan-Caliph. Legitimacy has nothing to do with whether people approve or disapprove of the performance of a particular leader or government. It has everything to do with the right of a government to govern, whether it does so well or poorly. It is the system that is important; not the person. We in the West once thought that kings derived their legitimacy from a system reflecting the will of God: the so-called divine right of kings. That right applied equally to the Emperor Charlemagne and the unfortunate King Richard III, recently unearthed from beneath an English parking lot. All Richard proved was that individual actors can be interchangeable within an otherwise legitimate system: a system accepted by nearly all.

During the Middle East’s colonial mandate period there were good and bad high commissioners. They all exercised power, but all lacked legitimacy. During the first two decades of the independence era politicians in Arab countries went to extraordinary lengths to try to recreate the legitimacy that once resided in Topkapi. Arab nationalism seemed for a while to be the answer when a skilled political operator like Gamal Abdel Nasser was at the height of his powers. Post-1967 marked a transition to state nationalism: Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Iraqi, and even Palestinian. Yet the search for legitimacy was still largely in the hands of ambitious men seeking to capture for themselves what the sultan once enjoyed at the head of a system regarded by its subjects as legitimate.

The Arab Spring, with the youth of the Arab world in the lead, tables a new proposition entirely: that the powers of government derive not from on high, but from the consent of the governed below. While some may see political Islam as the next possible solution to the post-Ottoman political legitimacy puzzle, it may be that this trend is more of a popular reaction to economic desperation and political caprice than a positive source of political legitimacy. Those who govern today or tomorrow in the name of Islam will either respect the dignity of their constituents and produce the economic opportunity so desperately needed, or find themselves facing the same failure and dismissal as their more secular-minded predecessors. The twenty-first century universal bottom line is that political legitimacy cannot exist without governmental powers somehow derived from the consent of the governed: consent based on rights and expressed regularly and freely.

Each Arab state will find its own way at its own pace to full systemic legitimacy. North American, European, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Indian, or Australian democracies need not be exact models. Yet ways should be found over time to embed and protect legitimacy in citizenship, rule of law, accountability, and pluralism. While an absolutist—whether a monarch or a dictator—may be considered personally legitimate by the people in the country where he rules, meaning that nearly everyone in that country concedes his law-based right to rule, the absence of these embedded and protective features makes it possible for legitimacy to evaporate suddenly and even violently under pressure. Prior to mid-March 2011 some could argue that virtually all Syrians acknowledged President Bashar al-Assad’s right to rule, even though there were no illusions about the quality of government. It took only a handful of gross, unforced mistakes by the regime to make its own legitimacy disappear and render the country ungovernable. The same potential fate awaits any system not firmly rooted in law, with a government deriving its powers from the consent of the governed.

It is possible, therefore, to be optimistic about the long-term implications of the Arab Spring. For one thing, the old methods of autocratic rule are not sustainable in the eyes of Arab youth and cannot successfully address the pressures, demands, and needs of twenty-first century Middle Eastern and North African countries. Moreover, by taking the question of what follows the Ottoman Empire into their own hands, Arabs may well be setting the stage for a sustained period of political stability and economic prosperity. But if the horizon looks promising, the boiling seas directly to our front threaten to swamp the Arab world.

The crisis in Syria has managed to engulf all of its neighbors. For Syria to achieve stability and governmental legitimacy, the kind of complete political transition called for by United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2042 and 2043 must begin sooner rather than later. US President Barack Obama has risked infuriating the Syrian opposition by adhering to the June 2012 Geneva agreement formula for a negotiated settlement and by declining to provide the opposition with arms. He may not be able to sustain this policy for long. In retrospect it would have been wise for the Assad regime to accept the Geneva formula when it was created, leaving others with the problem of delivering a coherent, representative opposition team to the table. In retrospect it would have been wise for the Assad regime to treat protesters humanely at the very beginning. It may be too late for a negotiated outcome in Syria, and regardless of how long this regime remains on the scene, no one—not even its strongest supporters—can imagine it ever again ruling with anything resembling legitimacy. When UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi observed that the Syrian people are saying that “a family ruling for forty years is a little bit too long,” he was talking about legitimacy that has disappeared.

Observers trying to gauge the meaning of all of these developments, positive and negative, wonder if there is a new balance of power emerging in the region. Will sectarianism come to dominate as it did during the four hundred-year empire? Will Iran’s penetration of the Arab world be sustained? Will the United States try to distance itself from the region’s conflicts and focus instead on East Asia and the Pacific? Although the future cannot be predicted, if the Arab Spring means anything at all, it means that power is gradually devolving into the hands of the previously powerless. It means that the days of unchallenged governmental caprice and impunity—regardless of the external alliances of that government—are ending. People can endure a great deal from their governors, even economic hardship compounded by incompetence and corruption. What they seem no longer willing to endure are systematic assaults on their dignity. What they are no longer willing to endure is the contempt of their leaders. If we are to look for an emerging power in the Arab world, perhaps one should look to Arab men and Arab women: empowered citizens, subjects no more, and the ultimate sources of political legitimacy in the wake of the Ottoman Empire.

*This Viewpoint is based on the author’s remarks at the 3rd Regional Conference of the Lebanese Armed Forces Research & Strategic Studies Center (LAF –RSSC) on April 11.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and the former special advisor for transition in Syria at the US Department of State. 

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