The MENA Legitimacy Challenge

One of the few academic memories I have from an uninspiring undergraduate career centers on a class in comparative politics. The professor was lecturing on modern—meaning late 1960s—politics in the Middle East. The following words have stayed with me for the better part of a half century: “Ladies and gentlemen, there is one question still to be answered in most states of the Arab world: what follows the Ottoman sultan-caliph as the source of political legitimacy?” Nearly fifty years after that question was posed, it remains unanswered in a practical sense.

The word “legitimacy” as used here means decisive, near-universal agreement by citizens on the rules of the political game within a given state. For example: historians may debate forever the merits of the December 2000 US Supreme Court decision ending the recount of Florida’s votes and giving the presidential election to George W. Bush. But on January 20, 2001 Governor Bush took the oath of office and became President Bush. The Supreme Court had spoken. For all practical purposes, every single politically sentient American agreed that George W. Bush had the right to be sworn-in. Throughout his eight years in office, no American who opposed his policies, foreign or domestic, disputed his right to hold the office and execute its duties. Americans agree on the rules of the political game. The system is legitimate. It is, therefore, stable and, more often than not, productive in terms of the common good.

For nearly 400 years in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, the sultan-caliph embodied political legitimacy. There were good sultans and bad. There were good wazirs and evil, corrupt ones. Yet there was functional unanimity—even among the largely self-governing recognized minorities—that the sultan had the right to be sultan. Ottoman legitimacy frayed over time and disappeared altogether with the empire itself in the 1920s. Hence the question: with the sultan-caliph gone, what replaces him as the source of political legitimacy?

The 2011 Arab Spring suggested the answer that must ultimately prevail if Arab states are to achieve systemic legitimacy: consent of the governed is the source of political legitimacy. Of the states caught up in the Arab Spring, only Tunisia might be constitutionally and practically on track to internalizing consent of the governed as the source of political legitimacy, but even there the results are uncertain. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad responds with mass murder to the widespread belief that he rules illegitimately. In Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki tried to substitute sectarian majoritarianism for legitimacy. In Yemen and Libya, we have free-for-alls based on a total absence of consensus on the political rules of the game.

Where do legitimate systems exist in the Middle East North Africa region? Some would argue that the constitutional, parliamentary monarchies of Morocco and Jordan enjoy legitimacy: that there is practical unanimity of consent that the Kings have the right to reign and the parliaments have the right to sit, irrespective of how competent or well-liked individual political actors or policies in either place might be. Where else?

In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seems to enjoy strong popular support. Many Egyptians see the deposed Muslim Brotherhood as having richly earned its ouster from power. Still, if a noticeably significant minority of the citizenry thinks that the wrong president is in jail and that the current incumbent has no right to rule, can one define the system as legitimate? Again, legitimacy requires virtual unanimity on the rules of the political game. It seems that many—perhaps most—Egyptians supported the army’s action of July 2013. But majoritarianism cannot produce the same kind of stability and productivity as legitimacy reflecting the consent of the governed. Do President Sisi and those who deny his right to rule have truly legitimate governance as their desired political end-state for Egypt? Or is majority rule and minority repression good enough for one or both? Is consent of the governed—all of them—at all possible in Egypt for the foreseeable future?

Tunisia may well be on the pathway to legitimacy, though the outcome of its unfolding experiment in consent of the governed is far from certain. The fragile consensus between Islamists and secular Tunisians may not suffice to withstand disillusionment with democracy caused by worsening economic and security conditions. But where else? In Syria and Iraq, chronic illegitimacy opened a transnational vacuum now filled by a magnetically powerful political-criminal enterprise drawing on the vocabulary of Islam to claim legitimacy in the form and name of a self-declared caliph. In Libya and Yemen, states are crumbling. In Bahrain, a repressed majority sees the system itself as illegitimate. In other Gulf states, one must guess about the state of legitimacy. Perhaps monarchies in Qatar, Oman, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait are seen as rightfully entitled to rule by virtually all of their subjects. Who knows? There are no transparent political processes.

Enshrining consent of the governed as the source of political legitimacy means much more than free and fair elections, because it is not about the election of this or that government. It is about the consent of the governed to the rules of the political game. This means building constitutional frameworks and institutions—governmental and non-governmental—that protect citizens from the avarice and authoritarianism of rulers and their allies in economic elites and clerical circles. It means building civil societies advocating for and upholding inclusive, nonsectarian government from the ground-up. It means supporting networks of individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to the proposition that legitimacy derives from the consent of the governed: that it is not something to be proclaimed by a pseudo caliph, a general, or a sectarian or tribal kingpin and then compelled through repression. Citizenship, after all, comes with unalienable rights as well as duties.

Providing external support to networks of indigenous individuals and NGOs seeking rule of law to enshrine, uphold, and protect consent of the governed as the source of political legitimacy can sometimes be dicey. Depending on the attitudes of rulers toward genuine consent, this support will be seen as either helpful or subversive. Often these rulers have either inherited or helped to create political systems rife with corruption, incompetence, and authoritarianism. The tools at their disposal to deal with crushing economic problems that deny opportunity to young people emerging from schools are often inadequate, as are the schools themselves. The temptation to create and exploit nationalist or sectarian resentment toward Western governments supporting internal civil society and rule of law initiatives is all too often not resisted.

Indeed, the task of making consent of the governed the actual source of legitimacy in the Arab world—the long-awaited successor to the sultan-caliph—is the work of Arabs. It is generational in nature. For outside governments interested in assisting, two tracks seem appropriate (leaving aside military intervention in cases of humanitarian abominations and transnational terror threats). First, helping to organize economic assistance for and economic reform in countries dealing with mass youth unemployment and underemployment (i.e. helping Arabs create economic systems where opportunity exists for all citizens, not just politically connected elites). Second, financial support for Western NGOs working to facilitate indigenous, consent of the governed network-building among individuals and NGOs.

For Western NGOs seeking to help Arab individuals and organizations—even in some cases governmental organizations—build networks and capacities, the temptation to “projectize” everything should be resisted. Providing monetary resources to enable rule of law advocates to support themselves and their families as they advance their work and build or sustain their organizations would seem to be a more direct and efficient application of resources than trying to shoe-horn people into projects designed by outsiders. Investing in the individuals who uphold the right values and strengthen the institutions that can provide homes for these kinds of individuals could be the best ways to leave the right footprints in the region.

Is “consent of the governed” truly the answer to the question posed by a professor nearly fifty years ago? If it is not—if it is merely a Western phenomenon descended from the Magna Carta, the French Revolution, and elsewhere—then what, for the Arab world, is the alternative? There would seem to be none that could produce, for the rich mosaic of humanity inhabiting the Middle East and North Africa region, state systems in which virtually everyone—regardless of gender, sect, or ethnic identity—agrees on the rules of the political game. Without that agreement, decent, stable, and effective governance will always be problematic. Without it, sustained economic progress for all will always be elusive. Without it, the question itself—what follows the sultan-caliph as the source of political legitimacy—will remain substantially unanswered for perhaps another fifty years.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Egyptian graffiti depicting a protester and the words "fight the oppressor", January 2012. (Photo: Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr)