Implications of Succession for the Peace Process

Ehud Yaari
Author and Journalist

There are numerous differences between the implications for the Peace Process in each of the Arab states where ultimate authority has already transferred to a new generation or where it is expected to be transferred within the next few years. But there seems to be one highly important common denominator: regimes in the Middle East are becoming, in various degrees, both weaker in terms of their power within each country and less authoritarian in terms of the governments’ modus operandi. The emergence of a new set of younger rulers clearly reflects these changes, and also accelerates their pace. The departure of leaders who dominated the political landscape of the region over the past 20 to 30 years exposes major shifts that have been quietly taking place beneath the surface in the domestic balance of forces. It brings to the fore new dynamic players who have been gathering momentum, waiting for the moment to appear on stage. This transition in the Arab world amounts to more than a switch of personalities: it embodies a rapid transformation of the political structure.

We are witnessing the culmination of a process by which the military elites that have governed much of the region since the era of coup d’etats of the fifties and the sixties, are being forced to make room for a new civilian elite - the business class of entrepreneurs, free marketers, speculators and others who thrive outside the state apparatus. They are not dependent on the state machinery - beyond their need for favors. They enjoy independent financial resources and operate according to their own political agenda.

The main reason for this development lies in the inability of the old regimes to honor the unwritten “social contract” with their subjects. This “contract” assured the rulers of the loyalty and submission of citizenship, acceptance of non-democratic systems of government in return for prolonged stability, a welfare umbrella of basic free social services provided to the populace and an adherence to nationalist symbols and objectives. Due to dwindling resources in the wake of an ongoing demographic explosion, Arab governments have had to abandon, to a greater or lesser extent, their ambitious platforms for economic development based on the supremacy of the public sector. Arab Socialism in its different versions, adopted by Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Yemen, Libya and Sudan, based on a Soviet modeled statism emphasizing an effort of speedy industrialization, led, in all these countries, to a severe crisis. This is true also for other Arab countries which did not come under military rule, but which, like Jordan or Morocco, maintained a huge public sector stifling private initiative. Governments were slowly driven into semi-bankruptcy unable to foot the bill for loss-making projects, confronted with rising unemployment - in some cases reaching 30% of the workforce - and a stagnation of the agricultural sector.

In the seventies, when the dimensions of the crisis were becoming apparent, the ruling ex-officers tried to save their revolutionary regimes by enlisting the help of a host of civilian technocrats - lawyers, accountants, engineers etc. But the adjustments introduced could not address the deficiencies of the existing systems: governments were no longer in a position to provide the population with the full range of services or a guarantee against turmoil at home. With social services deteriorating, and promises of prosperity evaporating, the Islamic fundamentalist movements began to assert themselves as a potential alternative. In turn this led to an increasingly heavy handed reaction by the different governments - the massacre of al-Hama in Syria in 1982, large scale arrests in Egypt before and after President Sadat’s assassination in 1981, the civil war in Algeria, and the take over of Sudan by the Moslem Brotherhood.

In view of these pressures, governments were compelled to review their domestic strategies. It was realized that the civilian technocrats were unable to improve the performance of the state machinery as long as it was committed to the preservation of a huge public sector suffocating private enterprise. The moves towards liberalization of the economies usually coupled with some relaxation in the political domain as well, slowly led to the re-emergence of a business class after its decapitation by the military regimes. Significant numbers of businessmen who chose, in the sixties, self-imposed exile following the wave of nationalization and expropriation measures began coming back with some of their capital. At the expense of the inefficient public sector and the declining influence of the state’s bureaucracy the business class, sometimes referred to scornfully as “the Fat Cats” managed over the past few years to establish its primacy over the local scene in most Arab countries. Businessmen, frequently in some sort of association with retired generals, top bureaucrats and of course the ruler’s family or clan constitute today the most dynamic force in the political struggle. They are pushing to speed up free market reforms, privatization and adjustment to globalization while forming the single most important lobby for peace with Israel. The faster governments relinquished control of over the banking, insurance and trade sectors the more impressive was the resurgence of the “New Arabs”.

This, in a nutshell is the background to the transition in the Arab world. The successors are faced with a different political architecture than the one envisioned by their predecessors. Instead of relying on the state bureaucracy and party hacks, they are in conflict with them. This was manifested vividly by the frequent visits of King Abdullah to government offices, masquerading in different disguises and spreading panic amongst the employees. The military, once the mainstay of all regimes in the region is sharing the agony of the bureaucrats in that it is losing its political clout. All over the Middle East in the past decade, military budgets have been reduced while the role of the generals has been diminishing.

In a paradoxical manner, it was the intensive political indoctrination of the armies that finally rendered them less politicized and steered them away from constant interference in the affairs of state. The dramatic growth in the size of the armies made it impossible for any general to exercise political blackmail or threaten to revolt. Corps and division commanders found out that they enjoyed less room for political maneuvering than the previous generation of battalion and brigade commanders. The new rulers are well aware of the decline in the role of the military. It is not a mere coincidence that, for more than two decades, nowhere in the Arab world have officers been capable of staging a coup d’etat. Nor is it incidental that top ranking officers are not called to participate in the tough decision making involved in the Peace Process.

President Sadat never consulted with his military chiefs before the Camp David Accords, King Hussein kept his general staff uninformed and President Asad is willing at most, to allow only long retired generals to sit at the negotiating table.

Thus the new rulers and soon-to-be rulers all prove to be leaning towards an alliance with the business class, adopting the main features of its agenda. Inevitably this is further alienating those sectors of society who stand to lose the most, namely the masses of middle and lower level bureaucrats and parts of the intelligentsia which are paying the price of the general shrinkage of the traditional Arab middle classes. The major test of all new rulers has so far been to balance their preference for the business class with attempts to reassure their own bureaucrats against further erosion of their status and pay. This is proving to be an extremely delicate exercise.

One of the favorite battle cries of the intelligentsia against the rise of the business class has been a vehement - sometimes violent - opposition to peace with Israel and, above all, to true normalization of relations. An elaborate system of boycotts is in place all over the region usually based on unions and syndicates as well as the refusal of the public sector companies to deal with Israelis. This issue has been turned into the most acute, although not the most important, controversy between “New Arabs” and those clinging to the old myths. For the business class ending the active conflict with Israel is a pre-condition for pursuing the economic reforms and a re-distribution of political power at home. For their adversaries peace with Israel signifies the total collapse of the Nasserite/Baathi vision of Arab nationalism and defeat in their confrontation with the West and its values. Therefore, to all rulers in the Arab world managing their relations with Israel is a major domestic issue and they all tend to be at one and the same time both positive and hesitant on warming up ties with the Jewish state.