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by Rami G. Khouri Released: 6 Feb 2008

 Power and Authority Reconfigured"--2/6/08  
by Rami G. KhouriReleased: 6 Feb 2008

AMMAN -- The twin issues of the legitimacy and efficacy of power and authority are becoming more clear and urgent throughout the Arab world. This is the big ongoing story of our day, as a region of centrally controlled, mostly autocratic modern states evolves into a patchwork of different sources of power and authority. If we wish to address the problems of violence and instability in many Arab quarters, we must grapple with the issue of the legitimacy or power that remains one of the few enduring taboos in the region.

This refers to two parallel legitimacies: that of the modern Arab state order that was crafted by the retreating French and British colonial powers, and also the legitimacy of ruling elites and governments. My guess is that most Arab people would validate the existing state configurations and many of the existing leaderships, but clearly not all of them. Because our Arab region enjoyed statehood as a unilateral gift from the Euro-colonialists before the people of this region enjoyed any meaningful process of self-expression or self-determination, our statehood, nationhood and citizenship are all defined by chronic tension. The redistribution of power is a sign that the citizens of the Arab world are finally moving to take charge of their own destiny, when and where they can.

There are different reasons why Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Algeria, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world suffer chronic warfare or deep ideological tensions and stalemates. There are also assorted local explanations for why the central power and authority of the national government is gradually withdrawing from many urban quarters of the Arab world, and being replaced either by local Islamist community organizations and services, tribal networks, or by private commercial interests that are developing massive new glitzy globalized quarters.

The power of non-state Arab actors was dramatically revealed by Hizbullah's military capabilities in fighting Israel for 34 days and forcing it to accept a UN cease fire in 2006, which no combination of Arab states had ever been able to achieve. Similar realities pertain to the social service sector, non-corrupt public administration, and other aspects of life where citizens who do not get what they expect from their government will find the needs fulfilled by efficient non-governmental groups.

This is not axiomatically a good or bad thing. Some states offer quality services equitably and some non-governmental groups are little more than disguised gangs and private patronage or criminal syndicates. What is significant is that the centralized power of Arab states is slowly fraying or dissipating, even in strong states with emphatic central governments and efficient, self-assertive security organizations, such as Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

Power is decentralizing in many cases because governments simply do not have sufficient money to maintain the welfare, employment, subsidy and state-building services they provided very efficiently for half a century after the surprise of their own statehood in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

The decentralization and dissipation of state power into the hands of Islamicized urban quarters, armed militias, ethnic-based parties, neighborhood thugs, autonomous regional authorities, multinational corporations, and private sector commercial real estate firms is an important sign of several simultaneous phenomena: the fraying credibility of state authority, the determination of concerned citizens to take charge of their own life needs and well-being, and the enormous power of the globalized commercial marketplace.

As Arab power configurations evolve, it is critically important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past 75 years on authoritarian governance; instead, we must prod sensible statehood by consulting rather than ignoring the Arab citizen. Coming to grips with the evolving realities of power and authority requires much more honest, integrated and sophisticated analysis than has broadly pertained in recent years in the public discussions of what is wrong with our societies and how can we make things better. Much of this debate has been driven by ideological zealots, and a few naïve rascals in the Anglo-American-Israeli-dominated West, who tend mainly to focus on Islam and Arab violence -- or by elite Arab autocrats who are equally blind to the powerful currents of their own fellow citizens' discontent and fear.

The reconfiguration of power and authority is the big, new, historic and pervasive macro-development now taking place in Arab society, as the prevailing power structure of the past 75 years reaches the limits of its abilities. Not surprisingly, concerned citizens, agile gangs and efficient businessmen alike are moving in to grab their share of power in those spaces where the state is retreating, or franchising its own legitimacy and authority. Handled wisely, this could be a heartening and positive development that allows Arab society to define itself according to the consensus views of its pluralistic citizens -- unless American, British, Israeli or other Western armies invade again and try to re-configure us to their liking, rather than to our rights and wishes.

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.

Copyright © 2008 Rami G. Khouri

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