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Two Alternative Paths Separate the Arab World



By Rami G. Khouri

Feb. 04, 2015

The contrast this week between political decisions by the governments in Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt capture vividly the two available pathways for Arab national development.

For the first time ever in modern Arab history, Arab citizens can witness how life, politics and citizenship operate in alternative systems based, respectively, on the rule of law and democratic pluralism, in the case of Tunisia, and on top-heavy, security-managed governance systems in most Arab states, with Bahrain and Egypt offering the most recent unfortunate examples.

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid did two noteworthy things in recent weeks that capture the benefits of a pluralistic democracy. A few weeks ago he presented a government that included only two parties, but his desire to keep power in the hands of a narrow elite was rejected by parliament. So two days ago he presented another government that includes five parties, with the employment portfolio given to the Ennahda Islamist party. How refreshing to see an Arab prime minister retract a Cabinet proposal due to parliamentary opposition that reflects the will of the citizenry, and instead offer a more inclusive government that better reflects the consent of the governed.

In contrast, in Bahrain and Egypt, two other Arab states with popular uprisings four years ago that sought to temper their long-standing autocratic systems in favour of more democratic and pluralistic governance, citizens experienced two demeaning blows this week. Bahrain revoked the citizenship of 72 nationals, accusing them of actions threatening national security, and Egypt continued to use its legal system to make a mockery of itself, its citizens and the rule of law.

After a mass trial, an Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 183 men to death for killing 13 police officers in August 2013, while imprisoned Egyptian and foreign journalists acceded to the dubious new regulations instituted by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to gain their freedom. Al-Jazeera’s Peter Greste, an Australian, was allowed to leave the country after 400 days in prison on the most outlandish charge of belonging to a terrorist organization and fomenting trouble. His colleague Mohamed Fahmy is expected to give up his Egyptian citizenship, but retain his Canadian one, in order to leave jail and the country. Their colleague Baher Mohamed does not have any of these options, because he is only an Egyptian citizen, with few rights.

There are two big problems with the behaviour of the Bahraini and Egyptian governments. The first is that the substance of their actions undermines credible standards of human rights, and judicial credibility and integrity, especially in denying citizenship to their own nationals. Citizenship is not a bonus that people get for good behaviour; it is a fundamental and essential human right to which people are entitled at birth. Egypt and Bahrain are not country clubs, where citizenship is like membership that one obtains and maintains for good behaviour, they are countries. Their actions mock every human rights convention known to humankind.

The second and bigger problem perhaps is that the Egyptian and Bahraini governments take these actions within the permissible parameters of their own laws. This has been a continuous problem in Arab countries since the 1960s or so, when officers and autocratic families started taking control of virtually all Arab governments, and manipulated the political and legal systems to suit their aim of eliminating any opposition and remaining in power. The consequence of that process includes the painful national wreckage we see most dramatically in states such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, alongside lesser internal fragmentation in other Arab states.

The common problem is that such military-based governments carry out the most demeaning policies, such as torture, long-term and mass imprisonment, closing media outlets, shooting their own citizens, and outlawing political and civil society groups, on the basis that their laws permit such behaviour. They create laws that perpetuate lawlessness and ultimately lead to violence and chaos. We have watched this happen in Bahrain in the last four years, and we now are witnessing aspects of this process of national decay in parts of Egypt.

The importance of the Tunisian constitutional and democratic transition succeeding cannot be overemphasized, because Tunisia offers the first home-grown Arab alternative to the kind of shameful state conduct that we witnessed this week in Egypt and Bahrain. The modern legacy of brutal, military-based governance sanctioned by dubious laws and no credible legal systems remains the scourge of the modern Arab world.

Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt show us the options we face. I honour and choose Tunisia, as I suspect do most of the 360 million Arabs who can speak freely, if they are not in jail and have not had their citizenship revoked.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.