Over the past few years, a number of despotic Arab regimes have collapsed.
These regimes have been known to be dominated by a single figure or individual who held on to the country’s authority and drew the future of the country and people single-handedly. Such rulers were known to use brutal, strange and unscrupulous means to remain in power. They also remained on top of the regime without any of the political basis known throughout the international community.
Hence, it is time, at this juncture of our history, to revive the dialogue regarding the role of the ‘individual’ and ‘establishment’ in building the future on political, economic, community, educational and ethical levels.
The establishment, in the context of this article, is a legal entity which includes values, traditions and work ethics’ that define the relationship of this ‘establishment’ to the decision-making individual. The establishment has characteristics that distinguish it from other forms of community organisations, such as its independence and its non-affiliation to any of the elements that constitute it. An establishment may also have political, community, economic, educational or regional responsibilities. Or, it may have all these responsibilities put together when it is a ‘state’.
Over the ages, individuals have played an important role in making history on different levels related to the paths of their tribes, countries, ethnic groups, religions or even their regions. Other surpassed these paths and imposed dominance and influence that are still active today despite the fact that these forces left the scene a long time ago.
We can also say confidently that kings, sultans, princes or others who occupied historical platforms over a long time were the ones who made their countries. Their will and desires were the law of the land. Whoever opposed them would either be banished, imprisoned or killed. This conduct was not exclusive to the eastern or western cultures; it was simply a general rule and a subjective expression of the historical path treaded by most communities.
However, the inevitability of historical development and the beginning of the erosion of traditional authorities gave the individual its legal authorities — the tribal and religious establishments that assisted in hastening the end of this phenomenon in Europe and then elsewhere. This was due to the post-industrial revolution economic development, which resulted in economic production relations that were complicated. They were also the outcome of the growing role of machines in the economy, which resulted in the producing classes and their rising importance in society’s movement as a changing force.
As a consequence, there was a dire need of social reforms and granting the downtrodden classes some privileges in education, health services, social services and re-evaluating the wage system and shortening working hours.
And that is how establishments, and not individuals, became basic authorities in drawing policies and decision-making, which shrunk the role that was open for individuals to play.
The role of the individual in democratic countries is very limited because of the existence of solid and firm establishments with firmly rooted work traditions and ethics, in addition to controlling devices and widely aware citizens who do not allow anyone to take away their civil rights from them.
The ‘individual’ in these countries cannot surpass or ignore all this because he is a captive of the constitution, which works according to the rights of the community and not what this individual decides or sees.
However, the role of the individual is still important in developing countries, especially in sharp political turns because of historical heritage, the prevailing military establishments’ mentality and the weak role played by the middle class.
We have more than one instance in Arab countries where a ruler models his country according to his requirements. Such rulers build the state in a manner where its economic, political, legal and the value structures are congruent with his outlook. In Iraq, the former Iraqi prime minister, Abdul Kareem Qasim, built Iraq according to his requirements and made it a country serving the poor classes. Saddam Hussain, the former Iraqi president, on the other hand, rebuilt the country’s institution according to his whims and made it a strong country. In Egypt, the late Jamal Abdul Nasser, a former president, treaded an economic and political route that contradicted with the will of the West. Mohammad Anwar Al Sadat, another former Egyptian president, succeeded Nasser and turned Egypt upside down. He replaced his predecessor’s policies with completely different ones. The process of completely changing the former approach of the state, the re-structuring and demolition, is done in such countries without any opposition because there are no real establishments on the official and popular levels or because of the absence of their role due to their weakness. Pointing out this phenomenon is very important in this phase of history, where countries going through the Arab Spring are also going through a phase of dangerous instability amidst a stormy atmosphere.
There is also a possibility that there will be a return of individuals to rule once again, especially as the only establishment which has remained intact in these countries is the military establishment.
A democratic structure does not only mean elections once every four or five years to elect governing councils and house representatives. A true democratic entity means building active establishments in society at the official and popular levels that are run by people who understand their characteristics and value their responsibilities.
— Dr Mohammad Akef Jamal is an Iraqi writer based in Dubai.