The popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia have shown, amongst many other things, how troubled the relationship is between the state and society in the Arab world. They have also revealed how detached the Arab ruling elite is from reality. Most analysts agree today that the modern Arab state is facing the greatest challenge ever to its power, legitimacy and perhaps very existence.
To understand the venerability of the state in the modern Arab world we may need first to admit that it has failed to adapt itself to a rapidly changing environment. For more than six decades the state in the Arab world has employed three strategies to keep control over society.
These are: 1. total control of the economic sphere; 2. restricting the flow of information and indoctrinate the masses through massive state propaganda machine and; 3. a full fledged deployment of its security apparatus. These strategies have all but weakened in recent years. Both exogenous and indigenous factors have played against the power of the Arab state.
Arab states with a socialist way of development and under pressing economic difficulties (resulted mainly from the employment of vast bureaucracy, widespread corruption and mismanagement) and increasingly globalised economy were forced to liberalise their economies; and by the same token eroding much of their economic power.
Although the state is still the biggest employer in some Arab countries, more people are employed now by the private sector, significant part of the inefficient public sector is sold, and the age of retirement has been reduced to allow younger generation work opportunities.
Not unexpectedly, the introduction of structural adjustment policies has aroused public anger in different parts of the Arab world and their heat particularly for the salaried classes are being felt increasingly.
The traditional base of support in Arab republics — the rural middle and lower middle classes who were thought for decades to rely on the state as a patron and protector — has been eroded.
For these particular strata, the new policies were synonymous to an act of betrayal, where a widespread conviction prevailed that the state has reversed course and left them easy prey to the symbols of global capitalism: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It is not surprising, therefore, that it was those who rioted in Egypt and Tunisia against and brought about regime change.
Not only that the middle class felt being abandoned by the adoption of partial but disrupting economic liberalism, but its old adversary: the national bourgeoisie, replaced it as favourite in state circles. Policies of the 1950s and 1960s which were dedicated for the destruction of the national bourgeoisie have been reversed. In Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, to name but a few, new laws are passed to win those who were once excluded and forced into exile. The state is pleading now for the old bourgeoisie to return home and bring its investment too. In brief, the economic power of the Arab state has been eroded and its financial leverage over the society has been weakened to a great extent.
The information technology has also played against the power of the Arab state. The role of the state as an educator, in the Gramscian sense, has been challenged, if not totally collapsed. Arab states are no longer in a position to select for their people the sort of news and information they need to know.
Signals of Arab and foreign, private and public satellite channels are crossing national borders without permission providing their audience the opportunity to select for themselves the sort of programmes they want to watch. And with no integrated ideology to indoctrinate the masses, the massive state-owned media machinery has become all but irrelevant.
The only sphere in which the power of the Arab state has not been challenged until recently is in the security area. The state in the Arab world still monopolises the right to the legitimate use of force. However, although Arab regimes have become increasingly dependent on their security forces which function as a shield against public anger, it is losing grip over the flow of information, and the lack of an integrated ideology to maintain its old base of support, the state could not solely rely on its security apparatus to maintain the status quo and delay badly needed change.
The total reliance on its security arm to maintain its legitimacy reflects the very weak nature of the Arab state and reveals the seriousness of the challenge that lies ahead.
This was the background against which a complete understanding of the current uprisings in the Arab world can not be obtained.
Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is director at the Damascus Centre for Economic and Political Studies.