A man dressed as Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi takes part in a protest in Benghazi. Image Credit: Reuters

In a previous article I argued that the revolutionary Arab regimes, those who claimed to have led revolutions to rid their countries of presumably backward ruling elites and establish modern states, have in fact established nothing but ruthless dictatorships.

In the 1950s and 1960s, revolutionary forces in the Arab world portrayed their conservative rivals as a major hurdle towards the establishment of modern states and societies. In Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, the monarchy was overthrown and ‘modern' republics were founded in place.

At the time, the overriding argument was that the military establishment was better equipped to start a modernisation process from the top, attempting to change, forcibly if necessary, the conservative culture of Middle Eastern societies.

As protests and uprisings against the so-called revolutionary Arab republics sweep the region, this argument has proven to be absolutely baseless. In fact, in most of the Arab states in which revolutionary forces overthrew traditional or conservative regimes, a police state was established, corruption became institutionalised, poverty increased, basic human rights were violated, freedom of expression was denied and a minority of business and political elites has reigned unchallenged.

In brief, ‘revolutionary' forces have shown utmost determination not to allow the emergence of a vibrant civil society or a force that might threaten their control of wealth and power.

By contrast, the conservative regimes which survived the revolutionary tide of the 1950s and 1960s proved to be more rational. They adapted quickly to rapidly changing regional and international conditions, including the end of the Cold War, the globalisation of trade and commerce and the revolution in information technologies.

Limited reform

Some have accordingly undertaken limited but important economic and political reforms. The revolutionary regimes, by comparison, resisted change and tried to thwart any attempt towards democratisation, or at least start some sort of political liberalisation.

Furthermore, as the uprisings in the Arab world have shown, the more revolutionary the regime is, or claims to be, the more violent its reaction to protest or dissent becomes. In Tunisia and Egypt, the regimes used violent means to quash the protest movements. Police fired at protesters, claiming the lives of a few hundreds in each of the two countries.

In Libya, the revolutionary regime of Muammar Gaddafi is using extreme force to suppress the rebels, including tanks, warplanes, rockets and missiles. So far, according to human rights organisations, at least 6,000 people have been killed by Gaddafi's security brigades and mercenaries.

By contrast, when police confronted protesters in Arab monarchies, very few lives have been lost. In other cases not a drop of blood was shed.

In Bahrain and Oman, for example, governments moved quickly to contain the protest movements by meeting key public demands. In Jordan, the government not only allowed demonstrations, but has also provided security for opposition leaders.

Likewise, the more violent the regime is, the more radical the demands of the street become. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, protesters sought or are seeking regime change. By contrast, in conservative Arab monarchies, people seek reform of the regime. In Jordan, for example, nobody, including the most extreme opposition figures, has called for toppling the monarchy. The furthest they went was to call for a British-style constitutional monarchy.

Big contrast

One way to explain this contrast involves referring to the different nature, culture and political structures of monarchies and republics in the Arab world. Unlike republican regimes, the institutions of Arab monarchies provide a fertile ground for the concept of power-sharing.

Most Arab monarchies rule in tribal societies and their governments reflect a relatively small polity highly coloured by the tribal ethics and customs, where the concept of consultation occupies a central stage. Monarchical political institutions hence are more open to compromises than any other sort of authoritarian regime.

In addition, Arab monarchs can allow their people a voice in the conduct of the government without surrendering their thrones. Other sorts of modern authoritarianism, by contrast, lack popular legitimacy and hence rule by virtue of the power they possess.

The success of Middle Eastern monarchies to deal more effectively with calls for democratisation could also be attributed to their ability to combine traditional institutions with ones more modern, or more liberal. Hence, political development in these cases was possible through the adaptation and evolution of traditional institutions, rather than through their destruction — something seen as being necessary in the case of revolutionary regimes.

Having said that, it is almost certain that democratic transition in Arab republics will be much more violent compared to Arab monarchies and Libya is a case in point. 

Dr Marwan Kabalan is director of the Damascus Center for Economic and Political Studies.