The Three M's That Rule the Arab World

The Three M's That Rule the Arab World

 

After a series of recent visits to Arab countries with different political governance systems – Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates – I realized that they reflect power structures defined by monarchical rule in Jordan and UAE, republicanism-turned-security state in Egypt, and consensual electoral tribalism in Lebanon. These countries also offer insights into a new pattern in the exercise of power in most Arab countries. 

Assorted centers of power and identity that have existed in our region for many years include royal families, security agencies, tribal forces, the private sector, political ideologies, military resistance movements, and non-governmental organizations. These multiple power and identity centers reflect the reality that centralized states and governments no longer are able to fulfill the core attributes and responsibilities of a stable state, which I would list as identity, sovereignty, statehood, nationhood, citizenship, legitimacy, the exercise of power, human development needs, accountability and security. 

Many of the identities and power centers that surfaced in the Middle East since the 1980s have now consolidated into three main forces, or the three “Ms” that dominate Arab politics and power structures: monarchy, mosque and market. 

The “monarchy” refers to the ruling powers and their multiple security agencies that have a firm grip on society from the top, whether they are formal monarchies (Jordan, the UAE and others). There are also, in this category, “republics” where power is concentrated in the hands of small groups of civilian, ruling party and military leaders at the top and passed on from one generation to another (Egypt and others). 

The “mosque” refers to movements in society beyond the control of the ruling monarch, of which Islamist movements are the most powerful, but include others such as tribal or ethnic groups, and militias and resistance movements. They often are opposition movements. 

The “market” is the most recent power center that has emerged in the Arab world, and is by far the fastest growing one. The most common visual signs of shared urban values in the Arab world these days are billboards that advertise massive shopping malls, American soft drinks and fried chicken, European and Japanese cell phones, German cars, or fancy gated communities and other ex­pensive real-estate developments that are affordable mainly to the wealthy (who dominate the “monarchy” and “market” groups). 

Private-sector “market” forces continue to slowly infringe upon or even completely take over functions once monopolized by the state and the “monarchy,” such as telephones, education, drinking water and other basic human needs. Multinational money and trans-regional Arab capital are major elements of the “market,” to the point where private investments across the region are probably the single strongest form of pan-Arab integration and solidarity. 

The triad of monarchy, market and mosque is not new. It represents the Arab order reclaiming its historical power balance and identity, from the ancient period before Byzantium and also from the early and middle Islamic eras. The symbolism of monarch, mosque and market is captured best in the architecture of the early Islamic Umayyad era, when the caliph’s palace represented political power, the mosque on the other side of the central square reflected religious legitimacy, and the space in between was the commercial market, or souq. 

The balance among these three principal power centers provided the stability that both citizens and rulers sought, and that merchants needed for sustainable trade and profitability. (This model moved to medieval Europe, where the palace, the cathedral and the market in center-city areas mirrored the urban architecture of power from Umayyad Arabia.) 

The strength of this system is that it provides stability for some time, as it is an indigenous Middle Eastern form of checks and balances among three forces that need each other. It is also a bizarre form of a perfect market mechanism, with the “mosque” being the demand side of popular sentiment, the “market” providing the supply of goods and services the citizens need, and the “monarch” being the regulator in between who would ideally keep the system in balance. 

The system’s weakness is that it does not necessarily safeguard the interests of the poor and those in the middle class who do not have entry into any of the three power centers. 

It remains to be seen how the masters who rule these three interlinked power centers now proceed with the development of their societies. It is clear that they need each other. From their permanent negotiations to define sustainable relationships, we see private politics taking hold in the region – distinct parties with clear interests contesting and sharing power.

The next step in this historical process – as Medieval Europe and 18th -century America experienced – is to move from private to public politics, where the center of gravity is the citizen, and the mosque, monarchy and market serve the citizen, not the other way around as now prevails. 

 

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

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