How Arab rulers hijacking of institutions was at root of dysfunctional democracies?

Morocco - Hicham El Moussaoui - 05/10/2021 11:04

Due to internal and external pressures for democratization, many Arab states have embarked on political institutional reform since the early 1990s. During this third wave of democratization, emphasis was placed only on the need for free political institutions so that democracy could take root. However, despite the implementation of these (constitutions, parliaments, electoral systems, separation of power, etc.), it is clear that Arab democratic systems remain largely dysfunctional. It’s no more sufficient to have institutions: their quality also matters. So, who is responsible of the bad quality of the institutions of democracy?

If in certain way, colonialism introduced a kind of path-dependency contributing to the crisis of political institutions in Arab world, this doesn’t absolve the Arab leaders of their responsibility, namely for having hijacked and captured the institutions for the benefit of their personal interest.

Hijacking of institutions can be defined as the process by which one or a group of individuals, using corrupt or legal methods, attempt to exert undue influence on public policy making or shaping the emergence of the rules of the game (laws, regulations), in order to appropriate the power and resources of the state for their own at the expense of general interest. Hijacking of institutions involves not only breaking rules, but also altering their formation. In this op-ed we will focus on the case of incumbent political leaders who manipulate institutions either for keeping their power or thrive their business interests, which lead to dysfunctional institutions (producing results opposite to its intended purpose).

The Arab constitutionalism is a good example of this institutional hijacking resulting in dysfunctional democracies. Thus, the rulers intervened from the beginning in this process of elaboration to “craft” Constitutions according their interests by appointing ad hoc committees and closely controlling their activities. Besides these pre-constitutional “coups d’état”, constitutional texts were formulated in an imprecise and vague manner, which strengthens the discretionary power of the executive justifying the use of exceptional powers. Therefore, Arab rulers had taken advantage of state of emergency situations to impose their power to their populations, and repressing their freedoms, but also eliminating any opponent. Also, Arab leaders have exploited revising the constitution as a means to keep and/or strengthen their powers, despite the multiparty system from the 1980s. For instance, in Tunisia, modifications of the Constitutions and of the electoral code have become periodic (1995, 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008) and the rules of the game change to directly or indirectly strengthen the powers of the President and created the conditions which favor his re-election. The multiparty system was introduced in Egypt in 1980 by a first revision but, at the same time, removed the limit of presidential mandates by virtue of its article 77. Thus, by this “sleight of hand” for democracy, the way was opened for Sadat to run for a third term, but also for Mubarak until the Arab Spring. Likewise, although most Arab states formally subscribe to the principle of separation of powers, in many countries parliaments are so weak in their representative, oversight and legislative roles, as a result of executive co-optation. Therefore, it isn’t enough to change the heads of the system to remedy this problem. Rather, it’s necessary to explain the incentives underlying the behavior of leaders. In this sense, why Arab leaders had started with authoritarianism as ruling way after independence?

If this system persists, it is because it comes far from a long tradition. Indeed, the European colonial system left behind artificial states with weak identity, legitimacy or administrative capacity. Without the ability to exercise its authority over different groups in society, the postcolonial Arab state resorted to internalizing the governance philosophy of colonialism based on subjugation, exploitation, exclusion, arbitrariness and tyranny, leading to the prevalence of one-party systems or military regimes in the immediate post-independence period at the expense of the development of democratic institutions. However, why dysfunctional institutions persisted even after? Because of Arab rulers wanted to stabilize and reinforce their grip on power. To achieve this, they resorted to neo-patrimonialism (system of governance characterized by patronage, clientelism and a significant blurring of the line between the public and private sectors). Due to the limited power foundations of the postcolonial state, neo-patrimonial policies therefore constituted a political strategy used to secure support for the state by entering into informal alliances with dominant social forces, transforming formal state institutions into resources to maintain extensive clientelist networks. Such systems generally lower levels of accountability, transparency, participation and predictability, leading to dysfunctional democracies. For instance, in the majority of Arab republics (Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, etc.), this was achieved by concentrating political power in the office and person of the president, while bringing virtually all state institutions under the control of the party. In such a system, the institutions of governance become subordinate to the authority of the president and the party, and have been either rendered redundant or misused to further the interests of the latter. Beside the incentive to keep power and foster business interest, Arab rulers invested in this governance mode to protect themselves and relatives from lawsuits following the end of their terms. Hence their relentlessness to stay in power as long as possible, and if better until the grave.

Arab leaders are also responsible for maintaining a rentier economy which is hostile to any democratic transition, by freezing on or sabotaging implementation of public policies in order to keep their power and protect vested interests. Indeed, the rentier nature of the economies in most Arab states also contributes to weakening their institutions of governance by weakening incentives for compliance. With limited economic opportunities outside the public sector, the state and its bureaucracy have become the most lucrative vehicles for the accumulation of personal wealth. While using the power and resources of the state to enrich themselves, politicians and civil servants end up hijacking the same institutions that they are charged with enforcing. This why the poor quality of political leadership in Arab countries is at the heart of explaining dysfunctions of their democracies.