Middle East governments will have to give up power to stay popular

24 February 2011

Muammar Qaddafi’s televised national address on 22 February showed the old power formula no longer works

Rhetoric cannot cross the language barrier, but Libyan revolutionary leader Muammar Qaddafi’s televised live address on 22 February failed to resonate even within the Arab world. References to the deposition of the monarchy in 1969 that most Libyans are too young to have witnessed are not going to discourage demands for freedom and jobs now. Calling protesters rats, cockroaches, drug addicts, alcoholics and foreign agents is no substitute for a proper response to legitimate complaints.

But the central deficiency of Qaddafi’s speech is one it shared with statements from other government leaders during and before the political crisis that has rocked six Middle East nations in four astonishing weeks. He tried to play on the affections of the Libyan people by referring to his anti-imperialist credentials and the material benefits his regime has delivered, but this was followed by threats. Qaddafi put on his reading glasses to recite sections of Libya’s penal code that define circumstances in which the death sentence could be applied. They covered practically anything a demonstrator on a Libyan street might say or do. It amounted to an incitement to kill, but what made Qaddafi’s speech unusual was that he said it openly. Many others in power in the region, and elsewhere, say exactly the same in private. Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe, the apparent inspiration of Qaddafi’s threatening rhetoric, regularly calls for violence against his political opponents.

The love-me-and-fear-me message would have been familiar to every 20th century dictator from Lenin to Ceausescu. It was no more than the statement of truth in an era when total state control over communications was possible, but mobile telephony and the internet have broken the bureaucratic stranglehold over what people hear, see and say. Governments now have to choose between love and fear – they cannot have both. Qaddafi will soon be like Mubarak and have neither.

If Middle East governments want to become more popular (or less hated), they are going to have to give up some of the power they exercise over the people they rule. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recognised too late that the old formula would not work. He paid the price in the form of an undignified departure from a job that he probably believed he had for life and could control through his descendants from the grave.

For Qaddafi, who consolidated his personal rule by dissolving practically every recognisable institution of government, giving up power could be literally fatal, but other Middle East regimes have more room for manoeuvre. Mubarak’s departure has given Egypt time to develop a new constitution that guarantees a higher degree of personal freedom. Bahrain does not even have to do that. Its original constitution, suspended in 1975, could be revived almost immediately. Properly applied, it will address every political complaint voiced in Bahrain, and not just by the Shia majority.

The 1973 constitution, which was modelled on Kuwait’s, calls for a unicameral parliamentary system and representative government. The consequence in a country that already has universal adult suffrage will be a radical shift in power from the ruling Al-Khalifa family. But there is no option if it is to secure the loyal support of the Bahraini people and embed a viable form of constitutional monarchy. The alternative is an increasingly repressive police state that will be unacceptable to the international companies and highly-skilled professionals Bahrain’s economic strategy has sought to attract for more than 30 years. There’s no third way, any more. The best thing Bahrain’s true friends can do is to stop pretending there is.

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