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Friday, December 6, 2019

Suggestions for dealing with recent political upheavals in the MENA region

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© Al Habtoor Group, Illustration by Guillermo Munro Colosio

Article written in association with the Al Habtoor Research and Information Centre

It’s a time of change in the Middle East. A lot has happened in a very short period and as a result many parts of the region are still in a state of flux.

What has been made clear is that the Arab leaders can no longer rely upon traditional ways of keeping their people in check such as heavy censorship, repressive security forces or permanent emergency laws, now that the genie of ‘people power’ is out of the bottle. Ordinary people from all levels of society have overcome their fears and developed a new ‘do or die’ spirit.

As we have witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, use of extreme force by the security forces is counter-productive, as is pro-government propaganda aired on state-run television channels.

As a result Arab governments must begin to serve their people, rather than the other way around, by becoming open democracies which are capable of meeting their public’s demands.

Each country obviously has different requirements. However, they all share the need for a just and ethically strong government. But just how can this be achieved? With this question in mind, I have noted what I believe to be the basics of any new political system in the MENA region.

BASICS OF A GOOD GOVERNMENT

A CONSTITUTION

Politicians should be appointed to draft a new modern, progressive and equitable constitution that should be approved by a people’s referendum.

ELECTION OF PRESIDENT AND PRIME MINISTER

Leaders should be elected through free and fair elections that are monitored by independent electoral bodies.

LEADERSHIP SUCCESSION

Presidents should appoint vice-presidents, who are empowered to step-in in the case of their own illness or indisposition for any reason. And embodied in the constitution of any country should be a clear succession plan to avoid any leadership vacuum occurring.

LIMIT ON PRESIDENTIAL , PRIME MINISTERIAL TERMS

Under the constitution, no President or Prime Minister should be allowed to serve for more than two terms in office and no term should exceed four or five years.

POLITICIANS PARLIAMENTARIANS

All Parliamentarians should be elected through free, fair and independently monitored elections.

POWER OF MAYORS AND GOVERNORS

Regional governors and mayors should be given some measure of autonomy and an annual budget that they can use as they see fit (with federal oversight) according to the specific requirements of towns and cities within their province. They should also be given a direct line of communication to the President and the Prime Minister.

POLITICAL PARTIES

There should be no bar on political parties – with the exception of extremist organisations, racist groups, religious bodies or those known to have foreign agendas. Political parties whatever their individual ideologies or leanings must be willing to represent all members of a society – including religious or sectarian minorities – without bias.

JUDICIARY

The Judicial system must be entirely independent from the executive branch of the government so that it is empowered to hold leaders and ministers, as well as people from other stratum of society, accountable. Judges should be highly-educated and respected and have impeccable reputations and backgrounds.

POLICE AND STATE SECURITY FORCES

All states should have modern police and security forces. Members of these forces should be educated and trained in effective policing and investigator y methods.

They should be forbidden to use brutality to extract confessions, and from intimidating ordinary members of the public. Besides having to undergo physical examinations, new recruits should be made to do personality tests, designed to weed out those with masochistic tendencies or deep-seated psychological problems.

No police force should use conscripts. Career policemen should be well-paid, facilitated to rise-up through the ranks according to merit and encouraged to view their role in society with pride.

Police forces should hold to the principle that they are there to protect people, rather than oppress them. Besides their policing duties, they must be taught to treat the public with courtesy and respect.

An independent body should be formed to investigate complaints from the public and hold individuals in the police force to account.

CITIZEN’S RIGHTS

All citizens should enjoy universal rights such as free-speech, freedom of expression, the right to assemble peacefully without being subjected to intimidation or fear of prosecution and they should be allowed to demonstrate, provided they obtain the necessary permission. Citizens should also be told that they have a duty to behave responsibly and non-violently.

SOCIAL WELFARE

All citizens should have access to a good standard of education and healthcare, both of which should be free, as well being given index-linked pensions.

The state must work with NGOs and charitable organisations to ensure that no child is forced to live on the street and that the disabled are well looked after in a caring environment.

In countries where a large section of the population is afflicted by poverty, staple foodstuffs like sugar, tea, cooking oil, flour, rice and beans should be subsidised by the state, in the absence of price controls.

Likewise, the poor should benefit from subsidised oil, gas and other forms of fuel.

CORRUPTION

Governments should adopt a zero tolerance policy towards corruption. It should not be tolerated, starting with ministries and government bodies. Independent investigatory units should be set-up to eradicate corrupt practices and should be empowered to have access to complainants, witnesses and the bank accounts of officials.

Leaders, ministers, governors and mayors should be barred from pursuing personal business during their period in office.

During this time they should be suspended from being members of a board and their investments should be held temporarily held in trust. They should also be asked to provide full disclosure of their wealth and assets prior to entering office.

No state-owned companies, factories, industries or land should be sold to the private sector by a minister. All such sales should be approved by a committee made up of members of the judiciary, the business community or from academic backgrounds.

Government employees and civil servants should be well-paid to deter them from using their positions to extract bribes, which many currently do, some in order to support their families.

NEPOTISM

No minister, government official or high level civil servant should be permitted to appoint members of his family or close friends to top positions.

HOUSING

Government-owned banks should launch funds to enable young people to take out loans for purchasing homes. Privately owned banks should be encouraged to provide mortgages to citizens who have been vetted as to their ability to make the payments.

NEW BUSINESS

Governmental financial assistance in terms of loans and tax breaks should be given to individuals and companies wishing to try new ventures that are likely to increase fiscal income and create jobs. The process of starting up a new business should be made as simple as possible.

AGRICULTURE

States which have vast tracts of agricultural land should offer incentives to farmers to grow the produce required by a country so as to limit imports.

Farmers should be offered loans to purchase modern machinery and governments should pay fairly for their quotas. This would also discourage farmers and their employees from having to compete for work in overcrowded cities.

Governments should ensure that agricultural land is protected and not sold to often unscrupulous, developers.

FOREIGN INVESTMENTS

Foreign investment should be encouraged by the provision of government assurances concerning the free repatriation of profits and tax incentives. Red tape should be kept to a minimum and no prospective investor should be required to make under-the table payments to officials in order to acquire a license.

ECONOMY REFORMS

In order to create a state of political stability in countries that have experienced revolution, economic reforms must be implemented.

Such reforms should begin with the establishment of facilities and services to develop production-based industries and achieve self-sufficiency in food production and the manufacture of essential goods and products. Economic reforms should address a country’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as highlighting opportunities available in disparate Arab economies. They should also show how the variant economies can complement each other to avert outside threats.

ALLOCATION OF FINANCIAL RESOURCES

There should be a national budget, based on the detailed requirements of a government. Financial resources should be prioritised according to the severity of needs.

Governments should set minimum standards for infrastructure, facilities and services provided in all areas.

Additionally, every citizen should benefit from a unified and high-quality of health, education, social security and welfare.

Secondly, when the minimum standards have been met throughout the country, only then should funds be allocated to projects geared towards improving the country’s exports, gross national product and gross domestic product.

Thirdly, funds should be allocated to long-term strategic plans for development, national security and scientific research.

Lastly, the remaining financial resources should be distributed, based on the contribution of each governorate towards the national budget, ie through income and value added tax.

In those countries where there is no taxation or minimum taxation, the size of each governorate’s population, multiplied by its per capita income, could be used as the relevant criteria for establishing the amount to be paid.

FOREIGN POLICY

Foreign policy should be structured to broadly reflect the views of the population. No state should align itself with the foreign policy of any world power over and above its own national interests.

No state should be pressurised by wealthy countries to implement policies that are detrimental to its own national unity or submit to orders from either Washington or Tehran, which many believe, are using Arab countries as surrogate ideological and military battlegrounds to serve their own agendas.

Like-minded Arab states should join together under the umbrella of a new political or economic body (with the possible addition of Turkey) modelled on the EU, to form a broad-based foreign policy on which all member countries could agree. Unfortunately, the Arab League has yet to prove that it can be more than a debating society.

Arab states should work to increase their geopolitical and economic influence and boost their regional self-defense capabilities. Arabs can no longer rely on the whims of ‘big brother’ America, which some believe has no true allies and is only self-interested.

All over the world, the US has a history of propping up authoritarian regimes and leaders, only to bring them down.

This is especially true in South America where Washington supported General Augusto Pinochet, who was alleged to have murdered 3,000 of his own people and tortured 400,000 more.

Washington also propped-up Argentina’s General Jorge Rafael Videla, a man responsible for the disappearance of 300,000 Argentine nationals. Panama’s military dictator Manuel Noriega, a convicted drug trafficker and money launderer, was also paid by the CIA until the 1989 US invasion of Panama.

The list of US-backed dictators is too long to detail here but includes Haiti’s Papa Doc and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo – the ‘boss’ of the Dominican Republic, estimated to be responsible for the death of 50,000 people.

This was overlooked by a US government that was grateful to Trujillo’s for his anti-Communist policies. Trujillo was assassinated and as a CIA memorandum exposes there, “was quite extensive agency involvement with the plotters”.

Faithful US allies within the Middle East have been similarly burned by their socalled ‘best friend’ Uncle Sam, beginning with the Shah of Iran whose exit was encouraged by the US. However the country subsequently closed its doors on him, forcing him to fly around the world in search of a new home.

Likewise the former Iraqi President fought the Islamic Republic of Iran for eight years at America’s behest, using American weapons, and was given the green light by America’s ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie to invade Kuwait. The story of how he met his fate at the end of a rope is well-known.

Lastly, President Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, who assisted the US for many decades and were considered close, reliable friends, were offloaded by Washington in response to a change in the political climate of the country.

Now, the West is leading the charge to seize their assets and turn those former friends into pariahs.

Just a few months ago, the US, Britain and other European countries were hosting Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and scrambling to do oil, gas, trade and construction deals with him. Today, they are characterising him as a monster.

Leaders are advised to take note of the above historical lessons and not be seduced by friendly Western overtures into departing from the wishes of their people.

LAST WORD

Arab states must become self-reliant and stand together in a bloc to empower their leaders, governments and citizens on the world stage.

Internal good governance is just the first step on the rung of the ladder. Together we must forge a stronger Arab world with solid roots that can never again be uprooted by either internal or external influences.

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