"Filling out Forms and Arab State Stability"
Magazine or Newspaper Article, Agence Global
October 21, 2007
Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative
AMMAN , Jordan -- Some things move slowly in life, including transitions to democracy and getting governments to treat their citizens decently. I mention these two because they cropped up again and again this week during a working visit to Jordan, where, among other things, I had to twice engage the menacing Ottoman-era bureaucracy: to renew my driver’s license and complete a power of attorney procedure with my brother.
The procedures turned out to be far less demeaning or frustrating than they used to be in years past, when such routine bureaucratic transactions often required half a day of work. We finished the power of attorney form in under thirty minutes, and the driving license was in my hands in 46 minutes.
Bottom line: The streamlining of the bureaucracy and the state serving its citizens in an efficient, dignified manner is probably more important right now for the future of Arab countries than holding elections for parliament.
In Jordan these days, there is some, but not intense, anticipation of the upcoming parliamentary elections. Most citizens are more concerned about things like the cost of living and worsening traffic jams. This will be the fifth parliamentary election that Jordan will hold since the procedure was resumed in 1989. Yet there is little excitement about the process, because it is now recognized -- in all Arab countries -- that parliaments and their elections are only adjunct institutions in a power structure that makes key policy decisions through other mechanisms, both formal and informal.
Parliamentary elections offer insights into popular sentiments and provide a means for ordinary citizens to feel they are engaged in the business of statehood. Yet parliaments do not generate passion because the results of elections can be accurately predicted ahead of time -- not by good polling, but by the rigorous drawing and gerrymandering of electoral districts that the power structure uses as the primary instrument of ensuring chronic parliamentary majorities that side with the government.
The bureaucracy, on the other hand, is far more meaningful to ordinary people’s lives. So when we walked into the Justice Ministry and took a number from a machine -- for a moment I thought I was in a Swiss bakery -- then sat down in unusually unbroken chairs, I knew that change was in the air in the modern Arab security state. A young man walked around selling coffee in clean plastic cups, and a special office for photocopying documents was available down the hall.
When our number flashed on the screens (and an announcement was made in Arabic and English) we took our forms to the designated desk manned by a very pleasant fellow, did the bureaucratic deed, complete with stamps and signatures, paid the fees at the adjacent window, and walked out in under thirty minutes (of which around 20 were waiting our turn on a particularly busy day).
The driving license renewal was equally impressive, if more complex. I filled in the required form and handed it into the first desk, after which I had to make nine different stops in four adjacent buildings, and walked out with my new license in 46 minutes. In years past, this procedure would have taken half a day or so, if you were not turned away and told to return the next day for not having all the required forms that the Ottoman bureaucracy demanded to be fed.
The transformation of a once cumbersome bureaucracy that humiliated ordinary citizens into a rather impressive client-friendly service deliverer that now routinely sees citizens walking away satisfied and emotionally undamaged is an ongoing process that has significant political implications. In a world of top-heavy, security-controlled Arab states that offer no possible opportunity for opposition movements democratically to gain more than about 25 percent of parliaments (which they now do routinely) the center-of-gravity of political stability continues to shift: It moves from the formulation of state policy and the control of military means, to economic conditions and the exercise of power between state and citizen.
Arab governments no longer fear mass demonstrations or coups. The biggest danger they face is mass radicalization due to discontent sparked by daily petty humiliations endured by citizens who encounter their state bureaucracy or security system, along with tensions over making ends meet at the family level. A state that serves its citizens efficiently, swiftly and fairly is a state that has largely neutralized a major potential force of discontent and turbulence.
This gains time for the Arab state. In due course, though, we are likely to see citizens all over the Arab world enquiring about why they cannot be treated with the same sense of fair play and dignity in parliamentary elections, in civilian oversight of security services, in fiscal transparency, and other "big sticker" items.
Most Arab citizens feel that those are issues to be raised on another day -- but they will not go away. Like the tamed and humanized bureaucracy, the Arab political power structure can and must be modified to serve its constituents more efficiently and with dignity. For this year, a clean waiting seat and coffee are a refreshing and welcomed change.
Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award.
Copyright ©2007 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global
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