The Case for a New Social Contract for Arab States

By Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh is a retired Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a founding director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and the Global and the National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. Since retiring from the government, Nakhleh has consulted on national security issues, particularly Islamic radicalization, terrorism, and the Arab states of the Middle East. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

OPINION — According to the DAWN 2021 Annual Report about the Arab world, the region’s peoples “continue to aspire to democratization and respect for human rights.” Tyrannical rule and foreign governments’ support of it are key impediments to democratization. The old social contract stipulated regimes could rule as they saw fit, so long as they provided for the safety and wellbeing of their peoples. Those pacts have clearly failed. Regimes are no longer able to fulfill their part of the bargain, and peoples’ aspirations have gone unmet.

The time for a new social contract based on different assumptions grounded in civil rights, pragmatic approaches to democracy, stability, and personal security, and on new partnerships within civil society is long past due. While autocracy remains the hallmark of many Arab regimes, it is an increasingly fossilized relic. Influential outside powers — notably the United States, Britain, and France — should re-examine their support of autocratic rule and re-assess whether such support truly serves their interests.

Autocratic regimes did serve American national interests on some important issues in the past two decades, but conditions in the region have changed dramatically since then. The quid pro quo formula between undemocratic regimes and the West has all but evaporated. The other aspect of autocratic support that has always been overlooked is that while regimes were ostensibly supporting American interests, they were feverishly pursuing their own interests as well. Their primary goal has always been survival as unquestioned and unaccountable holders and dispensers of power and patronage in their societies.

Continued support by Washington and other Western capitals for these regimes can no longer be justified. By ignoring Arab publics’ demands for freedom, democracy, and justice, the West is destined to confront human rights quagmires in the region and beyond. Nor can it convincingly claim that the absence of a democratic culture in Arab societies justifies continued repression.

Outside patrons and protectors should work with willing regimes and with Arab civil society to develop a new social contract that is future-oriented, people-focused, and inclusive. Before examining the specifics of the proposed compact, let’s review two strategic American national interests that Arab autocratic rulers have helped the United States promote in lieu of Washington’s support for their tyranny.

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Terrorism. Since September 11, 2001, U.S. national security agencies worked closely with Arab autocrats against terrorist organizations and groups, including al-Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Qaeda regional affiliated groups, the Islamic State or ISIS, and other groups in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Intelligence services in many Arab countries provided information and contextual analysis about terrorist groups and individuals who were suspected of plotting terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies.

Twenty years since 9/11, the terrorist threat remains but has waned significantly. American national security agencies have acquired deep expertise in these groups and significant capabilities to track them, eliminate their leaders, and degrade their operations. The support of autocratic regimes, while welcome, is no longer as crucial as it was then. The tolerance of dictatorship for information bargain has lost its luster and usefulness.

Iraq and Afghan Wars.  The two U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan since the fall of 2001 and in Iraq since the spring of 2003 have for all intents and purposes come to an end. In the past two decades, the United States relied heavily on its Arab autocratic allies in carrying out these wars. Senior policymakers in Washington during that period maintained that regional support was critical to pursuing the war mission and serving the general American strategic regional interests.

Much like during the global war on terror, as Washington doggedly cultivated Arab rulers’ support for its regional mission, it ignored their tyranny, endemic repression and corruption, aggression across their borders, and divisive sectarianism. The issue of human rights was totally marginalized. Arab rulers terrorized their peoples with impunity. Consequently, tens of thousands of peaceful Arab dissidents were incarcerated on bogus charges in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere.

The United States accepted those regimes’ narrative of domestic stability and their fake claim that such stability could only be achieved through enhanced restrictions on domestic freedom of expression. But relations between Arab autocrats and the United States were never symmetrical. They got much more from Washington than what they gave. As the US military was deployed to most of those countries, regimes cemented their strongman rule with America’s blessing and militarization.

A new social contract?

Arab scholars within and outside the region have concluded that the old social contract between Arab regimes and their peoples has collapsed. Despite the rulers’ lavish wealth, the peoples of the region are mostly larger, younger, poorer, and inadequately educated. They lack meaningful healthcare and hopeful futures. Many of them live in unsanitary conditions and degraded physical environments.

While most of the rest of the world has moved toward technology, innovation, job-creating enterprises and entrepreneurial start-ups, The Arab world, by contrast, continues to languish in a hierarchical, ossified failed nation-state system headed by unaccountable leaders and struggling publics. Yet, as the DAWN report states, these publics continue to yearn for democratic and accountable governance and human rights.

A new social contract seems the only realistic path toward real domestic and regional stability. To become workable, Arab scholars argue that such a contract should involve influential foreign actors — notably the United States, and the former European colonial powers — legitimate community organizations, regimes, and the private sector, especially large employers and teaching and training institutions. As the different parties begin work on the envisioned social contract, they should be clear-eyed about the key interests of the most important players and the red lines they will not cross in guarding these interests. Pragmatism, inclusion, realism, and compromise should underpin discussions leading up to setting achievable goals and confidence-building benchmarks along the way.

The new social contract must try to achieve a win-win outcome and avoid a zero-sum paradigm. It should include the following basic assumptions:

• It’s not about whether existing regimes should stay or go but about the publics’ free participation in the political process through fair and free elections.

• Government-private sector-civil society partnerships focused on entrepreneurial investments and national job creation initiatives should be financed by major employers, governments, and foreign donors.

• Major educational and training initiatives that aim at growing a generation of young people—men and women—fully equipped to work in the technology-driven economies of the 21st century.

• Partners in the social contract should also fund major projects to promote healthy environments and halting environmental degradation across the region.

• Above all, the new social contract should focus on human dignity, the rule of law, equal opportunity, and sectarian and ethnic harmony.

The envisioned social contract could work if regimes accept accountability and if regime opponents are willing to accept “half a loaf” as a first step. The late Bahraini social justice advocate Jasim Murad often counseled the opposition by saying, “Take what you can and ask for more. Demanding 100 percent from the regime up front will not work.” Sadly, the on-going bloody communal conflict in that country has proven the wisdom of his words.

This piece by Cipher Brief Expert Emile Nakhleh was first published in Responsible Statecraft

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