The State’s Dilemma: Arab World Power Shifts on the Eve of the Third Millennium

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published a new title in its Doctoral Dissertation Series, Haitham Farhan Saleh’s The State’s Dilemma: Arab World Power Shifts on the Eve of the Third Millennium. The book examines the correlation of the Arab revolutions, as landmarks of transformation of authority, with development in the place and role of knowledge, the latter representing a prominent element of power. The book’s four chapters (484 pages) proceed from this foundation to assess the impact on “the Arab state” of transformations in the Arab world at the onset of the third millennium – and their contribution to resolving problematic aspects of this Arab state. Viewing any resolution of the Arab state’s dilemmas in global context, many scholars felt the Arab revolutions constituted a version of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, referencing last century’s transformations within Eastern European countries – an attempt to resolve the power problematic posed by dictatorial and authoritarian state models.

State or Authority?

The book’s first section, “The Trilogy of Power, Problematic State, and Postmodernist Theses,” consists of two chapters. The first, “Problematic State or Problematic Power,” investigates the topics of power, the state, violent coercion, and flawed democracy; the author discusses established institutional authority and its linkage with the idea of the state, distinguishing the institution from the people who represent it. He examines key associated concepts: sovereignty and nation; the dialectics of regime and political movement; an authority’s legitimization of violence; and democracy and citizenship, including problematic aspects of their practice in elections and representation, or in conferring with decision making circles.

Saleh writes: “The Arab bourgeoisie managed to cross the threshold between a status of subject to one of participant, like any partner in the capitalist system. Participation in the Arab oil-exporting countries is clearly a matter of containment rather than of integration: economic, political and ideological forces – non-capitalist and pre-capitalist – continue to play a very influential role. The Arab bourgeoisie remains weak and threatened in the long run, despite being strong and influential in the short term, benefitting as it does as a focus of imperial interest and through its control of a strategic commodity, namely oil. But lacking strong industrial and military foundations its power is not based on industrial competition, and this renders it extremely vulnerable when confronting major imperial powers”.

Postmodernist treatises

This is followed by the first section’s second chapter, “Power Transfer and Postmodernist Theory,” which takes up the “trilogy” of power, the evolution of the role of knowledge and universal communicative competence, and postulates on the modern and post-modern eras. Based on Alvin Toffler’s propositions on the transfer of power, the author conducts a global survey of postmodernist ideas on power and its transfer, spotlighting the notions of new empire and sovereignty as well as views opposing those of Toffler. The challenges these ideas pose to the state and its accountability, generating new problematics and dilemmas, are also examined.

In this context, Saleh says: “Defining civil society as the locus of social interaction that is relatively free from direct state control enables us to view civil society as organizing itself largely through the activities falling under Locke’s law of opinion or reputation. Public morality emanating from these activities provides the moral foundations on which the legitimacy of the government should rest – at least in principle – and at the same time the foundations on which ethical criticism of political power can arise”.

The Problematic Arab State

The book’s second section, “The Problem of the Arab State: Power Transformation or Regime Change on the Threshold of the Third Millennium?” also consists of two chapters. In “The Crisis of the Arab State on the Threshold of the Third Millennium,” Saleh looks at tribal/clan affiliation as the basis of the structure of Arab societies, at orientalism as an issue related to the engagement of government authority in knowledge production, and at the troubled relationship of culture and politics. These all have an impact on studying the problem of the state in Arab world, and leave a mark on the concept of sovereignty and how it is adhered to in inter-Arab relations, such that its practice in the Arab state forms a model for Third World countries. In addition, the author discusses power transformation as a postmodern issue that could lead to a revival of research in the Arab world from new post-industrial era perspectives on the issues of power, state, freedom, and democracy – perspectives which could lead to new propositions for investigation in future studies.

Saleh writes in this regard: “The superstructures of Arab state and societal systems do not reflect the infrastructure of Arab peoples and communities; the Arab revolutions are simply an expression of this multifaceted and problematic paradox. We see that the Arab Spring revolutions have confronted the authority of the new imperial rule of globalization that is transforming countries into permeable spaces without national borders, under the monolithic slogan of the war against terrorism, powered by the events of September 11, 2001. Events since 2011 in the Arab world have been tantamount to a metaphysical denial of the prophecy of empire, seen in the triumph of globalization over the sovereignty of the greater nation of expanded, imperial borders; in fact the “nation” has shrunk from indicating a citizen’s “national” borders to a bureaucratic construct governing the status of refugee individuals, for whom the very existence of state and nation state has fallen by the wayside”.

The Problem of the Arab state

In the book’s fourth chapter, the author presents “The Problem of the Arab State, Crisis and Power Transformation on the Threshold of the Third Millennium,” highlighting problems regarding power and its relationship to freedom and democracy in the Arab world. To discuss these problems, Saleh addresses freedom of expression in Arab political transformation and regime change and examines the limits to freedom and democratic theory in Arab societies in modernity and post-modernity, with an eye on the future of the nation-state.

Saleh states the following: “Globalization has led to a new reality of obligations imposed on individuals towards the nation-state, and indeed to the world as a whole, at a time when the role and impact of the nation-state has declined as a result of effects of globalization transcending all national organizations and systems. Individuals are now vulnerable to the impact of events taking place on a global scale, as well as to influences at national and local levels with multiple obligations and problems of their own. The world today can observe how the effects of globalization emit warning alarms of disintegration, chaos, and turmoil. Political, economic and social problems appear more complicated than to admit solution, and as a result, many politicians and economists peg their inability to address and overcome the difficulties facing their societies and peoples on globalization”.a

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