Crisis of Legitimacy

by Mark Krikorian

At least someone in the administration is facing up to the obvious:

The Obama administration is preparing for the prospect that Islamist governments will take hold in North Africa and the Middle East, acknowledging that the popular revolutions there will bring a more religious cast to the region’s politics.

The real problem in the region isn’t that food prices have gone up or that bureaucrats are corrupt; rather, the problem is that most regimes in the Middle East are not accepted as legitimate by the people they rule. The past 50 years’ blather about pan-Arab nationalism and socialism is used up, and that’s all the non-monarchical regimes had to rely on. But only the infinitesimal share of the population connected to the modern world can even conceive of legitimacy as coming from the consent of the governed — and not even all of them accept it.

That means there are two remaining sources of legitimacy in the Middle East — Islam and monarchy. The Islam part is obvious, and that clearly seems to be where things are heading. I applaud this, since Islam cannot successfully govern under modern conditions, and the attempt will finally lead to widespread abandonment of Islam as it has existed since the seventh century, which is a necessary precondition for the genuine modernization of the region.

But the other source of legitimacy is holding its own. As the Post noted last week:

Efforts to kindle a protest movement in Morocco have met with only limited success, evidence of support for King Mohammed VI and of the effectiveness of tight security around the country.

The “tight security” I’m sure has something to do with it, but the deeper reason is that the Alaouite dynasty has ruled since the 17th century and is descended from the Prophet Muhammad. Jordan is another country where there’s been relatively little unrest recently; though the Hashemite dynasty has ruled there for less than a century, the family’s origins give it real legitimacy — they were a clan of Muhammad’s Quraishi tribe, claim descent from his daughter Fatima, and were the traditional rulers of Mecca.

This is why, as the Times wrote last month:

As the Obama administration grapples with a cascade of uprisings in the Middle East, it has come to a stark recognition: the region’s monarchs are likely to survive; its presidents are more likely to fall.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges to monarchies; Bahrain being the most notable, though there the sectarian difference between the monarch and most of his subjects undermines his legitimacy. But they are likely to weather the storm better.

One country that seems to me guaranteed to end up a theocracy is Pakistan. Yesterday’s Post story on the assassination of the country’s only Christian cabinet minister has this quote from a spokesman for the president: “the time has come for the federal government and provincial governments to speak out and to take a strong stand against these murderers to save the very essence of Pakistan.” But “the very essence of Pakistan” is the problem — Pakistan was created specifically as a home for the subcontinent’s Muslims. Even Bangladesh, which started as East Pakistan, broke away from what amounted to colonial rule by West Pakistan and asserted its own identity. The Pakistan that remains is, by definition, an Islamic state, and cannot have any other genuine source of legitimacy. At least Egypt, for instance, has a chance to develop some other source of legitimacy, since it’s a geographical entity with a distinct, longstanding identity. In other words, a non-Islamic Egyptian identity is possible; a non-Islamic Pakistani identity is not.

In short, if we want stability, go for the kings. But if we want to pursue a worse-is-better policy of heightening the contradictions, then promoting Islamification of government by supporting the democracy protests is the way to go.