Byline by M J Akbar: The next horizon
If I had to shortlist the best journals of the English-speaking universe, the Economist would certainly be at the top of a short and thin pyramid. Insight, interpretation, information and the quality of writing make it a perfect companion; even the British tendency to surrender before the pun “‘The buys from Brazil”, “The Middle Blingdom”...] is more endearing than irritating. But even the most thoughtful commentators of the present can find the future beyond their vision. The 19 February issue of the magazine has a cover story on the Arab awakening. On page 71 is a house-ad for the Democracy Index prepared by its Economist Intelligence Unit for 2010. It concludes that democracy is in worldwide retreat. Even the most perceptive observers can miss a tsunami. After all, the great wave travels under the surface.
It is not entirely foolish to suggest that 2010 is separated from 2011 by a decade or more. Time does not always travel at the same pace. The anger that has lit the Arab streets has been burning below the skin and inside the mind for at least a decade and in many cases far longer. In fact the length of the fuse is evidence of the time that the despots had to take corrective action, but did nothing since they were lost in their own greed, conceit and that ultimate sin of madmen, a sense of indispensability. Muammar Gaddafi sounds genuinely hurt at the thought that Libyans want him and the lurid pests that constitute his family out of their lives. The rest of us did not know whether to laugh or cry when Gaddafi compared himself to Queen Elizabeth, but he was genuinely puzzled. He was no longer a 28-year-old army officer who had rid Libya of a monarchy; he had become the founder of a dynasty for which every Libyan had to be eternally grateful. His mirror told him that he was on his way to martyrdom; he could not recognise the hell he had created for his people. He must believe, therefore, that his murderous mercenaries are fighting some sort of holy war in his defence. He always lived a few steps outside reality. He has now stepped into the comfort zone of lunacy. Neither his region nor the world can afford his survival in office.
An interesting pattern has emerged in the Arab turmoil. Monarchs are proving more durable than dictators. This cannot be only a consequence of personality; nor is blue-blood impervious to the temptation of venality. Kings are rediscovering the power of tradition; unlike a Hosni Mubarak or a Ben Ali or a Gaddafi, they represent something much older than themselves. It is possible for a king to reconcile himself to the republican spirit; and if Arab dynasts understand that they have the option of peaceful transition to popular rule, they can still squeeze some shelf life out of the demands of historical change. Europe is flush with royalty in designer clothes because both princes and their people have learnt to appreciate the value of a constitutional monarchy. A sensible monarch understands the tactile strength of soft hands. Royals, exceptions apart, take far more care about popular sensibilities than civilian dictators; they have had power for so long that they know that the easiest way to lose it is by letting it go to their heads. The price of such folly is, of course, losing your royal head.
It was ever thus. Britain welcomed the coup by Oliver Cromwell, and the fall of Charles II’s head. But when Cromwell decided that his son could become his successor, he learnt that there were limits to British tolerance. Britain cheered the restoration of royalty, but rejected the imposition of a false line on a virtual throne. The rage on the street should persuade Arab monarchs to understand both their peril and their opportunity. There is one serious potential obstacle, however; the advice of a too-clever-by-half courtier who will suggest that the palace can buy time by throwing meaningless tidbits to the people. That option is over. The people have changed, many far beyond their wildest expectations. Armies and bureaucracies have changed. The Arab world has changed. The past is dead. Its memory can be included in the mosaic that is being constructed, step by step, to fashion a new future; but it cannot be revived. The palace can still co-exist with Parliament, but its primacy has been smashed. It can cooperate in nation-building but cannot control it. Its word can serve as suggestion; it cannot be law. The law must shift to the legislature, as in any system that is of the people, by the people and for the people.
All of us missed the horizon last year. That horizon is now amidst us. We must open our eyes to the next horizon, taking shape before us.