Why Are Arab ‘National Dialogues’ So Fruitless?

BEIRUT - It is quite bizarre that in almost every country in the Middle East where a serious political conflict or war is underway, there is also a parallel political “dialogue” either underway or proposed. If the contemporary Arab world is an example of how political dialoguing works, then dialogue will have a very short shelf life as a serious instrument of statecraft. Just look at the evidence in the Arab region.
In Lebanon, a half dozen different sources of new and established tensions make political life a soap opera of constant drama and threats, interspersed with regular outbreaks of shootings, bombings and kidnappings; at the same time, the major political groups in the country meet now and then in a formal national dialogue under the auspices of the president of the republic.
In Yemen, another half a dozen sources of new and established tensions also tear that country apart or bring it to a halt, while a national dialogue has just been inaugurated that aims to resolve the outstanding issues. In Bahrain, a sustained uprising by mostly Shiite discontented citizens who complain of structural discrimination and abuse has led to harsh government police responses, and now both sides are exploring how to replace street battles with political dialogue.
The uprising and domestic war in Syria gets more vicious every week, as the calls for a political dialogue to resolve the problem become more frequent.
The Palestinian leadership that has been split between Hamas and Fateh for years now has also continuously explored means of dialoguing in order to achieve a national reconciliation, though always fruitlessly. Egypt’s domestic political scene has become more fractured and unstable in the past year, with occasional outbreaks of violence and talk of the armed forces coming back to power for a transitional period; all the while, the elected but challenged president calls the major political groups to a high-level dialogue to resolve the issues that divide them.
And so it goes, all across the Arab world, citizens, organized political and religious forces, tribal and ethnic groups, and assorted government agencies all engage one another in various kinds of dialogues that aim to honorably resolve important issues, but in all cases they fail to do so. Why is the Arab world the graveyard of political dialogue? I suspect it is because the people doing the talking with each other are not serious about engaging in the sort of actions that credible dialoguing requires: offering new ideas, earnestly listening to the other side, being prepared to make compromises, and putting the national interest above one’s own narrow and selfish agenda.
In most Arab countries, dialogue appears to be used as simply another arena in which to practice that which has long defined domestic political contestation: an existential battle in which one side wins, and the others all submit, or disappear. Within the ongoing dialogues across the region, the antagonists also continue to operate on the ground in the several spheres that they believe can achieve victory for them, including military force but also economic and social issues. It is rare that competing parties in the Arab world actually lay down their arms or political weapons, and use the dialogue table as an alternative means of resolving conflicts and promoting the wellbeing of all citizens.
It is important for political scientists, historians and analysts to ponder this issue more closely to better understand why political and national dialogue has become mainly a fig leaf behind which antagonistic forces continue to do battle. I suspect an important reason for this is that the existing political institutions of state remain immature and largely lacking in credibility, or even legitimacy. So parliaments, judiciaries and executive authorities usually tend to be less important than one’s tribal links, military power, or religious affiliation. Connections with the armies of major foreign or regional powers also play a large role in shaping national political configurations.
The irony in most countries is that ordinary citizens at the community level tend to get along with each other much better than their feuding political leaders who operate at the national level. So the problem is not structurally within individual Arab men or women, or even in their cultural or religious values. The problem seems more broadly anchored in the distorted way in which political power is exercised and contested at the national level, which does not allow ordinary citizens or larger numbers of citizens who belong to a single identifiable group to feel that they can actually exercise their rights as citizens.
One of the troubling aspects of the slow-moving political transitions in countries like Yemen, Egypt and Bahrain is that feuding parties are still resorting to “dialogue” as a means of resolving their disputes, without offering any signs that this latest round of dialogues is any more serious than what we have seen in the region for many decades. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri. Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global