Two new men who appeared on the fast-changing stage of Arab politics this week: General Manaf Tlass, who defected from the Syrian regime, and Egypt’s newly appointed prime minister, Hisham Kandil. They may play pivotal roles in shaping evolutions in their countries. Some of what they represent makes you proud and hopeful to be part of this evolving Arab world. Some of it makes you want to vomit. Changing political orders are like that – full of diseased and distorted values and also resplendent with new and invigorating impulses.
Most of all, however, these two men highlight the single most important criterion that I believe will continue to come into play as Arab political systems move away from their recent half-century of family-run autocracies toward more participatory and accountable systems. That criterion is legitimacy. More than efficacy, more than democracy, more than popularity, legitimacy has emerged as the critical determinant of what will be accepted by Arab populations who have fought and died for their liberties and the opportunity to reconfigure and revalidate their governments.
The appointment of Hisham Kandil as Egyptian prime minister by President Mohamad Mursi was a quiet milestone and critical turning point for Egypt and the Arab world. A democratically elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood appointing a fellow Islamist as prime minister, without any major opposition or turbulence, was an extraordinary sight to witness. It confirmed that most of the fears and warnings we have heard from many Arab and Western voices for decades – that Islamists will take over and ruin the Arab world – are, as American political scientists put it, baloney.
This smooth and incremental assumption of power – limited power, to be sure – by Islamists in Egypt is happening because it is in line with respect for the will of a majority of Egyptians as expressed in elections, an open press, political parties, civil society and a judicial system that arbitrates the whole package. This is also the result of an ongoing negotiation among Islamists, the military, the remnants of the revolutionary youth from Tahrir Square and other smaller groups in society; in other words, it is a legitimate process that reflects the will of the majority and respects the rights of the minority, and that is why it occurs and it endures.
The Islamists now shaping the presidency and the Cabinet will soon be joined by a newly elected Parliament, in which Islamists will also have a significant bloc of votes. This will mark the single most important moment in this transition that has been going on since the January 2011 revolution – the validated incumbency of an elected Islamist-dominated government system that must respond directly and quickly to the demands of the citizenry.
Egyptian citizens want results, services, jobs, equal rights and respect, not slogans, defiance and rallies, as the Islamists mostly provided in the public realm during the old days. Delivering on citizen demands will determine who maintains power in the emerging new order, because incumbency is now more directly linked to the bestowal of populist legitimacy, as expressed mainly in elections.
Manaf Tlass’ story in Syria is a whole different world of values and possibilities. This dashing fellow (like his father the former defense minister) has been close to the ruling Assad family his whole life, and has now defected from his post as an armed forces general in order to join the opposition to President Bashar Assad. He is being touted by some as a potential pivotal payer in a post-Assad transition, and he says he wishes to play a unifying role among the opposition.
It is very hard to take any of this seriously, given his grim lineage and record. Yet the mere fact that Tlass is now considered a player in the imminent transition reflects the sickness and desperation that pervade parts of the Arab political order. Tlass went to Saudi Arabia this week to perform a ritualistic pilgrimage to Mecca, presumably for a combination of personal piety and political support. The legacy of his entire adult life in the service of the brutal Assad security state, however, cannot be erased by such expediency, for he lacks the legitimacy needed to do anything meaningful beyond appealing to other Arab leaders or clueless Western leaders and analysts.
If Tlass wants to play a role in the transition and beyond, the first thing he should do is acknowledge the mistakes he made in the past, and apologize to the Syrian people for his complicity in the decades of cruelty that he was instrumental in managing.
The glamorous Manaf Tlass lacks legitimacy, and the legitimate Hisham Kandil lacks glamour. There is no doubt in my mind – and I suspect in the mind of hundreds of millions of other Arabs – that most Arabs would rather have Kandil than Tlass run their government. We shall soon discover if legitimacy really matters, or if it can be trumped by expediency and money. I will bet on legitimacy, any day.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He tweets at @ramikhouri.