Legitimacy, Consent, and the Search for a Successor

A century after the end of the Ottoman Empire, no successor to Istanbul’s sultan-caliph has emerged

Legitimacy, Consent, and the Search for a Successor
Caliph Riding in Procession Through Constantinople (Photo by George Rinhart/ Corbis via Getty Images/ New Lines.

My academic record as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, many moons ago, is eminently forgettable. Yet there is one classroom-related episode I remember clearly – perhaps the only one.

John Ruedy, later to emerge as a brilliant professor of Middle Eastern history, was paying his dues as a junior member of the faculty, teaching a course in comparative politics. I was focused on Asia. Having enrolled as a cadet in Georgetown’s Army Reserve Officer Training Course, I sensed I would eventually be traveling to Asia, specifically to Vietnam. In this case I proved to be prophetic.

Ruedy traversed many regions in his classes, but it was when he got to the Middle East that he spoke the words that have stuck with me:

“Ladies and gentlemen, it has been 45 years since the passing of the Ottoman Empire. Forty-five years. And yet the question that defines politics in nearly every Arab country is the following: Who, with the passing of Istanbul’s sultan-caliph, is entitled to rule? Who or what replaces the sultan-caliph and the Ottoman system in terms of political legitimacy?”

Two years earlier, in the summer preceding my senior year of high school in 1964, I had lived with a Syrian family in Damascus as an American Field Service “American abroad.” The president of Syria was Amin al-Hafiz, a Baathist general who had been installed in power via a coup the year before.

Mealtime conversations with my Syrian family and friends often centered on the prospective political longevity of al-Hafiz and the Baath Party. Three years earlier, Syria had seceded from the United Arab Republic, an Egypt-dominated union of the two countries. There were rumblings of pro-Nasserist sentiment and plotting within Aleppo-based Syrian military units. Would the Egyptians come back? Was al-Hafiz wielding power himself or merely fronting for others? Would his fellow military officers back him or pluck him from the presidential palace and deposit him in Mezzeh Prison?

Members of government gathering before the putsch led by Salah Jadid. Picture taken in 1963 / Derzi/ AFP via Getty Images/ New Lines.

To a 17-year-old American, daily Damascene gossip about coups was something new and different.

The American political system I knew and experienced seemed anchored in law and rooted in customs meant to transcend the ambitions and whims of politicians. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated only a few months earlier, followed by a seamless, if scrappy, constitutionally mandated transition to Lyndon Johnson. When Johnson took the oath of office, even those of us who had worshipped JFK accepted that the system was working. No one questioned whether LBJ was entitled to serve as president. Even those who opposed his policies or took exception to his persona recognized he had the right to occupy the Oval Office, that his exercise of power was entirely legitimate.

John Ruedy’s words crystallized for an otherwise clueless sophomore what he had witnessed in Damascus two years earlier: political power without the stabilizing benefit of legitimacy. Today, hearing the incumbent US president refuse to commit to a peaceful transition of power if voted out of office, I find myself thinking back to those lessons from Syria.

Had I been sufficiently wise or educated to have asked my Syrian family and friends whether they thought al-Hafiz had the right to serve as president, it might have provoked a question in response:

“What do you mean by ‘right?’ He and his Baathist colleagues seized power a year ago. Like the Egyptians they first supported and then expelled, the Baathists expropriate our property and repress us with an intelligence network that grows like a weed. Our opinions mean nothing to them. Yes, al-Hafiz is the president of the republic. He has the title. But someday he will be gone. We have no say in any of it.”

Compared to some of the leaders in the Arab world today, al-Hafiz was a person of moderation and grace. Still, what legitimacy he had was fragile. He and the system he represented had not replaced the absent sultan-caliph. Syria was in effect a political free-for-all in the mid-1960s. A half-century later, the direst consequences of political illegitimacy would destroy the place.

During the centuries of empire, no Ottoman ruler was without internal opposition. Yet only along the empire’s predominantly Christian edges – Greece and the Balkans – and in the Persian-influenced Shiite east was there substantial sentiment that the sultan-caliph had no right to rule. Good and bad, sober and foolhardy men occupied Topkapi Palace for centuries, running a vast empire through appointed governors who, in turn, ruled through local feudal and religious authorities. Actively seeking the consent of the governed was not part of the Ottoman formula; tacit consent was sufficient. But the rule of the sultan-caliph was an accepted fact of life nearly everywhere, with his right to rule rarely questioned.

Much of the Arab world still searches for the sultan-caliph’s systemic successor. The search was sidetracked by Europeans carving up the empire post-World War I, a diversion continued by those purporting to be leaders during the era of independent states. With rare exceptions, these leaders – Gamal Abdel Nasser and his successors in Egypt, al-Hafiz and his successors in Syria, Abdel Karim al-Qasim and his successors in Iraq, and others elsewhere – have sought legitimacy from a variety of ingredients: nationalism, populism, pseudo-socialism, anti-imperialism, personal charisma, personality cults, political Islam, strategic corruption, and violent repression. Every conceivable ingredient has gone into the mix save the one that counts: the consent of the governed, solicited and respected.

Some would-be successors to the sultan-caliph did better than others in conjuring legitimacy, or at least the appearance thereof.

Nasser’s enormous charisma and his successful 1956 resistance to the tripartite aggression enabled him to mask destructive micromanagement. Until his death in 1970, there existed in Egypt strong consensus that he had the right to rule.

Syria’s Hafiz al-Assad brought real science to strategic corruption, masquerading despotic family and minority sect rule as the modern, secular alternative to Islamist sectarianism. His son Bashar would add superficial modernization and a rhetorical commitment to liberalization to create the appearance of legitimacy before quickly falling back on mass repression and state terror for political survival.

Legitimacy involves agreement that the political system purporting to govern has the right to govern. This is not a matter defined by public opinion about the performance of a specific political leader. Most Americans, according to polling, believe that President Donald Trump is performing poorly.  Yet very few deem him to be serving illegally.

Legitimacy is not the same as majoritarianism. In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood achieved power in Egypt via a sharply contested election. Once in office it deemed itself unconstrained by consensus and unanswerable to the broad consent of the governed. Many Egyptians came quickly to see the Brotherhood as governing illegitimately. Many Egyptians also see the dictatorial successor regime as illegitimate.

Legitimacy – or at least the appearance of it – can be purchased (or rented) by producing outstanding economic results. China is one example. It can also be squandered in places where it exists or appears to exist. For example, no succession of military gains will ever enable Bashar al-Assad to rule legitimately in Syria. His regime has presided over vast war crimes in a still-young 21st century.

In Lebanon, a grasping, corrupt, and thoroughly self-serving political class has utterly liquidated any claim to legitimacy the pseudo-democratic political system may once have had. The Lebanon that came out of the Ottoman Empire and French colonization has lost a sultan but preserved sectarianism and feudalism.

Lebanon’s path to statehood and political legitimacy will require nothing short of a national revolution, one that holds the discredited political class accountable for its thievery and negligence. Accountability will likewise be a prerequisite for legitimate systems to be built in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere.

Ironically, as one surveys the Arab world for legitimate rule, the only positive reviews one hears are often from monarchies: Morocco, Jordan, and Oman. There may be citizens in all three places opposed to governmental policies and personalities, but in all three there is broad agreement that the system enjoys the sanction of law and that officials – including kings – are generally responsive to the wishes of those they govern.

There are also mass Arab political movements dedicated to the proposition that religion is the source of political legitimacy and that models of governance enacted by the Prophet Muhammad and his early successors should be followed.

Yet, when political Islamists in the Middle East have gained power, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza, they have unfailingly demonstrated the same lesson as politico-religious leaders elsewhere: When human beings purport to implement the will of God, the results – incompetence, intolerance, corruption, and relentless self-service – are often indistinguishable from those produced by people inspired by earthly motives. Claiming to represent the will of God in the politics of mankind is an abomination – yet it never seems to go out of fashion.

Gamal Abdel Nasser gets a kiss from a citizen of Cairo / via Getty Images/ New Lines.

John Ruedy lived until August 2016, some 50 years after delivering the lecture that resonated in the mind of one of his least-talented students, yet he did not live long enough to see a successor for the sultan-caliph. The search for that successor, in a systemic if not personal sense, continues in much of the Arab world. As someone who loved the Arab world, Ruedy was fully appreciative of the region’s greatest asset – not culture, not creativity, not even cuisine, but people. A population overflowing with talent and initiative; women and men whose skill and initiative are routinely repressed by the greed, violence and corruption of rulers; women and men who have often been obliged to emigrate to places like the United States, France, and Britain to be able to live freely, prosper economically, and contribute immeasurably.

But why are places like Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq unable to hold their populations and create legitimate political systems featuring consent of the governed and rule of law?

They can. But it will take events much stronger than the Arab Spring to make it happen.

In the 21st century, the successor to the sultan-caliph will not be found through the crudely manipulative, top-down methodologies of the 20th century. Succeeding systems will be found by unleashing the repressed skills of people far more talented than their abysmal political masters. Youth-driven revolutions – ideally peaceful, though that may depend on nonviolence by rulers – will be required.

The peoples of the Arab world will find the answer to Ruedy’s formulation when consent of the governed and rule of law replace official repression and larceny. Until then, other thieves, in the Middle East and beyond it, stand to benefit from official negligence, incompetence, and violence. Western officials should keep in mind the perils of illegitimacy in their dealings with Arab states and leaders. Having a “favorite dictator” in the Arab world does not comport with American national security interests. It has been only a century since the departure of the sultan-caliph. Yet, ideally much less than another century will be required to find his legitimate, systemic replacements.

If Professor Jack Ruedy were still around today, “45 years” would be the only segment of his statement to be updated. Illegitimate governance continues to reign where the sultan once ruled.

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