The meaning of good governance in the Arab world

Arab countries and causes are suffering from the lack of justice, equality and solidarity in the region.

People protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied's seizure of governing power and declaration of putting a new constitution to public referendum, in Tunis, Tunisia,
People protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied's seizure of governing power in Tunis, Tunisia on December 17, 2021 [File: Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi]

My work as a diplomat and an international civil servant necessitated spending many years away from home. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel around the world and become familiar with many cultures and peoples.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned that shaped my vision and my thinking is that – contrary to conventional wisdom – we are one human family. Our hopes and apprehensions are the same. Our joy and grief are also the same. Our basic values of justice, equality, and solidarity do not differ, regardless of creed, ethnicity, language or colour.

Ask people anywhere about their fears and aspirations, and their answer will be identical except for a few minor differences. If this simple yet profound truth were genuinely accepted, we would not be witnessing such violence, persecution, misery and endless tragedies. In other words, if we understood that equality, justice and solidarity are the way to our salvation, the world would be a different place, whether it is in the relations between states or among peoples everywhere or within each state.

Arab causes lost in translation

When I look at the impact of the absence of equality, justice and solidarity on our Arab causes, including the injustice suffered by the Palestinian people and the threat posed by the Israeli nuclear weapons programme, I often wonder whether the world’s attitude regarding our regional issues would have been different if our concept of national security was informed by the public good and not subject to personal whims.

I also ask myself whether the international community would have reacted differently to our legitimate concerns, had our relations with each other been constant and not subject to seasonal changes – if what we said in public was the same as what we did behind closed doors, if our peoples were considered a source of strength, not a liability we must contain, and if we grasped that most disagreements end in reconciliation which means that no matter how bitter the enmity we should not burn our bridges.

I also wonder whether things would have changed if our decisions were based on an accurate assessment of our common interest and a national security policy that takes into account our soft and hard power capabilities and the importance of timing in our strategic decision making.

If we want the world to care about us, we must care about the world. On many of the global issues including the nuclear arms race, climate change, the technology revolution, and women’s rights, we are not active participants in the ongoing debate, unless we believe that it impacts us directly. And even when we do participate, it is often from a narrow regional perspective and in a language that the rest of the world does not understand.

The meaning of equality and justice

If we examine all the Arab uprisings during the last decade, we will find that the quest for equality and justice has been the driver of all those revolts where the system did not tolerate any other means to bring about change. Despite relentless efforts in the region to portray the Arab Spring as a conspiracy and a harbinger of chaos, I have no doubt it will make a comeback in one form or another, as long as its root causes have not been addressed. Tunisia and Sudan are current cases in point

The meaning of equality expressed by the Arab uprisings in different ways can be summed up as follows: We are all equal in our “belonging to the homeland” which entitles us to be partners in its governance; the principle of justice must be upheld and the rights of every human being respected without discrimination.

Participation in governance means a system of good governance that guarantees equality, pluralism, transparency, accountability, rotation of power, an independent judiciary, robust civil society and free media. Democracy is not a perfect system, but it is the best that our contemporary world has come up with to attain human dignity.

A democratic system is by no means limited to the ballot box; it is a comprehensive paradigm based on institutions, not individuals. It requires a civil society to raise awareness of the culture of democracy and consolidate its practices. However, it primarily requires a genuine consensus on a social contract, which guarantees freedom, equality and dignity for all.

Democracy will always be a work in progress that should be adapted to experience on the ground. There are different models for its application but there is, nonetheless, minimum criteria for what can be called a “democratic system”, most notably freedom of expression and belief, guarantees to exercise civil and political rights including establishing parties and independent unions and associations.

When we attempt to simulate democracy in our region, we often jump to elections before building the necessary framework and institutions that guarantee their freedom, fairness and true representation. We usually put the stamp of our “unique” culture on our brand of democracy, which translates into crushing any and all opposition.

By doing so, we end up fooling ourselves but not the world. Considering differences of opinion as a “threat” and those who dissent as “enemies” that must be eliminated with vengeance is a zero-sum game where everyone loses. The “battle” of ideas is the way to encourage creativity and progress. Different visions are essential and healthy.

Understanding the rule of law

And what about justice? It should be understood as abstract rules issued by a freely elected legislature and applied to everyone without exception. Laws should be anchored in justice and not tools in the service of power. The experience of most Arab countries shows that we still have a long way to go before we reach the “rule of law” as universally accepted and defined.

With regard to respect for human rights, we still do not see the symbiotic relationship between freedom and human dignity. In addition, we should understand that empowering people is the basis of security, stability and progress.

We need to accept that the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights enshrined in international human rights conventions are universal, indivisible and non-negotiable. We also need to acknowledge that no region is “unique” and that human rights should not be used as a bargaining chip in geopolitics.  Human rights are rights for each and every human being.

These are some of the basic concepts that are in decline in large parts of our Arab world despite being key to our “renaissance”. The nexus between good governance and progress is unmistakable.

There are some core truths that we ought to embrace if we want to better our lives: nobody possesses the ultimate truth; the sanctity of life is absolute; all human beings have equal rights; human rights are inalienable; science is key to progress; poverty is a form of violence; compassion and tolerance are the essence of humanity; and in the end there is no alternative to living together.

International cooperation is a must

These values and core truths should be our compass at home as well as in our interactions with the rest of the world. This means coming together to address the global challenges we face, including climate change, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, pandemics, organised crime and cyber security. Cooperation in a globalised world is a practical necessity as much as an ethical imperative since no country, no matter how powerful, can cope with these dangers on its own.

It is unfortunate that often our words do not match our actions. For example, everyone is aware of the climate crisis, but only very few are willing to do what it takes to confront it. Everyone warns of the danger of the pandemic, but at the same time we see toxic nationalism and blatant discrimination in the production and distribution of the vaccine.

Unless we reset our collective mindset and make radical adjustments in the international system to be more just and equitable, I fear we will continue on a path that may lead to our self-destruction.

A version of this article was first published in Arabic on Al Jazeera Mubasher’s website.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.