On Political Institutions: Transformation of People’s Perception and Reform Processes

“Institution” is a word from the 1550s which means “established law or practice”. In modern state structure, a political institution not only functions in law enforcement and embodiment through practices. An institution carries people’s cultures and ideas as well.

With the idea of political order came the concept of institutions as a basic form of human organization within the State. Political Systems in the modern age cannot function without institutions; becoming the pillars of all forms of order. One of the foundational aspects of the modern political organization are a set of values directly linked to the functioning of institutions. To name a few: political organization, participatory and representative mechanisms, checks and balances systems, power, rule of law, control of corruption and political legitimacy. These values should be found in any given government system, but they work at best in democratic systems.

(Illustration by Adrià Fruitós)

In the Arab World, we currently have a crisis of trust vis a vis all types of political and representative institutions. Politically and historically, the people of the Arab World have had two types of interactions or experiences with institutions. The first type is the one that came with the modernization of state structures and bureaucracy, most of it took shape during colonization periods and continued to expand after the independence. The second type is politically marked by institutions that were to bring about the participatory government approach which was supposed to lead the way for a democratic transition, such as Government related institutions, Parliaments, Local Communes… but were yet to stand at the trial of free, just and fair processes.

According to the 2017/2018 Arab Opinion Index generated by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, only 22% showed a high level of confidence in the Institution of the Government, followed by a lesser percentage of 14% for Councils and Parliaments. The data from the survey informs on perceptions on state institutions and government effectiveness, it concluded that “the results reflect a generally low level of public confidence in Arab governments and civilian government institutions” while pointing at the same time that the Arab public has a high level of confidence in their militaries as well as in police/general security. This finding speaks volumes on the perception of institutions in the Arab World and the level of trust the people have and show for their national and local political institutions. The fact that the civil institutions rank lower in legitimacy than the military is only one indicator of how the processes that were supposed to shape the effectiveness of political institutions fell short.

Yet, at this point all state effectiveness is tightly linked to the effectiveness of its political institutions.

To understand the reason behind this lack of trust and legitimacy in respect to political institutions we ought to ask the question of how to measure their effectiveness? if the answer of legitimacy is enough then we are to deconstruct the roots of how the lack there of manifests itself in the Arab World.

The Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) project reports aggregate and individual governance indicators for over 200 countries for six dimensions of governance, one of the dimensions is Government Effectiveness which is the closest to the effectiveness of political institutions. For the sake of the argument we shall look comparatively at 6 countries’ estimate of governance (ranges from approximately -2.5 (weak) to 2.5 (strong) governance performance) from 2018. The report define “Government Effectiveness as the “reflection of perceptions of the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies”. Canada scored 1.85, Switzerland 2.06, UAE 1.40, Qatar 0.74, Morocco -0.16 and Egypt — 0.62.

It is no surprise that modern liberal and democratic states rate higher in government effectiveness where their political institutions do enjoy a legitimacy and a citizen’s trust generated by this effectiveness and by a well implemented process. Yet we cannot overlook that in the Arab World we have a little disparity between the Gulf country and the rest of the Middle East countries, in this case Morocco, Egypt, Qatar and UAE, where the rates are still low in comparison but not as low as non-Gulf states. There is an expression for that, it’s called: “legitimacy of effectiveness”.

The institution’s effectiveness comes from the ability to deliver achievements and results. When political governance is as efficient as people’s expectations, it provokes their trust despite the possible shortcomings. We might even argue that in this case, little does democratic mechanisms matter if the final goal of efficiency is met. In the Gulf State, and especially in UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, this is the general perception of the people.

I remember in one of the classes I took in my masters on Middle East Politics, our professor who was an Arab coming from the United States, was confused every time my fellow Qatari classmates expressed that they do not need to apply western democratic mechanisms in their country since they have already achieved that which democracy is only a tool to attain: justice, freedom, development and prosperity. Their argument stands because they consider their government to be efficient and representative even though it is not elected and no democratic mechanisms are in place.

While on the other hand, and in cases of Egypt, Morocco or even Tunisia, the issue of trust comes coupled with the lack of efficiency which puts forward questions of how we can imagine institutions enjoying legitimacy and being efficient in their context.

Trust can only be attributed to political institutions through their legitimacy, while their success can only be perceived through their efficiency. Representativity is not enough. Currently, countries like Morocco and Tunisia do have to some extent political institutions that stand on democratic mechanisms, yet the lack of trust in these institutions comes from their inability to deliver efficient governance. Some tend to attribute this to the lack of a fully democratic system. Again, this is what the results of surveys and public opinion are conveying to observers. But there is another perspective through which we can deconstruct this general situation of lack of trust and the achievements of results.

In the specific case of Morocco, back in 2011 the constitutional reforms brought a real change in democratic mechanisms and processes linked to political institutions which are yet in the process of implementation until this day. Now that we are in 2019, the constitution is not fully implemented yet, but the general guideline that pushed for participatory democracy, representation, division of prerogatives and power with an overall political will from the head of the state to move forward in development project and openness of government are mechanisms which are very much present and in practice.

(Credit: Abdelhak Senna)

The process of reform in any country requires going through institutions. This is a theory that I closely witnessed in practice back in 2011. When the Arab Spring wave arrived to Morocco in the form of the 20 February Movement, although a number of people along with some political party representatives joined in, the political party currently heading the government; Justice and Development Party (PJD) decided not to officially join the movement. The reason behind the decision was that the party believes in change through institutions in the specific case of Morocco, and it is in accordance with this belief that the party adheres to political participation. By the 9th of March, the King Mohammed VI announced that he will be assembling a committee of jurists who will be responsible for the drafting of the new constitutional reforms. The committee’s work was to be based on the suggestions to be received from all political parties and civil society organizations. According to that the draft went into a popular referendum later that summer and was adopted by the majority.

The following anticipated elections gave a solid win to PJD for two consecutive elections. Which begs the question: why does the majority of people distrust and minimize the role of political institutions and political parties agendas if they continue to vote for the party which did not side with the protests of the Arab Spring, led a campaign for a Yes vote on the constitution and gave the same party a two terms win with a mandate to run the government?

It’s not about the democratic mechanisms, nor about the popular opinion of lack of achievement; it’s about trusting the process.

The new reforms brought a whole new era of participatory, open and fair mechanisms which are still being implemented. If the general public did not believe in the vision of reforms the government has or through which political institutions in the country try to achieve their agenda, they would not have been elected in a free and fair election for two terms consecutively right after the promulgation of the new constitution.

A system that has been put in place for over half a century cannot be changed in one or even two electoral cycles, but glimpses of the path taken can show signs. Some of the reforms the current government has taken were not even popular (some related to but the citizens had to accept it because that is what reforms is about sometimes: taking the hard decisions to fix the system. Although the excitement that comes after every big social event to see radical change happening instantly and immediately can very well have the citizens not fully trust their institutions, the accumulation of gradual reforms should be capable of building up a certain trust in the process. Yet it is not enough.

Countries that go through gradual reforms need to put it in the perspective of a global vision. People’s trust cannot be commended only by having to witness the gradual steps, nor by following up on short terms agendas relevant to specific mandates of government. It is necessary to have a vision for reform, change and political order that all in all incorporates what a longterm development plan looks like. Only then, the gradual success will look like a series of strategic achievements as the wider vision unfolds.

All in all, what we lack according to this analysis is the following: a reform process that is strategically planned according to countries/political parties grand vision, this process needs to be reflected in mandates and governmental plans as it goes to be implemented by political institutions. It should show the political rationale and will behind it, communicate it to the people and make sure their full engagement is guaranteed both in the inception, the follow-up and the accountability later on. This process needs to be planned in a way that strategically reflects, implements and engage the citizens in it. It also needs a solid communication plan that makes sure all the achievements and the political grand vision are understood by the people and that they can actually follow up on the state of advancement in order to have informed conversation, criticism and choose to support one public policy or another.

Only in this manner can we couple legitimacy with effectiveness of government and hopefully be able to move through the current sentiment of lack of trust and the deep social non-understanding of the current reform process.

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Safaa El Halouti

Safaa El Halouti

Corporate Strategist. When not; then art-appreciating.