A widely held belief in the Arab world holds that some elements in the West secretly oppose democracy in the region because free and fair elections would produce anti-Western governments. However one overlooked aspect is the role that leading businesses in Arab countries play in stifling democracy.
The most glaring example of businesses in bed with authoritarian regimes became evident when anonymous posters appeared last summer in Cairo’s streets. They urged Gamal Mubarak, the influential son of Egypt’s president, to run for next year’s presidential elections to succeed his father.
Mustapha [Carnal, a political science professor at Cairo University, commented that the “campaign began at the proposal of some businessmen who fear a deterioration in President Mubarak’s health and believe that it is better to quicken Gamal’s succession while his father is around”.
After his return from London about a decade ago, Gamal Mubarak rose through the ranks of the ruling National Democratic party to head its influential policies committee. Businessmen with strong ties to the NDP and Gamal Mubarak include Ahmed Ezz, a billionaire steel magnate who also serves as the NDP’s secretary-general for organisational affairs, and Hisham Talaat Mustafa, the property and construction magnate who was jailed for 15 years in September for his role in the death of a Lebanese pop singer.
Interestingly, Al Ahram, the Egyptian newspaper, reported that the NDP’s upcoming parliamentary election list included at least 50 “heavyweight” tycoons, who the newspaper claimed would be selected unopposed because “no one has the guts to compete” with those connected to the policies committee and its chairman.
In the secretive Arab Gulf, rumours abound that leading businessmen, affectionately called Hamours or “big fish”, are in fact sleeping business partners of heads of governments and ruling family members.
Arab monarchies also appoint important businessmen as cabinet members, speakers of parliament and members of the shura or government advisory councils. Such arrangements ensure their livelihoods and destinies are tied to each other.
Gulf businessmen are generally happy to let governments handle legislation while they look after profits, although this model has not worked as successfully as they would have liked. In Kuwait, Dr Ahmad al-Baghdadi, a leading liberal thinker who died last summer, told Al-Hurra, the US-based broadcaster, that Kuwaiti merchants tied to parliament stood idly by while Islamists voted to curtail freedoms. The merchants only spoke out, he said, after it was too late when these restrictions started biting into their bottom lines, as in the case of having to build segregated private school and university campuses for male and female students.
In the Arab world, when new governments appear new business leaders tend to emerge. For instance, Assef Shawlcat, Syria’s former head of military intelligence, is President Bashar al-Ausad’s brother-in-law. Today, Mr Shawkat is among the country’s leading businessmen and the owner of its only privately held newspaper.
In Tunisia, Sakher Materi, son-in-law of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has emerged as one of the country’s richest industrial and media tycoons, and is a possible future candidate for the presidency.
Because of a web of joint interests, it often seems that wealthy, government-connected businessmen in the Arab world have little or no interest in genuine democratic processes, political reform or accountability. The one thing that is certain in the region, is that the relationship between governments and leading businessmen is far more complex than elsewhere.
The phenomenon of marriages of commerce and power ensure that destinies are entwined for many years to come. It is only when the local media are allowed to report freely on these relationships that people will be made aware of their extent and the barriers they pose to democratic reform.
This article was originally published in The Financial Times on November 24, 2010.