by Sinem Cengiz
For centuries, historians have used the term ‘cradle of civilisation’ to describe the region known as the Middle East. Situated between East and West, the region is regarded as the birthplace of the earliest civilisations, religions, cultures and administrative institutions.
In the words of Ali Farazmand, ‘The Middle East is the birthplace of bureaucracy in history… Despite rich resources and old traditions, however, most parts of the Middle East are beset by symptoms of underdevelopment, economic poverty, enduring crises leading to political instability, continuous foreign interventions, and a general lack of progress in terms of democratic institutions.’
In the Middle East, the main structures and practices of bureaucratic systems can be traced back to Ottoman rule, which were then reshaped after the colonial era of the French and British. Throughout history, the region experienced several wars, revolutions, counter-revolutions, coups and crises. Despite all these, bureaucracy has remained resilient against all political, social and economic conditions that these crises caused.
It not only remained robust in its resistance to the modernisation movement that originated from the West, but also to the latest wave of Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in 2010, which had a domino effect on Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Although this resulted in the collapse of much of the government and administration systems in these countries, the rigid and outdated bureaucratic system has managed to persist in most countries, remaining as the biggest obstacle to development and progress.
Frustration over the inefficiency and unequal outcomes of their bureaucracy in those countries that experienced uprisings was not the sole reason for people taking to the streets. However, like the Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire to protest official mistreatment, the people of this region are fed up with their ambiguous and impractical bureaucratic systems. Now more than ever, everyone from businessmen, students, journalists, politicians, academics and locals are talking about the state of political affairs and bureaucratic systems of the region.
People, by and large, consider the current bureaucratic system corrupt, biased, and characterised by defective management that favours nepotism, cronyism and incompetence. This situation has led people to question why their governments fail to reform and modernise their bureaucratic systems. Although some governments in the region have attempted reform, these efforts failed to bear fruit.
Today, most of the region’s countries are experiencing high unemployment, financial stagnation and growing political strife. For instance, despite some progress in gender equality, there are very few women who have roles of any significance within the sphere of public administration. Thus, social-cultural factors considerably influence the nature of the bureaucratic systems in the area.
People believe that bureaucratic modernisation must be at the forefront of transforming the countries in this region. However, this doesn’t mean that the Western model of modernisation or a Weberian type of bureaucracy is what is required. Bureaucratic reform cannot be brought on a silver plate, because the ingredients of a suitable democracy for each country in the region should be sourced from material available in its own internal political kitchens. It should, in short, be blended with the political culture of each country.
History shows us how those who believed in exporting democracy failed to understand the cultural structures of any given country, or of the region as a whole. Bureaucracy has developed in the Middle East with variants in each nation, and alternatives to current bureaucratic systems also differ from nation to nation. Ranging from Iran in the East to the North African countries in the West, each particular nation has its own unique circumstances for bureaucratic development and modernisation.
The Middle East is going through a new era and the dynamics of this region have begun to change. The countries in the region need to adapt to this changing situation, taking steps to turn this wave in their favour. This becomes possible only if they listen to the voices of the people, who want to see more active and effective bureaucratic institutions that can operate in harmony with the sociocultural dynamics of their countries. A change in the manner of rule that could develop a competent bureaucracy that collectively delivers efficient public services for its citizens is required. This change will be to the people’s benefit, but it will also be in the interests of those countries’ governments.
In recent years some governments, particularly in the Gulf, have been pushing through social, economic and administrative reforms as part of plans to modernise their countries. It is clearly unduly pessimistic to say that Middle Eastern people will not one day enjoy just bureaucratic systems. Every country will have to take its own modernisation exam within its own context sooner or later. What really matters is not what the West wants but what the people of the Middle East wish to see in their countries. At the end, they have been the victims of this system for centuries.