Sunday, September 18, 2005

Arab Leaders and How They Treat Public Criticism

By Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Arab officials are not used to any sort of criticism, especially in public, and don’t tolerate open debate about their performance.

Now and then, I have off-the-record conversations with Arab leaders of various levels in the public and private sectors. Most are unelected.

I ask them: Why don’t they allow intellectual, peaceful dissent and free discussion of ideas and thoughts? They have the power to pick and choose among proposals; so why the imposed silence and unilateral governance?

Their rationale goes like this: Talk to me respectfully and I’ll listen and consider. Do that in public and you put me in a serious dilemma. If I respond positively, I admit to having made mistakes and you take credit and steal the victory. Worse, by relenting to your demands, I show weakness. You can’t run a business, let alone a country like that.

Besides, in our culture, you don’t humiliate your leader, be it a father, a boss, a sheikh or a president. We shouldn’t copy less respectful societies in this regard.

Eastern societies are different. We don’t go around smearing the image of our heads and expect them to take it kindly. Of course leaders get angry; they are only human. Of course they punish offenders; they have prestige, security and unity to protect. Wrong approaches deserve bad receptions.

If you are sincere, then don’t make a scene. If public interest is your goal, come and talk to me in private. Let me take the credit for doing the right thing. It won’t hurt you, but makes me stronger. However, if it is fame, political gain or any other self-interest you are after, I won’t allow you to gain it at my expense. I will fight you to the bitter end. And you will most likely lose, because I have the muscles and you are toothless.

An Arab public official may add: Make a noise and you might get the outside world’s attention. Some foreigners might take up your cause. Western officials might call on your behalf. This helps me prove you are an agent and traitor. Human rights organizations might protest. Pressure may mount. But it is up to me to set you free. And if I do, I could make your life miserable. You can live outside prison, but the whole country will be your jail. The difference is: I pay your expenses inside, but make sure you are not able to pay them outside. Your call! Your choice!

In response I say: “Those with tight chests and short breaths are not good for leadership,” as an Arab proverb says. If you are so sensitive and thin-skinned, be kind enough to leave the headache for those who are not. You are right to be offended if critics were intruding into your personal affairs that don’t affect your job performance. But if people are criticizing, demanding or advising on issues that concern their well being, then you ought to listen, respect and accept.

Say we are a traveling group. We choose you as our organizer and treasurer. You start acting without our authorization, slipping your gambling loses into the budget or changing our travel plans. Isn’t it our right to raise concerns and objections, present suggestions and proposals and call into review your administrative performance? Why do we have to come, one by one, in private, to discuss such issues with you? Why can’t we debate them among us all? And why is no one but you entitled to take credit for our achievements and proposals?

Most disasters in the history of mankind were caused by dictators. Good governance requires teamwork. No one person, no matter how brilliant, decent and strong, can successfully lead for long without decision sharing. Be it a family, small business, sports team or nation, people need and must take part in the managing of their own affairs.

Systems differ, but the basics are the same. Mechanisms may be tailored to suit different cultures and environments, but they all pursue the same goal — public participation in the decision-making process.

Ordinary citizens must have the divine, constitutionally protected right to voice their opinions publicly or privately without fear of persecution, isolation or retaliation. They should be entitled to expect respectful and systematic responses to their questions, interaction with their proposals, and addressing of their concerns.

Some agree with such logic — intellectually. The problem is, when we talk we are all men of principles. When we act, we are chasers of benefits. Without any protecting, overriding and correcting mechanism, leaders will always pursue their own interests — first.

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