Winter of the Arab technocrats

Last summer, I wrote a short piece about what many considered the Arab world’s most promising trend: the rise of non-ideological, Western-educated technocrats to positions of prominence throughout the region. It’s hard to believe that the article was written less than a year ago. Given recent events in the Middle East, it has the sort ...

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Last summer, I wrote a short piece about what many considered the Arab world's most promising trend: the rise of non-ideological, Western-educated technocrats to positions of prominence throughout the region.

It's hard to believe that the article was written less than a year ago. Given recent events in the Middle East, it has the sort of relevance usually reserved for discussions, say, of pottery techniques employed during the Fatimid Dynasty. The question I was trying to shed light on was: Can these technocrats, despite lacking political legitimacy or control over the coercive instruments of the state, slowly make their governments more just and representative? The answer: They can't do it fast enough to quell the anger of citizens outraged by the unjust and unrepresentative nature of their governments.

Meanwhile, the careers of the four technocrats I profiled are sinking as fast as their hopes for a slow-motion transformation of the regimes they served. In fact, at this point, all of them either have been kicked out of their positions or are on their way out.

Last summer, I wrote a short piece about what many considered the Arab world’s most promising trend: the rise of non-ideological, Western-educated technocrats to positions of prominence throughout the region.

It’s hard to believe that the article was written less than a year ago. Given recent events in the Middle East, it has the sort of relevance usually reserved for discussions, say, of pottery techniques employed during the Fatimid Dynasty. The question I was trying to shed light on was: Can these technocrats, despite lacking political legitimacy or control over the coercive instruments of the state, slowly make their governments more just and representative? The answer: They can’t do it fast enough to quell the anger of citizens outraged by the unjust and unrepresentative nature of their governments.

Meanwhile, the careers of the four technocrats I profiled are sinking as fast as their hopes for a slow-motion transformation of the regimes they served. In fact, at this point, all of them either have been kicked out of their positions or are on their way out.

Former Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has borne the highest costs from the Arab Spring. The IT whiz was thrown under the bus by Hosni Mubarak in the early days of the revolution, and has since become a symbol of the sort of corruption and cronyism that Egyptians detested about the former regime. In April, prosecutors announced that he would be brought up on corruption charges. The fact that Nazif deserves perhaps one cheer from Cairo’s revolutionaries for setting up the digital infrastructure that made it possible for them to coordinate through the Internet has not stemmed the flood of condemnation.

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah al-Dardari, who had been doing battle with Syria’s sluggish bureaucracy in an attempt to introduce free market reforms, was also a loser from the current unrest. Not only was Dardari removed from office during President Bashar al-Assad’s Cabinet shakeup last month – his position was abolished from the government. That’s just one more indication that, even if the Syrian regime survives, Dardari’s dream of economic liberalization and increased foreign capital flows will almost certainly be dashed amidst Assad’s authoritarian retrenchment.

My other two technocrats are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Ziad Baroud, who has been serving as Lebanon’s caretaker interior minister for the past four months, has apparently soured on public life — he now says that he has no desire to serve in the next government. That leaves Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is likely to be something of a sacrificial lamb in the newly-announced Palestinian reconciliation deal. The American-educated economist has made few friends in either Hamas or Fatah, and most reports suggest that he will not be reappointed to a ministerial position in a forthcoming unity government.

Though they may have said and done all the right things while in office, these technocrats were also deeply complicit in the rule of deeply corrupt regimes. All of them made some positive changes on the margins of their countries’ political life, but did nothing to fix the fundamental grievances that erupted this year in the Arab Spring. And for that, of course, they deserve their fates.

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