The Great Divide Between the Arab People and Their Leaders

The Arab public has grown disillusioned with its leaders’ broken promises.

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The modern Arab state emerged in the 20th century, roughly around the time of the Arab League’s establishment in 1945. Since then, it has been dominated by a small group of religious, military and aristocratic elites who avoid discussions about the role of religion in politics and society. To this day, there remains tension between the masses and the ruling class on the legitimacy of the state, and how and why it should act. In most Arab countries, the state quickly dominated religious institutions: Subservient clerics were appointed, religious opposition movements were suppressed and Arab leaders, whether monarchical or presidential, systematically used religion to legitimize their grip on power. From Egypt, where Anwar Sadat preferred to be called the faithful president, to Sudan, where President Jaafar Numayri implemented Sharia law, Arab leaders haven’t shied away from publicly declaring their religiosity. But what sets the ruling class apart from the people is not differences in their levels of religiosity but the political environment in which the elite must operate. Arab leaders must navigate complex regional and international norms that demand that they relinquish some of their critical cultural values to hold on to their positions of power. The ensuing dichotomy between […]

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Hilal Khashan
Hilal Khashan is a Professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. He is a respected author and analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He is the author of six books, including Hizbullah: A Mission to Nowhere. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.) He is currently writing a book titled Saudi Arabia: The Dilemma of Political Reform and the Illusion of Economic Development. He is also the author of more than 110 articles that appeared in journals such as Orbis, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Middle East Quarterly, Third World Quarterly, Israel Affairs, Journal of Religion and Society, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, and The British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.