Is business a liberalising force?
Is business a liberalising force?
Wednesday, March 4,2009 13:27
By Amr Hamzawy*

On the otherwise stagnant Arab political scene, something has stirred. Slowly but surely, business elites have found their voice, formed their own associations, and begun to have an input into the region"s political and social life.

Look at how many businessmen are getting elected into our parliaments. In Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain, businessmen are getting interested in politics on an unprecedented scale. The number of businessmen in Egypt"s People"s Assembly (454 elected seats and 10 handpicked by the president) surged from 37 in the 1995-2000 term to 77 in the 2000-2005 term. It stands at 68 at the current parliament of 2005-2010.

In the Yemeni parliament (301 seats), there are 55 businessmen as well as dozens of tribal representatives with major interests in various commercial enterprises. Businessmen maintain a strong presence in the ruling parties of Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia. And in Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain, business elites have many ways of influencing the law-making process.

Most Arab countries now follow a policy of economic liberalisation and privatisation that allows businessmen and their associations a greater say in economic and social matters as well as in shaping business regulations.

The business associations of Morocco and Tunisia and the chambers of commerce of Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are all playing a major role in determining public policy on labour and investment. Before any laws affecting wages, social security, pensions, unemployment benefits, privatisation, trade, and anti-trust regulations are passed, the business community is consulted.

Besides, ruling elites are giving ministerial portfolios to businessmen and appointing industrialists at executive posts directly related to the activities of the private sector. Businessmen often act as mediators between official institutions and citizens, something that may eventually relax the customary grip of the state.

The phenomenon can best be observed in the media and civil society. Private ownership of newspapers, magazines, television channels and radio stations is no longer confined to Lebanon or to Gulf investment in some Arab countries, as was the case into the late 1990s. Businessmen buy existing media companies and form new ones, creating competition in a field that can only sponsor pluralism. In more than one instance, Arab businessmen have used the media to influence public debate on issues of interest to the business community.

There is a PR aspect to all of that. Owning the media in a part of the world that used to be sceptical of business is crucial. Many in the Arab world used to see businessmen as parasites leeching on their blood or as robber barons protected by the state. Now business is sponsoring civil society and charity organisations. It is getting involved in social and humanitarian affairs on national and local levels. And it is helping improve services in education and health, as well as combating poverty and unemployment.

What we have here is new. Businessmen, their associations, and the media and civil society organisations they control, are having their say not only in economic policy, but also in social and political areas. In other parts of the world, democratisation has been helped by the rise of the business community and by its partnership with the political elite. Can this happen in our midst? Can Arab businessmen favour democracy and banish despotism?

Arab businessmen have forged particularly strong links with the region"s political elites. Some businessmen see these links as indispensable for their economic and social wellbeing. Most would defend their governments to the hilt in the face of opposition movements, whether religious or non- religious. And few if any Arab businessmen are willing to speak up for democracy. But their presence gives us a shot at democracy that we wouldn"t have had otherwise.

* The writer is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On the otherwise stagnant Arab political scene, something has stirred. Slowly but surely, business elites have found their voice, formed their own associations, and begun to have an input into the region"s political and social life.

Look at how many businessmen are getting elected into our parliaments. In Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain, businessmen are getting interested in politics on an unprecedented scale. The number of businessmen in Egypt"s People"s Assembly (454 elected seats and 10 handpicked by the president) surged from 37 in the 1995-2000 term to 77 in the 2000-2005 term. It stands at 68 at the current parliament of 2005-2010.

In the Yemeni parliament (301 seats), there are 55 businessmen as well as dozens of tribal representatives with major interests in various commercial enterprises. Businessmen maintain a strong presence in the ruling parties of Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia. And in Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain, business elites have many ways of influencing the law-making process.

Most Arab countries now follow a policy of economic liberalisation and privatisation that allows businessmen and their associations a greater say in economic and social matters as well as in shaping business regulations.

The business associations of Morocco and Tunisia and the chambers of commerce of Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are all playing a major role in determining public policy on labour and investment. Before any laws affecting wages, social security, pensions, unemployment benefits, privatisation, trade, and anti-trust regulations are passed, the business community is consulted.

Besides, ruling elites are giving ministerial portfolios to businessmen and appointing industrialists at executive posts directly related to the activities of the private sector. Businessmen often act as mediators between official institutions and citizens, something that may eventually relax the customary grip of the state.

The phenomenon can best be observed in the media and civil society. Private ownership of newspapers, magazines, television channels and radio stations is no longer confined to Lebanon or to Gulf investment in some Arab countries, as was the case into the late 1990s. Businessmen buy existing media companies and form new ones, creating competition in a field that can only sponsor pluralism. In more than one instance, Arab businessmen have used the media to influence public debate on issues of interest to the business community.

There is a PR aspect to all of that. Owning the media in a part of the world that used to be sceptical of business is crucial. Many in the Arab world used to see businessmen as parasites leeching on their blood or as robber barons protected by the state. Now business is sponsoring civil society and charity organisations. It is getting involved in social and humanitarian affairs on national and local levels. And it is helping improve services in education and health, as well as combating poverty and unemployment.

What we have here is new. Businessmen, their associations, and the media and civil society organisations they control, are having their say not only in economic policy, but also in social and political areas. In other parts of the world, democratisation has been helped by the rise of the business community and by its partnership with the political elite. Can this happen in our midst? Can Arab businessmen favour democracy and banish despotism?

Arab businessmen have forged particularly strong links with the region"s political elites. Some businessmen see these links as indispensable for their economic and social wellbeing. Most would defend their governments to the hilt in the face of opposition movements, whether religious or non- religious. And few if any Arab businessmen are willing to speak up for democracy. But their presence gives us a shot at democracy that we wouldn"t have had otherwise.

* The writer is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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