Last Updated: Wed Jun 06, 2012 11:05 am (KSA) 08:05 am (GMT)

Why a free press can be a ruler’s best friend

Ali al Shihabi

Arab rulers striving to maintain power in a rapidly changing world may be ignoring what could be a most useful tool at their disposal: a vibrant and free press.

The traditional tools of maintaining power, particularly those of the Arab “security state,” that supreme omnipotent force that ruled the region with an iron hand for fifty years, have proven to be far less reliable than expected, in light of the collapse of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes. As a result, many Arab rulers today are now inevitably looking for ways to better protect themselves from domestic risk.

The vulnerabilities of the Arab security state become particularly clear when we realize that Ben Ali and Mubarak ran the ultimate security states. Ben Ali, after all, was a former secret policeman, while Mubarak’s internal security establishment was the experienced, respected, and feared machine that had long been regarded, by regional and international analysts alike, as the gold standard of internal security. Even as far back as the 1950s, the prowess of the Egyptian Security Service was noted by observers as diverse as Miles Copeland of The Game of Nations fame.

So, what happened? How did these security establishments fail so miserably in alerting their masters to impending disaster?

A likely answer is that they succumbed to the disease that any bureaucracy serving a supreme master with absolute power ultimately succumbs to. In such a highly concentrated power structure, access becomes the ultimate privilege, one that is difficult to attain, and hence it is eagerly sought and jealously guarded. The bureaucrat, in his quest to get and retain such access, learns to tell his master only what he wants to hear. Nobody likes bad news, and certainly nobody likes a stream of constant bad news. Rulers, after all, are human like the rest of us. They love to hear good news and praise, and, like all humans, they will always be more receptive to those who embellish news in a manner that pleases them. In competing for access, those who master this art inevitably triumph over others who don’t. It is a sad historical fact about human nature and the psychology of absolute power.

For a regime in crisis, like for a terminally ill person, promotion of such delusions can become the norm, leading to a pathetic situation such as we observed in the relationship between Mubarak and his Minister of Interior, Habib Al Adly, who, until the last minute, kept on reassuring his president that the demonstrators in Tahrir Square were “just a bunch of kids and foreign agents we can deal with.”

Had Egypt had a really free press that exposed government corruption and alerted Mubarak to how unpopular the idea of his son’s inheriting the presidency was, he would probably have reacted to such signals, and consequently would have avoided the ignominious end that befell him. Yet, by suppressing all the “political noise” from the media and relying on a captive bureaucracy as the sole and exclusive source of information on the health of his rule, Mubarak set himself up for an unexpected collapse. This is an important lesson that other Arab rulers should take note of.

A free and vibrant press, while certainly annoying and sometimes embarrassing to rulers, can also be their most effective security blanket. Not only can it give them direct access to their people’s sentiments, but it can also serve as a check on the performance of their subordinates. A free press forces rulers to know what is going on in their country; they cannot ignore the front pages of their own media. They cannot avoid the news, nor can they minimize its importance—and this can keep them on the cutting edge of public sentiment.

A free press allows rulers to continuously gauge their public’s mood, and acts as an early warning system to alert them to problems before it is too late for them and public anger comes crashing through their front door.

This is why rulers need to change the way they look at the press. Instead of using it as an instrument that they control and that tells the people what the state wants them to hear (and which is becoming obsolete in this day and age of new media, anyway), they need to upend that model and recognize the press as an instrument that the people may use to communicate their issues and concerns to their rulers.

Ali Shihabi is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard and the author of “Arabian War Games.” He blogs at alishihabi.com where this article was first published on June 3, 2012.

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