Oman's Renaissance Man

As reform protests grow in the Sultanate, it's worth remembering that its ruler doesn't deserve to be mentioned among the worst of the Arabian autocrats.

The democratic upheaval across the Arab world has now become so profound and overwhelming -- so unstoppable -- as to engulf arguably the least oppressive and most competent autocracy in the region: that of Oman. Compared with other Arab countries, Oman has scored comparatively well in recent years in human rights reports compiled by the U.S. State Department. Although there is no political freedom when it comes to choosing the country's ruler, citizens have participated in free and fair elections for the Majlis al-Shura that advises Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Reports of arbitrary killings and arrests and politically motivated disappearances are rare. In the four decades since he overthrew his reactionary father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, Qaboos has single-handedly brought the country from the throes of anarchy and rebellion to being a strong and modern country with the minimum of repression. I have never encountered a place in the Arab world so well-governed as Oman, and in such a quiet and understated way.

Oman was historically two places. First, there are the coastal cities, which for millennia have been infused with the cosmopolitanism of the Indian Ocean that, thanks to the predictability of its monsoon winds, has brought to Oman the cultural richness of civilizations from as far away as East Africa and the East Indies. Then there is the desert hinterland, a warren of nomadic tribes battling each other for scarce water. When Qaboos came to power, the coast and the desert were politically split. A separatist rebellion had broken out in Dhofar, in the southwestern desert near new oil deposits. The rebellion was hijacked by Marxist radicals. The British backed the Omanis of the coast. When the 29-year-old Qaboos came to power in 1970, he offered a general amnesty to the Dhofari tribesmen. Tribal guerrillas who surrendered were incorporated into the British-trained armed forces. The desert interior was economically developed. Qaboos initiated a nonstop campaign of consultations with friend and enemy to unite the country. It was classic counterinsurgency-cum-nation-building, and over time it worked. By 1975 the desert rebellion was over and Oman was poised for development as a modern state.

Qaboos is one of a kind in the Arab world. He is unmarried, lives alone, plays the organ and lute, and composes music. A graduate of Britain's Sandhurst military academy, he may arguably be the most worldly and best-informed leader in the Arab world, who understands in depth both the Israeli and Palestinian points of view even as he balances Americans off against Iranians and provides U.S. forces with access agreements. Infrastructure projects, women's rights, and the environment are mainstays of his rule, and he has avoided creating the sort of personality cult that plagues the region. His shyness on the world stage is in line with the minimalist manner of Scandinavian prime ministers and in contrast with bombastic bullies like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. One Western expert calls Qaboos the only head of state in the Arab world you can call a "Renaissance man." In 1979 Oman was the only Arab state to recognize Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace agreement with Israel.

When I visited Oman in 2008 for my book, Monsoon, about the Indian Ocean, the bloodshed in Iraq still dominated the news. Thus, Western-style democracy was not a popular subject in Oman, associated as it was with America's misadventure in nearby Mesopotamia. But while I lavished praise on Qaboos and was deeply skeptical about exporting democracy, I also detected challenges with a growing youth population, the need for job creation, and the stirrings of a global culture. I mentioned these points in my book, but did not emphasize them -- huge mistake! I did warn in passing: "Nondemocratic countries like Oman often evince efficiency when things are going well, but when problems arise in such systems the population, especially if it is young, can become quite restive." This is exactly what has happened. Qaboos solved the problem of division between the coast and the desert interior, but he has not been dynamic enough to satisfy a restive and unemployed, globalized youth culture. Furthermore, the occasion of his 40th-anniversary celebration in 2010 did elicit a personality cult of sorts that may have played into the current unrest.

Qaboos is also vulnerable because he has no heirs, and thus the succession is politically in doubt. Oman's system of absolute monarchy as it presently stands will not work any better than it currently does because it is impossible to imagine a another monarch who will rule as adroitly over the decades as Qaboos has. Thus, the population is genuinely concerned. Democracy, or a form of it, is now required, though the sultanate must survive to provide overarching legitimacy for the state.

Don't think that Oman is unimportant. While small, with a population of less than 3 million, the deep-draft parts of the Strait of Hormuz that are essential for oil tankers are entirely in Omani territory. Given how dedicated Qaboos has been to his country's well-being, it would be sad if his reputation were sullied over these historic protests. For he should not be spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Muammar al-Qaddafi.



Parliament to the Rescue

Egypt's constitutional reforms don't do enough to break from the presidential system that has enabled the country's authoritarian past.

Egypt's military has begun to commandeer its revolution. Its handpicked commission of legal experts has come up with recommendations for patching up the existing constitution to suit the post-Mubarak era. These top-down reforms have been generated within the space of 10 days and without broad popular participation. They would open up presidential elections to independent candidates and limit incumbents to two four-year terms. However, the commission didn't touch many of the most problematic features of the old regime and failed to confront the fundamental question: Should Egypt retain the presidential system that enabled its authoritarian past, or should its new constitution model itself on European-style parliamentary democracy?

A presidential system will play into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. As the only well-organized opposition party, its candidate could well gain 20 or 25 percent of the ballots in an early presidential election. If Egypt's secular opposition splinters into several factions, their new parties may lag behind the Brotherhood in the first round of voting.

At this point, Egypt's military could be sorely tempted to intervene to prevent an Islamist takeover. Even if the military restrains itself and allows the election to proceed to a runoff, the fate of the Brotherhood will depend on the electoral appeal of the secular candidate.

To pacify these anxieties, the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership has said that it will not run a candidate in the upcoming presidential election. But once the reforms are in place, it will have the right to put its candidate on the ballot by obtaining the signatures of 30,000 voters from 15 of Egypt's 29 provinces. Even if it keeps its promise, it can operate as kingmaker by throwing its support behind the "independent" candidate who goes furthest in supporting its aims. Any effort to bar him for his Brotherhood-friendly stance would not only be unconstitutional, but alienate many Egyptians from the entire state-building enterprise.

A parliamentary system will respond to the Islamists in a more constructive fashion. Even if they win a quarter of the vote, three-quarters of the parliamentary seats will go to more secular rivals. They will be in a good position to organize a coalition government without Brotherhood assistance. If some Islamists do enter the government, their aims will be moderated by the need for secular support. While wheeling and dealing for cabinet positions will create political tensions, those don't compare with the severe crises that could be generated by a presidential system.

If secularists are forced to compete in a presidential system, it's possible that they would unite behind a single candidate to deprive the Brotherhood of a decisive victory. But even if this strategy succeeds, it will deprive secularists of a much-needed period of democratic experimentation. After their systematic suppression by the Mubarak regime, secular Egyptians should have room to form competing political parties. But this debate about their country's future will be short-circuited if secularists are obliged to anoint a single leader to defeat the Brotherhood's presidential candidate.

The secularists' problem is compounded by Egypt's "leaderless revolution." At other times and places, heroes like George Washington or Lech Walesa served as the obvious choice to lead the revolutionary republic. But there is nobody in Egypt who has earned this central position. A presidential system will force the secularists to pick a single leader prematurely. In contrast, a multiparty parliamentary system expresses the fundamental truth that Egyptians have only begun to debate their political options and that ongoing competition among different leaders is a healthy response to freedom.

Parliament is poised to provide Egypt with some much-needed stability during what promises to be a difficult transition period. The first Egyptian president, who won't be a revolutionary hero with deep reservoirs of good will, is likely to need to make a number of tough decisions right away. He may lose popular support quickly, saddling the country with an embattled leader during most of his four-year term in office.

A parliamentary system generates a leadership coalition, not a leadership cult, enabling different coalition parties to reach out to different sectors of Egyptian society. If the first coalition government loses popular support, it can't hang on for four or five years. It will lose a vote of no confidence, and a different coalition will take its place -- or parliament will dissolve, and the parties will be obliged to return to the voters for new instructions. However troublesome an early election may be, it's a lot better than the prospect of an unpopular president struggling to maintain power against a hostile legislature.

Constitutional design is no panacea. Wise democratic leadership, as well as engaged citizenship, is even more important. But bad design can make it much harder for good politics to emerge.

The military has proposed to put its "reforms" to the voters in a referendum, but this would only misdirect the conversation. It is not enough to ensure that Egypt's next autocrat is chosen in one free and fair election. The dangers of the present setup are too serious to ignore. If Egypt's current leadership is truly serious about forging a vibrant democracy, it should move swiftly to implement a multiparty parliamentary system.