Power and Justice Dilemmas in Arab Societies: Part I

North Africa and Middle East

Westerners who move to the Middle East and North Africa often find behavior and conversations with local people confusing.  Much of this confusing behavior is rooted in attitudes toward power and the use of power, both on a societal level, and on a personal level.  While Western cultures attempt to control abuses of power with checks-and-balances; Arab cultures attempt to control it through alliances, subterfuge, and sabotage.

In the West, the type of person whose motivations are primarily, “What’s in it for me?  How can I get the advantage?  How can I do as little as possible, while still getting paid, and sloughing as much as possible of my work off on others?  And how can I use the resources of my workplace to benefit me personally?” IS CONTROLLED by workplace standards, rules, and performance reviews; by government laws which are actually enforced, and by a fairly low incidence of public corruption; small corruption can be prosecuted in Small Claims Court and larger or more serious corruption in state and federal courts.  The key thing here is that NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW.  Even the president of the United States is not above the law, nor above being sued in court (as a private citizen), nor above being impeached for behavior.

When power is abused in the West, we have recourses which can be pursued:  rules in the workplace, performance reviews, channels to be pursued or to which decisions can be appealed, functioning court systems.  But the REASON we have well-functioning institutions is that power is not the be-all and end-all in terms of social prestige.

When power is abused in Arab cultures, none of the above-listed Western methods are effective.  When rules exist, they are often unenforceable, or at the whim of the boss and/or his friends; performance reviews (which actually protect employees) tend to be non-existant; no one takes responsibility for overturning others’ decisions; and court systems seldom return a judgement against the powerful.

Therefore, people behave with different motivation than in the West.  In order to navigate this treacherous environment successfully, it becomes necessary for each person, each group, each company, and even each person in power to seek alliances with the most powerful people possible.  (This also accounts for the great emphasis on knowing the people you are doing business with;  if they turn out to be untrustworthy, you generally have little recourse.)

In English, we still have the term “carte blanche” which refers to “having a free hand to do whatever you want.”  Most Americans are unaware of is that it was an actual document, during medieval times, a “white card” issued by the monarch, or his representative, giving the holder “free reign throughout the realm to usurp all laws…and act without fear of prosecution.”  This was done in England, France, and probably by numerous other medieval monarchs.

In Arab cultures, even today, THE SAME LAW DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE.  For example, in some countries, the “white card” still exists as an actual document, and certain families have it for all of their members.  A simple benefit of a “white card” might be something as simple as suppose you want to speed through the city, or speed through a stop light.  Suppose you are stopped by the police.  You just whip out your “white card” and you would be free to go. Other important families are always trying their best to get it.  In practice, while not very many people have it,  the REAL EFFECT IS ON THE BEHAVIOR THIS IDEA HAS ON ALL THE MEMBERS OF  THE SOCIETY.

In Arab cultures (as in many “Old World” cultures and Third-World cultures), THE LAW DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE.  Essentially, in order TO SHOW STATUS, OR GAIN STATUS, everyone is always trying to show others that they are “important enough to NOT have to follow rules.”   In other words, instead of everyone following rules IN ORDER TO MAKE THE WHOLE SOCIETY FUNCTION EFFECTIVELY, people are instead demonstrating that THEY HAVE “INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM” by NOT having to “follow rules” or do what anyone else TELLS them to do.  The result is that NOTHING FUNCTIONS EFFECTIVELY.

In order to get anything to function, individuals must often go in person and actually CAJOLE public servants and even private-sector employees to “do their job,” since they are demonstrating their POWER over others by NOT doing their jobs.  Some expect a bribe, but most at least expect DEFERENCE and RESPECT.  Instead of being intrinsically motivated to do their jobs properly and cheerfully, they are motivated by OTHERS KNOWING THAT THEY HAVE IMPORTANCE, as DEMONSTRATED BY THEIR SURLINESS, AND THEIR POWER OVER YOU–their power to make it difficult for you to obtain the document you need, for example, without a lot of cajoling, pleading, etc.

There IS one way around all this, which is to KNOW SOMEONE MORE POWERFUL THAN THAT PERSON, who will TELL them what they have to do, or who will get you right to the front of the line, around all of those other pleading and cajoling people who have to beg BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW A MORE POWERFUL PERSON TO HELP THEM.  Therefore, people spend much of their effort toward cultivating people for “what they can do for you.”

Power and Justice

When a person more powerful than you takes advantage of you–a professor, a boss, a husband, a bureaucrat, an organization, or a government official–the ONLY recourse you have (since rules are nonexistent or unenforced, and court verdicts are usually returned in favor of the more powerful) is to pressure that person or organization WITH YOUR OWN MORE POWERFUL ALLIANCES–someone who trumps HIS power.

What can someone do, when doesn’t know a more powerful person, or have any personal alliances who can wield influence over that person? This happens frequently.  This brings us to the behaviors of subterfuge, and sabotage.

Westerners find Arab societies full of subterfuge and passive-aggressive behavior.  It’s common that people often openly agree to something and then either don’t follow through, or do the exact opposite, and then make excuses–“I didn’t say that; I didn’t think that’s what you meant; I forgot; Someone else prevented me from doing it; I didn’t have time; etc.”  The REAL explanation for this type of behavior is that the person never had any intention of following through, but felt you were in a more powerful position and did not feel they could get their way be disagreeing openly.

Since one always has to watch out for powerful people hurting you openly and secretly, the last revenge of losers in the power struggle is to sabotage others by creating false rumors about them.  This may be one reason for why Arab societies seem overly concerned with what others think and say.   The most common rumors seem to be, “He stole money,” (used against locals and foreigners) and “He’s trying to convert people away from Islam,” (frequently used against foreigners).  Other rumors used on a daily basis, especially to impugn the reputations of local women are, “I saw her in a nightclub,” or “She’s had a boyfriend(s)!”

Arab cultures are dominated by a love-hate relationship regarding special privilege.  On the one hand, everyone desires it, and it confers high social status.  On the other hand, everyone (except the most privileged) hates it, too.  This is primarily what the Arab Spring is about–A DESIRE FOR EVERYONE TO BE EQUAL UNDER THE LAW.  Unfortunately, among those who want “democratic reforms”  are also those who want to maintain the ability to obtain and benefit from special privileges just for themselves!

–Upcoming Part II will deal with how these societal factors influence behavior in the workplace, at school, and in the home and family.












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8 Responses to “Power and Justice Dilemmas in Arab Societies: Part I”

  1. amseghir Says:

    What an interesting topic, Lynne!
    I have never been to the West, and all I know about Western countries come mainly from what I see in movies. My conclusion thus far is that the issue of POWER exists in many cultures, Western cultures included. The difference, however, is that it seems to be more rampant in third-world countries.

    Ironically, many people in the Middle East tend to think that the USA is the biggest bully to have ever existed. They blame capitalism for all the crises in the world and say that this greed-driven system is the cause of all our calamities.

    Speaking as a north African, I admit that in order for us to get our things done, we have to go through many bureaucratic ordeals. For instance, I once needed to get a birth certificate that I needed for school. I was in a hurry but I was astonished when the person in charge of delivering birth certificates told me that I had to wait for TWO WEEKS!!! Oh, I forgot to mention that I was dressed casually that day. Anyways, I left the place and came back the following day wearing a suit. The same guy approached me in a totally different way. In fact, he was the one coaxing and cajoling ME! Apparently, he thought I was someone powerful because of the way I was dressed. So he kept on saying, “Yes, sir. Just a minute please. Your paper will be ready in a minute.” He actually treated me as a CLIENT.

    When other people came along, he kept on repeating ” Come on people, I’m not a machine! I haven’t even had breakfast!” And he looked at me with the corner of his eye when he said this. It’s like a code for “BRIBE ME! BRIBE ME! BRIBE ME” As a public servant, he doesn’t have the right to ask for any money overtly. So, the way to get around it is to make suggestions like “I haven’t had my breakfast yet.” Or, “I haven’t had my morning coffee.” Or, “We haven’t even been paid yet.” Etc. So, I totally agree with your point regarding this kind of bahavior.

    ” It’s common that people often openly agree to something and then either don’t follow through, or do the exact opposite, and then make excuses…” This is EXACTLY what some teachers do when their inspectors visit them. They pretend they agree with everything the inspector says and then everything goes to normal when the inspector leaves. I’m sure this holds true for other situations as well.

    I couldn’t agree more that there is a love-hate relationship regarding the issue of privilege and power here. EVERYBODY wants power, but only few people have it. On the other hand, everyone hates how those with power abuse it, yet long for a chance to be in their place.

    Finally, YES. Equity and equality are exactly what the Arab/Democratic Spring was all about!

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Thank you, Abdelmjid, for taking the time to leave such a long and wonderful comment. I LOVE your story about showing up the second day in a SUIT and the difference in how the bureaucrat responded! Interestingly, when I got married in North Africa twenty-five years ago, one of the ministers we had to have stamp our certificate told us she “needed money for coffee!”

      Interesting how these ideas play out in the educational setting. The situation you describe sounds like one with a great imbalance of power for the teachers. I will be going into some additional educational setting ramifications in my next post.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you so much for reading! Please share it, it possible….

      Liked by 1 person

  2. cybermd Says:

    Fascinating, Lynn
    Sociological article like this without sounding honorific or pejoritive, but you did a great job explaining it to Westerners in a neutral way.
    Are there any advantages to this system of power?
    Interesting I have some Middle Eastern friends here who say they miss the system where prestige, power and money can help get things done. They find our system to be more bureaucratic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      Yes, indeed, Cybermd, the well-connected never need to stand in lines or “wait their turn;” nor need they be subject to the whims of bureaucrats, everything can be expedited, while others wait interminably for the well-connected to pass in front of them.


  3. Jim Taggart Says:

    To Amseghir, it’s important for those who live outside the US to understand that what you see in film is not in many ways a true depiction of how America works. Indeed, I’d argue that many Americans, who are largely insular as a society, have allowed Hollywood to manipulate how they see themselves and the world. I’m a Canadian, and living beside a country with a population 10 times of ours (35 million) and being inundated daily with US news, music, film and politics, it’s a constant struggle for Canadians to maintain their own identity.

    Yet we succumb to the temptation of adopting US practices, from spelling to business practices to materialism. In terms of what is contained in this post, as a society we are tempered by a) having a British parliamentary system, a populace that still has strong roots with the UK and parts of Western Europe, and c) a certain sense of compliance to law and order. In other words, the founding of Canada was very different from that of the US. And as such, the practice and use of power in Canada is much different.

    Finally, I’d strongly suggest that people outside the US take with a grain of salt (ie, not seriously) the depictions of that country through film and even much of the media (eg, CNN and FOX News). My wife and I have traveled quite a lot in the US and have found Americans to be good, decent hard-working people. Unfortunately, that reality gets subsumed by the fantasy media and the lunatic right-wing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim Taggart Says:

    Lynne, my pet peeve is the easy ride that Canada gets internationally. We’re not all that nice as a people, especially our piousness in how we beat on Americans to build ourselves up. May sound strange coming from a Canadian but I like to try to tell it like it is…warts and all.


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