It runs in the family: why Arabs are incompatible with meritocracy


In ‘The Republic‘, Plato addresses a very interesting aspect: the relationship between the family, society and the ruling system. Although this was not the major aspect the oeuvre was concerned with (it was concerned with justice actually), it was nonetheless a very intriguing aspect where Plato reflected on how the influence of blood ties could be abolished in order to prevent them from interfering with politics and the rulers’ aptitude to act solely in the interest of the community. He went on to suggest a system based on commununism of women and children, arguing that this will destroy affection between husbands and wives on one hand and parents and their offspring on the other. Today, it would be tempting to call Plato a controversialist, but he was a product of his time and many of his thoughts were framed by the social, cultural and political setting of his time and in particular the contrast between the political organization of Sparta (an authoritarian city which gave complete prominence to military training) and Athens (a democracy). The fall from grace of Athens in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War to the advantage of Sparta had rendered the Greek intelligentsia of the time (including Plato) increasingly discontended with democratic principles of governance. Clearly, when put in the context of Plato‘s time and place, The Republic sustains reflections on fascinating political questions and apparently, Al Khomeini based elements of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the Platonic vision of the ideal city. But in this piece, I will only consider the question of family loyalties and their potentially detrimental influence on politics.

As I said earlier, Plato‘s main concern was Justice and how to establish it. He was also passionate about Reason, Knowledge and Truth (hence his appointment of the philosopher-king as the head of state who controls the remaining of the body represented by the less knowledgeable masses). In this perspective, family (by which I mean a human grouping which produces offspring) is critical on two accounts: it is the factory of potential new philosopher-kings and it is the source of potential travesties of justice (through bloodline allegiances). But given that reproduction can take place without the need for a family, considerations pertaining to ensuring the reign of justice take precedence and the family must thus be abolished because it is emotionally charged and potentially divisive. I won’t go into the Platonic details of how this may be achieved because they are frankly quite distateful, but suffice to say that Plato identified a crucial political priniciple: that of organizing a society based on merit, all the way up to the transmission of power. In Plato‘s vision, merit equates with Knowledge, Reason and a passion for seeking the Truth. This is the ultimate manifestation of a Just system.

We do not need to resort to Plato‘s repugnant solutions or proposals to establish this principle. Modern Western democracies are impregnated with meritocratic philosophies. This is also largely the result of their realization, after centuries of dynasties ripping their countries apart over power struggles, that family shouldn’t interfere with politics.  There is no perfect system to date to deal properly with the potentially disasterous influence of family over politics, but Western democracies are at least conscious of the problem and have structures in place to attempt to minimize this influence.

In Arab countries however, it is a hopeless case despite the fact that our own history is no less bloody and tumultuous than European history because of competing dynasties and divisive blood allegiances. Our problem is compounded further by the almost sacred place family occupies in our culture and collective psyche, in addition, it is very highly regarded by religion. In fact, I think that family and marriage are a fundamentally religious concept. I cannot see how any system could quite minimize the risks of nepotism in Arabo-Muslim countries, it is virtually impossible unless the entire nation undergoes severe and radical cultural reformatting. Often, these allegiances go beyond the family to include the entire tribe (eg. Algeria and Saudi Arabia). The result is a huge mess, rampant injustice and a continuous degradation of talent and merit. So no wonder the end result will be, indeed is general mediocrity. And isn’t it funny that a number of Arab countries are called republics (when in fact they’re monarchies by all standards)?! Or maybe they are meritocracies, it’s just that in Arab culture, merit equates with being a family member. Hmm, somehow, this doesn’t strike me as being a good definition of merit.

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5 thoughts on “It runs in the family: why Arabs are incompatible with meritocracy

  1. Are you suggesting that the fact Islam values family encourages nepotism?

    Anyway, from all perspectives, we are out of civilisation and only radical reformatting would bring us back on track. There is no alternative.

    You are surprised some states are called republics when they are not… There are some other states which are called republics, democratic and popular!!!

    • Are you suggesting that the fact Islam values family encourages nepotism?

      Many people nowadays blame religion and in particular Islam for all evils, but am not one of them.

      I am making an observation: is the relative coolness of family relations in Western societies in comparison with Arab societies correlated with their better aptitude at doing politics?

      I do not remember who said this, but the State interfers in family life in modern democracies and it does so on purpose. The fact that both parents are pushed to work means that the State take care of the children. This eases formating them at the maleable age but also dilutes the traditional power of the parents.

      This is not as extreme as what Plato suggested, but still, it does target family ties.

      Will we have to lose or at least tone down our relatively extreme family values in order to hop on the bandwagon of modern enlightened politics? Or is there another way?

      • I just wanted to clarify the point as it wasn’t clearly said in your post🙂

        Let me take a small example from a western and democratic country where family as an institution is on its way to disappear. Before becoming a president, Sarkozy relied a lot on his former wife and gave her an official role in his cabinet. After he became president, his 21yo son wanted (or he wanted his son) to control his father’s city by being elected as a regional counsellor. The problem is there was another candidate from the same party so what happened? The candidate was offered a position as a consul in California, and the son was elected. Then he wanted this same son, then 23yo, to be elected as the head of La Defense council, so he decided that it was time for the former head to retire! And it’s only after the opposition complained about Sarkozy’s nepotism that he moved back and elected him as a member only of La Defense council. I believe that this new member is the one taking decisions and not the new head.
        There are many other examples I could tell about in France or other neighbouring countries.

        They say money is power, but then why would the people be happy to share power with their families when we find most Algerian (for what I know) families fighting for inherited money?

        Anyway, I don’t believe at all in this family theory. A non-democratic regime is a non-democratic regime period. When it’s not within the family, it will be within the clan, the friends, the group sharing the same ideology, those who pay more, etc.

        It seems you are giving ideas to Algerian newspapers. After the bribery topic, here’s a related article from Echourouk. Of course Abed Charef could (should) have mentioned Bouteflika and his brother as an example, but I guess self-censorship, or Nif, was stronger.

  2. I never claimed that democracies are immune from nepotism simply because it is human nature to feel strong bonds with our own offspring. You mention families fighting over money, I should stress that what am talking about is the relationship between parents and their children. It’s different from that between ciblings and the allegiances are not of the same nature.

    Your point about clans, friends etc., yes but if that were true in the case of Arab countries, why are we seeing all of them without exception trying to pass on power through family (and more precisely offspring) and not through the other channels you mention? Having said that, clanism and special friendships do exist in Arab countries like in any other place.

    Perhaps the people who say that monarchy is the most ‘natural’ governance system are not far away from the truth.

    We pass on everything to our offspring, genes, whatever money and posessions we have, everything. It is not very clear why we shouldn’t pass on to them whatever powers we have as well. And maybe the West has learnt how to be hypocritical about this, but at least, it seems to help give other citizens the chance to get to power. In Arab countries, it is an impossibility.

    Also, the fact that money gets passed to children gives a section of society a leverage without them necessarily having any merit. The children of the super rich will become rich just because they were born to rich parents, this increases their chances of getting to power, even without merit.

    If we’re to consider this from the perspective of establishing Justice, it would appear that inheritance is not a system which is conducive to social justice especially when the money/ posessions involved are of a certain amount/ nature.

    It is a complex problem, and as I said, it wouldn’t be wise to interfere too much with the natural order, but rather try and see how it could be made to be more conducive to justice.

  3. PS: I heard that Ben Ali wants to pass the presidency seat to his wife (who’s a hairdresser and full of merit as testified to by his impeccable hair throughout the years).

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