Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Long Live the Kings

 For Libya and other middle-eastern states emerging from the long-term rule of various strongman presidents and 'Brother Leaders', the advantages of casting their new states in the form of parliamentary democracies framed by constitutional monarchies are obvious. Obviously this is only really feasible in states that have a monarchy to restore: Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Yemen all do, whereas Tunisia does not (Algeria theoretically has the French monarchy, heh). The idea of restoring a monarchy can be hard to envision, especially from a Western perspective where it can be viewed as a step backwards. But bear with me, it makes sense.

 Flag of the former Kingdom of Libya, now adopted 
by the National Transitional Council.

 If we examine the men who have led Egypt, Libya and Yemen until now, a definite pattern emerges. Hosni Mubarak held the Presidency of Egypt for almost twenty years from October 1981 to February 2011, and he had been grooming his younger son Gamal to succeed him. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh has been President of Yemen since the country's foundation in 1990, and was President of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) from 1978 to 1990. He too had been planning on having his son succeed him in office. Muammar Gaddafi has served as leader of Libya (under two faintly ridiculous titles, Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and latterly Leader and Guide of the Revolution) since 1969. As with the others, he has politically active sons that are mentioned as potential successors.

 What we see is the practise of de facto absolute or at least active monarchical rule, disguised by republican trappings. In a political culture unused to democracy and without well-established and confident institutions to operate the requisite checks and balances, presidential democracy over-concentrates power in the hands of a one-man executive. If that man is also Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, that only exacerbates things.

Flags of the former Kingdoms of Yemen (1918-62), Egypt (1922-53) and Iraq (1921-58).

  The great advantage of a constitutional monarchy is that it encourages a less personality-driven, more pluralistic democracy at the same time as de-politicising the head of state. A Prime Minister, drawn from and answerable to the elected legislature of a parliamentary democracy and at the head of a cabinet government, is far less able to accumulate personal power than a President. A legislature-focused democracy aids the development of a party system that can provide a much wider circle of people with access to ministries, as opposed to having ministerial positions subject to Presidential patronage. Making the head of state a non-political monarch also means that no party in the parliament has an interest in turning the head of state into a powerful executive position once it is held by an ally, as they might with a theoretically 'ceremonial' President.

 Constitutional monarchies can also provide a stable framework for the transition from one administration to another, one of the major hurdles faced by fledgling democracies. After the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, it was the re-established monarch that oversaw the transition to democracy, faced down an attempted military coup in 1981 and has since worked diligently to ensure the proper functioning of Spain's democratic institutions. As an institution and embodiment of a state, a monarch can command more respect than a President and provide continuity between one government and the next, whilst also serving as a check on the absolute power of any Prime Minister or government. The stability and order of a monarchy can also be attractive to conservatives who might otherwise feel threatened by reformist governments, and lessens the appeal of reactionary parties and movements.

King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in 1963.jpg
Zahir Shah, King
of Afghanistan.

 The West's aversion to monarchy has been more of a hindrance than a help in our recent endeavours in the Middle East, especially Afghanistan. When we toppled the Taliban Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 2001, Zahir Shah - the King deposed by Mohammed Daoud in 1973 - was still alive. He was also very popular, and attractive both to conservatives and reformists. There was a popular movement of Afghans to re-establish the monarchy (although Zahir himself was at best reluctant to resume the Crown), or at least to make Zahir Shah head of state. However, America forced him to step aside in order to ensure that Hamid Karzai was made president. 

 What we got from that arrangement is a corrupt government of dubious legitimacy and with no emotional resonance with the Afghan people, and the necessary concessions to conservative opinion ensured that Afghanistan became an Islamic Republic (it had in the past been simply the Republic of Afghanistan). Zahir Shah also had a proven record when it came to western aspirations for Afghanistan, as he oversaw the introduction of the 1964 Afghan constitution which enshrined civil and women's rights, free elections, parliamentary democracy and universal suffrage, all within the stabilising framework of an increasingly constitutional monarchical system. The fact that American turned down this heaven-sent candidate to lead post-war Afghanistan in favour of Karzai demonstrates how a blinkered aversion to monarchy can be a severe hindrance to western efforts to democratise and liberalise these states.


  1. Fair enough. Problem is with the Egyptian and Iraqi royals were that they were puppets of a colonial power - Britain. They might be tarnished because of this. In both cases the dynasties were largely set up by us.

  2. Actually, the Hashemite Iraqi monarchy was supported by the UK once the Ottoman Empire broke up but it had strong native pedigree - the Hashemites continue to rule Jordan and at various points held the crowns of Syria and Hejaz as well.

    I do agree that there would be problems with the re-introduction of any monarchy, I'm simply making the case here that it would be beneficial to these states.