Arab Bankers Argue Over Benevolent Dictatorship Versus Democracy

Political unrest since 2011 shows that the Arab world is best served by “benevolent” dictators who can prevent chaos, the head of one of the region’s biggest banks said.

“I know I am controversial but this is how I believe,” Ibrahim Dabdoub, chief executive officer of National Bank of Kuwait, said during a panel at the International Institute of Finance in Washington today. “Look at the way Egypt has turned into. Not that good, but better than the chaos we have seen,” Dabdoub said, referring to the military’s ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July. “Democracy in the Arab world, we won’t see it soon.”

His remarks reflect a debate in the Arab world about the pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, where the toppling of autocratic leaders failed to bring immediate economic benefits. The turmoil that followed the revolts will cost the seven most affected countries about $800 billion by the end of next year, according to HSBC Holdings Plc estimates.

In Egypt, economic hardship and perceptions of the government’s Islamist bias drove hundreds of thousands onto the streets, 2 1/2 years after similar protests toppled Hosni Mubarak. This time the target was Mursi, the country’s first freely elected civilian president, who was ousted in favor of an army-backed interim government.

‘Empty Revolution’

The 2011 revolt was a “sort of an empty revolution” without a “blueprint” or a leader, said Hisham Ezz Al Arab, chairman of Cairo-based Commercial International Bank Egypt SAE, the country’s biggest publicly traded lender. Holding elections before passing a constitution guaranteeing the rights of minorities was a “fatal mistake” that enabled Mursi to favor his supporters and ignore the rest, he said.

Egypt’s transitional plan, which includes drafting a new constitution and holding elections, will set the ground for economic recovery, Ezz Al Arab said, though he predicted that it would take as long as 10 years for stability to return to the Arab world. Violence has escalated since Mursi’s removal, with security forces killing hundreds of supporters protesting to demand his reinstatement.

The military provided all of Egypt’s presidents since the 1952 coup that toppled the constitutional monarchy. Army officers also ruled countries such as Syria and Iraq after independence. The idea that Muslims are best served by a benevolent dictator also has roots in the writings of Islamists such as Jamal Aldin al-Afghani, a 19th century scholar.

Tarek Youssef, a board member of Libya’s central bank, took the opposite view, citing his own country’s experience under Muammar Qaddafi, who had laid claim to such a role.

“I don’t want to experiment again with having a despotic enlightened leader,” Youssef told the panel. “Libya lived under a despotic leader who for 42 years managed not only to destroy the fabric of society but the state and everything around it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alaa Shahine in Dubai at asalha@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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