by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 26 May 2015

I have been in Marrakech since Monday last week, participating in two meetings. The first was about civil society and free markets in the Muslim world, and the second was about liberty in the post-revolutionary Arab countries.

As I sit to write this article by my hotel’s swimming pool, with clear blue water and surrounded by beautiful palm trees and lush green shrubs, there are several groups of tourists swimming away in a bliss. The couple sitting on the sofa next to me are busy planning their trip to Jama El Fanaa, the main market in the older part of Marrakech. And I can also see two young brothers happily playing table tennis not very far away.

If Morocco, or if this region, were to be measured by what I see in this luxury hotel, then the Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa must be living in heaven on earth.

Of course this is not the case. The scene may be located in this region, but it is accessible only to a group of select elite from here and holidaymakers from the free world. The vast majority of Moroccans and other Arabs still live in poverty. They do not enjoy the freedom enjoyed by others in more developed parts of the world.

And that longing for freedom contributed to the uprising in many Arab countries over the last few years. Arab colleagues who are here with me said that the common people felt they have been humiliated enough, cheated enough and insulted enough by their own governments.

A delegate from Syria told me “If you know how our politicians enrich themselves, their wives and their children, you will join the uprising too.”

They now want their dignity back. They want the freedom to build their own lives and they want the freedom to live their lives the way they want.

That ended with the removal of dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. And the continued struggle to remove Bashar Al-Assad today in Syria. These are all people who created a one-party ruling system in their respective countries.

Unfortunately in many of these countries removing one party from office is not enough. The rule by one party over many decades has resulted in the entrenchment of vested interests into the wider system of governance. The problem is bigger than one person or one family or even one party.

A delegate from Egypt described how being under one party rule for such a long time resulted in the creation of a “deep institution”. Another delegate from Turkey described it as the “deep state”.

This is actually a topic that has been widely researched by scholars and political analysts from around the world. It is a widespread problem in countries that suffer from the lack of competition in the electoral and political arena.

In Egypt, the removal of Mubarak from the presidential palace saw the election of President Morsi. But Morsi quickly found that the system was not with him. Military generals, senior civil servants, crony businessmen in government linked companies, and all the various quarters who previously benefitted from the Mubarak regime resisted reform.

The military initiated a coup and now Morsi has been sentenced to death by Egypt’s judiciary, together with hundreds of other reform activists.

One delegate said to me “The lesson is clear. You go against the deep state, even if you are the president, the deep state will kill you”.

In Turkey too, after decades of rule by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk’s party, the deep state has become entrenched into the system despite changes of government. They may not be as brutal as those seen in the Arab world today, but talk to any Turkey analysts and at the very least they will acknowledge that being in government does not mean being in full control.

The current Turkish AKP government led by President Erdogan has had to face the deep state since the first day they came into office. In particular, the Turkish uniformed forces, from the military to the police, are groups that cannot be ignored.

I came out from the week-long meetings appreciating that if the deep state exists, removing one person or one party is not sufficient to achieve meaningful reform.

The civil service can make life difficult to the new government. They can leak confidential information to the other side, slow down the implementation of decisions so that people become angry with the reformist politicians, or refuse outright to do their jobs.

From talking to other delegates, I also get the impression that the most dangerous deep state actors are those with uniforms, guns and the power to detain people.

The military can initiate a coup. The police force can arrest people whom they see as threatening the system. And the judiciary can incarcerate them in detention for a long time or even sentence them to death for alleged treason.

I also heard stories of how in some countries the heads of the police force work against the elected political leaders. The president or the prime minister may want to introduce or abolish certain laws. But these deep state bosses have no qualms to resist or defy the authority of the elected leader.

Unlike politicians who need to face electorates, those police officials do not have to think about reform because their tenure is secure. Their guns shield them from any scrutiny, and anybody questioning are threatened with arrest.

The deep state may or may not support the elected political leaders. That is not the point. The point is, as long as the status quo is maintained and the system is not challenged, the elected politicians can do whatever they want.

If politicians and the deep state actors collude with each other, they can indeed serve to strengthen each other’s hold on power. But they don’t have to because both can coexist in parallel without crossing the other’s turf. In fact in the various countries we discussed in Marrakech, the deep state seem to be stronger than the elected politicians.

The dynamics between the deep state and reform activists, the deep state’s role in maintaining the status quo and vested interests, the use of force to stifle dissent, the quest of politicians to enrich themselves, and the inability of reform-minded politicians to bring about any real change, are all painful to watch. But it is clear that a true reform can only be achieved if the bigger picture is considered too.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the Chief Executive of IDEAS

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