The Arab Spring: A Regional Perspective

Dr. Mohammad Sabah AlSalem AlSabah

George Washington University

March 28, 2012

From the majestic Atlas Mountains in the west, through the mysterious Valley of the Kings in Egypt to the golden shores of the Gulf in the east; And from the capital of the Umayyad caliphate in the north, to the Kingdom of Sheba in the south, 2011 was a tumultuous year in the Arab world.

Violent uprisings took place in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and now Syria. Fundamental constitutional reforms were introduced in Morocco, Jordan, and the Sultanate of Oman.

Even a prosperous and politically open country like Kuwait witnessed a strong movement of discontent that led to the resignation of government and the election of a new parliament. It is important to note that in the case of Kuwait, however, the protestors were not calling for a regime change but rather the restoration of the constitutional integrity of the political process. There is one thing for sure; the Arab masses are really in a bad mood!!

The natural question is why? Why is there this avalanche of protest, anger, and discontent in the Arab street?  After decades of the same unprogressive political and economic policies, what is the straw that finally broke the camel's back? Is it the economy, ideology, or as usually, in our part of the world, a conspiracy?

I-The economy

While the economic factor is a strong precursor for a revolution, yet it doesn't tell the whole story.

The economic record of Egypt Tunis and Syria for a ten year period 2000-2010 was quite respectable. Egypt registered an annual %5 real growth in GDP. Tunis and Syria's growth were 4.5 and 4.3 respectively. While the Latin America and Caribbean economies growth was mere 3.4% for the same period.

To be sure, in 2010 the economic performance of those three countries surpassed that of the USA. Egypt, Tunis and Syria had real growth of 5.1, 3.7 and 3.2 respectively, compared to the USA growth rate of 2.8% for the same period. Furthermore, the unemployment rate for these countries compared favorably with that of the USA. Unemployment rates in Egypt Tunis Syria were %9, %13 and %8.3 respectively while the USA rate was 9.6%

And Tunisia, where this "Spring" started, was the World Bank's showcase of how to design and implement economic and social policies. The "Tunisian model" recorded in 2010 impressive economic and social development. Tunis cut its poverty rate by half from 7.7% in 1985 to 3.8% in 2005 while the MENA rate is 14%, with the United States' rate at 12% for the same period.

They did a remarkable job on gender equality, promotion of civil society and eliminating illiteracy. They registered in 2010 a respectable growth in GDP of 3.7%, way above the MENA region average, and were ranked 40 out of 183 countries around the world in doing business. To be sure, families from their oil rich neighbors Libya and Algeria would send their children to be educated in Tunisian schools, and send their loved ones to be treated in Tunisian hospitals. In short, Tunisia was a success story, so why was there a revolution?

II-The ideology

Maybe there was a revolution for ideological reasons.  People want a Western liberal democracy with its associate institutions of vibrant civil societies, freedom of expression, association, and belief.

However, the results of recent parliamentary elections in Morocco, Tunis, Egypt, and Kuwait proved a spectacular victory for the Islamic political movements. The prime ministers of both Morocco and Tunis are from Islamic parties. While the speakers of the Egyptian and Kuwaiti parliaments are both from Islamic or Islamic supported parties.

It remains to be seen whether these parties will embrace Western liberal values or work on Islamizing their societies further.

III- The conspiracy

So, if the economy and ideology don't tell the whole story (the "Why"), then these revolutions must be the work of an evil conspiracy.

The prominent Egyptian journalist Mohammad Hasanain Haykal, emphasized last October that the Arab world is NOT going through a Spring, but rather facing multiple conspiracies. Haykal claimed that there are three and a half conspiracies currently at play against the Arab world.

The first conspiracy is a 2011 version of the 1916 Sykes Pico agreement to redistribute Arab resources between the United States and Europe.

The second conspiracy is of a Turkish origin to reestablish Ottoman influence in the Arab world, while the Iranians are behind the third conspiracy to spread the Shiite faith.

And the last half conspiracy, according to Haykal, is an Israeli effort to bury the Palestinian cause in a Vatican-like option.

Where do we go from here?

Whether the cause of the Arab revolt of 2011 is economic, ideological, or multiple conspiracies, the common denominator in all these uprisings is a strong and determined youth movements to ride their societies of Corruption. The corruption of the Tarabulsis in Tunisia, the Qadhafis in Libya, and the imposition of corrupt dynastic structures in Egypt, Yemen, and Syria.

Currently, these societies are in a critical transitional state. They are in a deep sole searching process to determine their political identity and find their own social equilibrium. In short, They are in a frantic search for a stable trajectory for prosperity and happiness.

It's going to be a long and bumpy transition. However, to expedite this transformational process with minimum social cost, three necessary conditions are required:

1. The need for democratic "incubators" in the region to embrace the new regimes, like the Eastern European countries whose transitions the West guided and supported.

Most of the former Soviet bloc of Central and Eastern Europe swiftly became official members of the EU. They were guided and assisted throughout their transitions with programs like TACIS from 1991-2006, established specifically to extend aid and enhance the transition process of these former Soviet states into the EU. The EU also eased the transition with the Instrument for
Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA), which dedicated assistance to candidate and potential candidate states for EU membership in the form of: support for the transition process with investment, cross-border cooperation with EU member states, regional development, rural development, and human resources development; so that by the time these states were granted membership, they would have all the prerequisites for a fully functioning modern democracy.

The recent G8's "Deauville Partnership," launched in May 2011, is a welcome response to the MENA region's need for a kind of collective "incubator" or guide for the transforming political and economic landscapes of Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Morocco. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Turkey also pledged support for the initiative, which will not only ease the economic burdens of the affected countries, but will help their transition peacefully into free and democratic societies.

"It is interesting to note here, the role taken on by Iran very recently in hosting the International Islamic Awakening and Youth Conference, which saw more than 1,200 participants from 73 countries in attendance. Khamenei addressed the conference by referring to the current state as an "Islamic awakening" and this century as "the century of Islam" in an effort to shift interest away from Western models of democracy to ones in the image of Iran's own theocratic system.

Clearly, the leadership in Tehran is seizing this opportunity to emerge as role models in the vacuum left in the wake of the Arab uprisings.”

2. The second condition is the recognition of the role of the Arab youth in the transformational process of Arab societies.

Today, the Arab youth make up the majority of our citizens. With 65% of our populations under the age of 25, it is no coincidence that their influence is immediately tangible. They live in mostly urban settings, with reasonably easy access to technology and multi media.

Young Arabs have very real concerns about their lack of political representation. They feel, and rightly so, that their voices and efforts to be heard are lost in the din of corruption, nepotism, and neglect.

Although they may not have the skills and strengths garnered by a good education, the information and insight about the rest of the world that they gather from the internet and satellite channels is immense. They have
 become immediate witnesses to the apparent freedoms and opportunities of the West, and immediate victims of the censorship and stifling of free speech and expression in their own countries.

The challenges that face this coming generation of Arabs are many, and range from poor education to a lack of involvement in their own governance, to the most pressing of issues of being unemployment.

Therefore, the first step towards youth empowerment and self-sufficiency is to address the alarming rate of unemployment. At a shocking rate of more than 20%, the youth unemployment crisis will continue to hinder our development if we do not generate 100 million new jobs by the year 2020.

With high birth rates, the crumbling economies of the Arab states cannot possibly absorb the influx of jobseekers.

3- The third necessary condition for a successful transformation, hence, is a real economic reform through Privatization. There is no clear alternative to private investments and more open economies to avoid the perils of the unemployment crisis. The private sector presents both the solution and the opportunity for a more prosperous Arab world, and economic reform is the path through which this long—awaited prosperity could be attained. We could argue about the pace, the sequence and the prerequisites of reform, but at the end of the day this will not change the fact that the status—quo is unbearable as it is, and that the private sector is the only promising road to prosperity. It’s a long, arduous road, certainly a bumpy road, but it is the only road.

Let us all agree that the implosion of the Soviet regime, and the persisting constraints that former centralized economies continue to face to this day- including those in the Arab world- are not the result of their religious and cultural values. On the contrary, the fundamental cause of their crisis can be found in the economic doctrine they have followed. A doctrine that inhibits freedom and liberty, a doctrine that stifles private initiatives and innovations, In short a doctrine wholly based on economic totalitarianism.

To be sure, 600 years ago Ibn Khaldun had warned us about the dangers of government domination and hegemony over the economy. In his masterpiece al-Muguddimah, he described how the dynamic interaction of the principle players of society had a direct impact over the enter-temporal growth of the economy. He showed us that as the society moves, away from free market economy, it risks the dangers of economic dislocation, stagnation, and ultimately social demise.

Ibn Khaldun’s analysis about the free market system was published some 400 years before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. It’s quite conceivable that Adam Smith, while he —was a student at Oxford, came across the great work of Ibn Khaldun. As the Oxford historian Arnold Toynbee said "..[Ibn Khaldun] has conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has yet been created by any mind in any time or place".

The interdependence between economic reform and political reform makes democracy part of the solution, and not the whole solution. We look at the risks and pains associated with political reform as a reason for caution and not one for inaction. As we continue to advance reforms on the political front, we must bear in mind that the sustainability of those reforms cannot be secured without economic decentralization and openness. The pace and sequencing of economic and political reforms is, therefore, a critical issue that must not be lost in the waves of our enthusiasm and optimism. If the issue at stake is just [elections and parties, then democratization would have been completed a long time ago. The lessons of social and political upheavals associated with the transition to democracy are numerous from the Latin American cases as well as the recent case in Eastern Europe. Any of you who read the classic works of Schmitter and O’Donnell on Latin America would appreciate this point.

In advancing reform, we are not merely creating institutions; we are reformulating a historic relationship between people and their governments. Reformulation of this relationship involves not just political liberalization, but first a reconfiguration of the economic equation—and here at this point is when economic reforms come to play. This also requires delicate management of the process of transition. As long as governments continue to hold close to them the sources of production, society will never be empowered in any meaningful way.

Therefore, before we talk about mechanisms of accountability we must begin by addressing the issue of societal autonomy from the state, and this autonomy will never be possible as long as the state remains the dominant player in the economy.

In his powerful book The Road to Serfdom, the Nobel laureate Friedrich von Hayek reminded us that the institutional changes that accompanied the implementation of a paternalistic state with its socialist policies potentially carried within them the seeds of political tyranny and servitude. In other words, if democracy and accountability are the sine qua non of good governance, economic liberalization, embodied in the institution of free markets, is what gives meaning to it all.

Furthermore, as we continue to advance change on the economic front, simultaneously with political change, we come to appreciate the value of educational reform, without which no reform strategy, whether political or economic, can succeed. Ending the knowledge deficit to which the UN Arab Human Development Report pointed is an important part of the journey towards liberalization of all its forms. The shift from public to private and the movement toward economic diversification demand the support of quality human capital. And our wealth of human capital will never be sufficient without the enhancement of our educational systems in order to support emerging sectors in the private sphere. Those sectors demand new skills and new individual capabilities that require substantial innovations and additions to the process of education. With those changes enacted a lot of untapped wealth in our society will finally be brought to light.

Finally, let me end with a final observation. Right answers can only be spurred by right questions. I think I am not alone in saying that we have exhausted all the questions in trying to understand why the Arab masses erupted in 2011, or the prerequisites of development in the post Arab-Spring World. Looking at the real facts not the fallacies is the first step towards posing the right questions. Whether you call the events of 2011 Spring or Conspiracy, the fact is that the Arab youth was the precursor of a major political explosion in the Arab world. Toppling entrenched regimes is one thing; building prosperous society is something else.  As the Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes said, the challenge lies not in accepting new ideas but in getting rid of the old ones.

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© Dr. Mohammad Sabah AlSalem AlSabah. All Rights Reserved