Observations on the Arab Spring

by

(memo to self)

Probably the most significant geopolitical event of the last 12 months has been the regime change in the Arab world, where the 360 million Arabs[1] make up 5% of the world population. Though a small and relatively poor group in this world, they occupy the main oil fields and have been heavily involved in the so-called ‘War on Terrorism’, making up vast numbers of casualties on both sides of that conflict.

What started as a fairly minor scuffle in Tunisia has since lead to a remarkable turnaround in Egypt, a stifled revolt amongst the Shiites in Bahrain, an ongoing war in Libya between tribes that look almost indistinguishable, and continued unrest in Syria and other countries. Whilst much has been written already, here goes for a socio-economic perspective on key aspects of these developments:

1.       Egypt is the big one. It has a population of about 85 million, more than the combined total of Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Tunisia. It is the intellectual heartland of the Arab world, so whatever becomes the stable outcome there is going to be the model for other Arab countries, particularly if it is seen as a success.

2.       Despite early appearances, the changes in Egypt appear more far-reaching and stable than anyone held possible beforehand. Key figures in the old regime have lost out (see here, for example) and there is some real organisational shake-up as well, most notably with the dismantling of the security services. The new constitution that was overwhelmingly supported makes it harder for a new military regime to come to power by making state of emergency laws less forceful and time-constrained. Elections are imminent. There is certainly hope.

3.       The people that lead the demonstrations in Egypt have lost out: their calls for a boycott of the referendum (which didn’t promise enough changes) have been roundly ignored. El Baradei and other symbols of the middle-class urban youth movement that forced the changes have essentially been sidelined by the demographic realities of Egypt: more than 55% of the population still lives in the rural countryside, is quite conservative and religious, and is still living in semi-feudal circumstances. Of the 45% living in the city, more than half is dirt-poor and almost uneducated. That type of economic reality almost invariably translates into a clientelist political system, whether democratic or not. Hence you will have rural and slum-town power brokers: local ‘big men’ who can promise politicians a certain number of votes in return for particular policies, which is exactly what happened in the run-up to the constitutional elections and will happen again for the parliamentary elections. That kind of wheeling-dealing means that democracy Western-style has no chance. At least not until the country becomes more urbanised and richer, which is projected to take a few decades. Hence, whilst Egypt has become more democratic, it is not the type of democracy ‘we’ are used to. Rather, it is the type of democracy that, at worst, Pakistan is used to and, at best, Turkey (where political assassinations are very common). It will thus continue to have a large independent role for the military (which is successfully reinventing itself as a custodian of the nation, modelled on Turkey) and a small super-wealthy elite that makes deals with voting blocks to protect its interest.

4.       In effect, most of the old elite has been bailed out in Egypt: much like democracy in the West often took the form of creating symbolic roles for the previous elite (most notably the kings), there is an amnesty for most of the old elite, including protection for the wealth they have amassed. It is not ideal, but there is no realistic alternative. Only the closest associates and family members of the previous strong man (Mubarak) will be held accountable. The old elite seems to be gearing up for elections and they are expected to do well, which is probably why they allowed the changes to happen in the first place.

5.       Things are looking good for the medium term for the Arab world: fertility levels have dropped to close to replacement rates, economic growth is fairly steady (projected to be 4% in Egypt this year, down from an average 6% in the previous 4 years), and the idea of Western-style democracy is finally showing some promise in that region, albeit tentatively.

6.       There is a large Arab and Arab-sympathising diaspora in Europe and America (over 10 million, of which maybe half a million in Australia: in 2006 243,700 spoke Arabic at home[2] and 367,374 people in Australia in 2001 had ancestries in North Africa and the Middle East) who are not seen to integrate very successfully in those regions. A normalisation of the Arab world can only be expected to reduce the tensions between Arabs and non-Arabs elsewhere, making it good news for ‘us’.

7.       From a geo-political perspective what is happening in Libya is fairly inconsequential. Only 6.5 million people live there, its resources are smallish, it has no organised state to do any real damage to anyone but its own population, and its former colonial overlord was Italy. It seems all about pride at this moment, with on the one hand the pride of Kaddafi and the group that has supporting him and on the other hand the pride of the European countries that have promised they would get rid of Kaddafi and now find themselves in the situation that they will probably have to arm the opposition if they want to see it happen (which is a bit of a let-down so it will take a while before they will succumb).

8.      The strong repression seen in Syria and Bahrein suggest that the status quo with regards to the ethnic
eligious division of the spoils from running a country is strongly defended, probably because a change of the guard in terms of ethnic supremacy means an automatic disenfranchisement of the current elite and hence a change of the guard cannot be accompanied by a buyout of the current elite making them fight much harder to stay in total control. The contrast with the US invasion of Iraq is instructive here since that invasion became a de facto liberation and elevation of the downtrodden Shi’ite majority from their oppression by the Sunni minority in that country. That elevation was, ironically, the opposite of what the Americans had in mind as it greatly strengthened the position of Shi’ite Iran in the region. As if the countries in that region have learned from that ‘mistake’, repeats are being prevented in Bahrein and Syria.

In short, we can only rejoice at the normalisation of institutions that is currently happening in the Arab world. The emerging institutions are not clones of Western democracies yet, but much closer to that mould than 12 months ago, and this probably bodes well in terms of reduced tensions connected to Arab minorities elsewhere.

You can be assured that many people will claim these changes are really due to them and their policies. Undoubtedly those who defended the Iraq invasion will point to these changes as the payoff that came from forcing change in one country and even of drawing the sting out of the idealists who came to Iraq to fight ‘the invaders’. No doubt the Turks will claim it since it is their example that their former enemies, the Arabs, are following most closely. It will be interesting to see who else will claim it and who knows where the truth is on that one?

Which region is next to succumb to the democracy-bug, one wonders?


[1] Estimated at 300million in 2002 by the UN: http://www.escwa.un.org/popin/publications/new/DemographicprofileArabCountries.pdf

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