An update on the Arab Spring and its consequences

About 8 months ago, I had a look at what was then happening in the Arab world and made predictions about what was going to happen next. Time to see what really happened and update the forecast.

A minor prediction I was making was that Libya would again succumb to the resource course, making democracy impossible there, an article taken over by the Congressional Quarterly in the US (December edition). So far I am looking good for that prediction, with individual cities maintaining their own prisons and militias, as well as open fights about the division of the oil spoils.

The main prediction I was making concerned Egypt where I predicted the regime would re-constitute itself, coopting deal makers in agricultural and slum areas. I predicted that the urban youth which was driving the protests would lose out.

This is indeed exactly what has now happened: the army has put the torture chambers on full throttle in order to intimidate the urban youth. The elections have clearly shown that the largely uneducated and agricultural population has no appetite for supporting intellectuals in cities, and has gone for what they know, which is the muslim brotherhood, more radical muslims, the army, or some regional politician. The muslim brotherhood, which over the years has become so infiltrated by the regime that it was amongst the first to condemn the original protests against Mubarak, has about 40% of the preliminary vote and the reform parties have merely 15%. The radical Islamists get 25% and more regional parties make up the rest. Given that the army has already decided to simply give itself some seats in parliament if it needs them, as well as several more months of systematic torture of any opposition before parliament is even convened, one is already seeing a grand bargain between the Muslim brotherhood and the regime: a further move towards religious austerity in exchange for no challenge to the economic parasitism of the army. Egypt will become a very dull place indeed.

This uneasy alliance is quite visible on a day to day basis, with the Muslim Brotherhood refusing to condemn extreme brutality, or really pushing for a faster handover of power to parliament: after years of being in the torture chambers themselves, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership is showing it can be intimidated and quickly backtracks on any strong statement it now and then makes in response to grass-root pressures. They are easy pickings for the repression system of the army, excusing their cowardice by the unrealistic tale that things will be different once a parliament convenes and they will have a real say. The interim silence allows the army to take full advantage of this cowardice to get rid of the remaining true reformers and thereby have the full repression system aimed at the Brotherhood leadership should they regain their courage too late. Before the parliament convenes, decides together with the army council on a constitution, then again has elections for a president, the real power struggle is long done.

Because Egypt is the Arab country of greatest significance, i.e. the one with by far the highest number of Arabs as well as being the intellectual heartland of the Arab world, the unequal alliance between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood really means the Arab Spring is over. Its last embers are dying in the increasingly brutal repression of the few urban youth who are hanging onto a vision that the vast majority of Egyptians neither understand nor trust, choosing instead for the devil they know. It is tragic from an Enlightenment point of view but it is the classic story of what happens in societies that are still 60% rural and where even the 40% urban is dominated by slums: some form of clientelism wins the democratic game.

I would also say that the outcome is worse than might have been reasonably hoped for 8 months ago, when it was clear that things were never going to be as good as they are in the West but one could at least hope for something that might be livable. 8 months ago one could still hope for a degree of economic reform in the sense that the old elite would have been content to hang onto what it had and otherwise have a hands-off approach, like the army in Turkey. New businesses would then be able to escape the clutches of the regime and the economy could flourish. Alas, Egypt is not following the example of Turkey but more that of Pakistan: a repressive regime is sitting centre-stage and is extending its economic tentacles, meaning that any business not belonging to the regime is fair game to predatory taxation, which in turn means economic growth will be slow for many years to come and parliament will quickly establish the pattern of doing what the commercially-minded children of the generals say in return for a slice of the crumbs. Dictatorship by democratic proxy.

Then the post-script analysis: who could have made a difference? If the West had thrown a lot of money and support behind the urban reformers, the outcome would have still been the same and perhaps even worse: the urban reformers never had a chance to sway the uneducated masses on their own. They needed an alliance with one of the big religious parties and those parties had other agendas. Association with the West would have simply sped up their alienation with the rest of the population. By illustration, just today, the army outlawed 200 pro-reform organisations on the mere allegation of foreign funding, showing how easily any real intervention by the West would have fuelled the dictatorship.

Saudi Arabia could have made a difference but chose to support the regime and the radical islamists. If it had thrown its financial and religious muscle behind a grand deal between, say, the more welfarist oriented Islamists (elements within the Brotherhood) and the urban reformers, then there was a chance. Alas, the Saudis too have their own dreams and they do not include upstart urban youth and real democracy. If the West carries blame, it is via our failure to really put the screws on the Saudis.

Hence, as feared 8 months ago, real change in Egypt and thereby the gravity point of the Arab world will have to wait at least a few more decades until urbanisation and development levels are high enough to make an urban-inspired middle-class democratic uprising sustainable. Until then, it is torture as usual for any outspoken reformers, with the months ahead sure to become very bitter memories. I expect an exodus of smart young urban Egyptians before the end of next year.

Though Israel will no doubt let go a sigh of relief that things are back to normal in Egypt (you can almost hear the relief spitting off the pages of some of their newspapers, already reverting to the well-worn line about being afraid of islamification of Egypt), the failure of the Arab spring to provide a platform for real reform is also bad news for the West because it means that for quite some time, the radical Islamists will continue to be seen in their own countries as the only trustworthy and non-corrupt opposition to the parasitical regimes there. This will mean the regimes will continue to have to blame the West for every problem on earth (in order not to be too outflanked by the radical islamists) and the more fanatical part of their population will want to make true on the fantasies of Islamic world dominance. Egypt’s tragedy may well be our tragedy.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

7 thoughts on “An update on the Arab Spring and its consequences”

  1. Well said.  Although, predicting the outcome of these things is not usually very hard – if only one side has the guns, that’s the side that’ll win.


  2. If democracy is impossible, why would the USA, the UK and France intervene?

    My answer is that Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy are vainglorious clowns. I await Obama’s next “Cairo Speech”.

    What is your reason for the intervention?


  3. Should be: If democracy is impossible in Libya, why would the USA, the UK and France intervene? My answer is that Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy are vainglorious clowns. I await Obama’s next “Cairo Speech”. What is your reason for the intervention?


  4. Thomas,
    the intervention probably was due to a combination of interest groups, including oil contracts of course. More importantly though, national pride in Britain and France had come at stake almost accidentally after which they had no choice but to escalate their involvement.
    I read.


  5. Economist by day, amateur middle east political analyst by night. Do you ever sleep?

    Tetlock’s work has taught me to be pretty skeptical of anyone who claims to understand this kind of thing. But on the upside – it seems people with a bit of information about a topic are almost as good at forecasting political developments as world-renowned experts.


  6. 🙂 not quite. In my line of work I do a lot on political economy. I have papers on the resource curse, major transitions, political coordination, etc. I hence see the blog above more as out-of-sample forecasting. I generally subscribe to the view that people who work on these issues should put their predictions out there so others can see how well they do.
    There is no doubt though that the true country-specific experts will beat generalists like me by months on this type of thing, except at times of fast change when its a true free-for-all.


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