Consolidating emerging MENA democracies

Democracy is once again the challenge. Overcoming divisions through the development of new welfare systems will be vital to the success of this project.
Alfio Cerami
5 April 2011

These days, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s important process of institutional and democratic transformation has an uncertain future. With luck, the 2011 events will be the beginning of a ‘fourth wave of democratization’, where freedom and democracy prevail over authoritarianism and corruption. There could, however, be a sad end, with protests leading to even worse forms of authoritarianism or of religious fundamentalism.

In past weeks, international observers and well-known scholars have begun to question whether the 2011 events in the MENA region can be compared to the events that have led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (see, for example, Ulrichsen, Held and Brahimi 2011). However, what attracts the attention of the international audience (and of the academic community in particular) even more is the ways in which the demonstrations and riots have spread throughout the region.

While the study of diffusion processes is not new for social scientists, ‘democracy diffusion’ through Twitter and Facebook was unexpected. While in 1989 demonstrations began in churches and in places only barely known to the secret police, young men and women in the MENA region began their revolts communicating through openly accessible social networks. They joined together in the main squares, attracted the attention of older citizens, challenging police, armed forces, tanks and, more recently, also fighter aircraft. At the end of the demonstrations, people from different social strata and with a range of vested interests were part of the same social mass. In order to ‘re-establish order’ the use of brutal force was, in most cases, not sufficient. Several demonstrators died, but the majority of them resisted and continued despite threats and fears. Rage and anger, whatever the provocation, did not translate into blind violence. They have, in contrast, been turned into louder calls for peace and democracy.

Democracy and democratization – for many years unmentionable words often seen in the Middle East as the precursors of western imperialism – seem to have found their correct place in history again. Against the hard-line proponents of the ‘good governance’ argument, with their excessive focus on efficiency-enhancing institutions, democracy is something that talks to the people again about values, such as freedom (of speech, of press, of owning the property assets an individual regards as necessary or valuable for his or her existence), equality (before the law and before other individuals) and fraternity (among people belonging to the same nation-state and with those outside their national borders).

As happened during the 1789 French Revolution, Freedom, equality and fraternity ‘, (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité) are now widely accepted keywords of the revolts. These words have been used by demonstrators, but also by police forces, by military personnel, even by the same old leaders and, quite astonishingly, also by the members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

But what kind of freedom is, in fact, sought after? And what kind of equality? Fraternity towards whom? In short, the questions arising from the protests in the MENA region during these dramatic days are the same questions that the founding fathers of democracy were called to deal with centuries ago and that current world leaders are still trying to address. Once this wave of protests is completed and the process of democratization is fully under way, this suggests that policies aiming at consolidating democratic institutions will have to follow swiftly on.

But how are countries consolidated that have never experienced democracy and that are still in the process of democratizing? How are fragile societies, characterized by highly complex and divided social structures, where clans, tribes, ethnic and religious divisions still dictate ‘the rules of the game’ and where social norms are still in ‘constant flux’, pieced together?

Social protection

The global financial crisis has had an important negative impact on the economies and on the population of the MENA region, with poverty, social inequalities and anger as the clearest outcomes. Here, the implementation of efficient systems of social protection is the next necessary step to take to ensure not simply the next stage in modernization or democratization, but also the preservation of what has been achieved so far.

The inefficient contemporary systems of social protection in the MENA region leave a large section of the population unprotected. As the countries have greatly benefited from the abundance of natural resources (especially oil and gas), several distorting mechanisms have set in in their economies over the decades. These have involved the creation of particularly powerful lobbies, dishonest competition, and corruption, which have, subsequently, hampered economic growth and social progress. In the absence of efficient political institutions, the mispropriation of resources for the redistribution of welfare benefits and of social services by the elites has also had a significant negative effect on the poverty relief strategies of these countries.

Pensions in the MENA region are based on the social insurance principle, thereby providing benefits upon the payment of social insurance contributions. Despite universal aspirations, they cover only a small part of the population (approximately one-third), and usually favour the upper-classes at the expense of the middle and lower classes. The health care systems, greatly improved in extent of cover and performance since the 1970s, are currently placed under constant pressure by increasing budget constraints and by the population’s inability to pay for health services through out-of-pocket payments. The systems of protection against unemployment are almost inexistent, and where present, as in the cases of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait and Tunisia, provide only extremely limited benefits. Cover is ensured for very short periods (usually no more than six months).

Meanwhile, the young are completely excluded from the labour market, which fuels poverty, criminality and fundamentalism. Also the system of family benefits is underdeveloped, as the attention of political leaders has primarily been given to price subsidies to basic goods with the aim of ensuring social peace. In most countries of the MENA region, women continue to be seen as mothers and household workers rather than as full-time employees. The feminization of poverty (and of families) is here the direct consequence.

Overhauling the welfare architecture

While the formal system of social protection has proved to be both extremely resilient and inefficient in tackling poverty and income inequality, it has been exceptionally successful in reproducing existing power relations, and in keeping a well-entrenched system of clientelism alive, while enlarging the power of the reigning families. The informal system of social protection has become, in this sense, the last resort for the most vulnerable citizens and those in urgent need. In this process of welfare marginalisation, religious non-state actors have been key agents in reducing poverty and extreme deprivation. But in the absence of a clear Weberian bureaucratic apparatus for the collection and redistribution of resources, religious and ethnic divisions have materialized, often with one local, ethnic or religious entity granting access to better services to its members at the expense of others. The doors for sectarianism and for ethnic and religious fundamentalism have, in this way, been opened.

In the context of such complex institutional and social structures, improving the efficiency of the systems of social protection through a more comprehensive approach to social inclusion must be seen as the key for success. Only an all-embracing orientation to social protection will prove capable of dismantling long-established ethnic and religious divisions, as well as the system of patron-client relations, with associated privileges, social inequalities and exclusions. This, however, will require, a drastic redefinition of the main functional, redistributive, normative and institutional priorities of the welfare architecture. The implementation of redistributive civic, ethnic and religious equalizing social protection policies will, in this way, contribute not simply to a more rapid modernization of the economy, but also to the consolidation of the democratic system requested by the citizens.

Furthermore, policies aimed at reducing social divisions will help to dismantle older privileges, allowing a fairer competition in the labour market. They will also provide the necessary political legitimacy for the difficult reforms that will have to be implemented in the following years.

Fears of mass migration and religious fundamentalism are on the increase in the west. But these concerns do not seem to be fully justified. While it is true that people from the MENA region are taking the opportunity to escape en masse from their countries, the fact is that they are doing so because of civil wars and because of the absence of functioning market economies and of systems of social protection. Of course, religious fundamentalism could become increasingly attractive for an ever larger number of poor people with nothing left to lose. Yet, as argued by Adib-Moghaddam (2011), what we are witnessing in the streets of Algiers, Amman, Cairo, Damascus, Manama, Tripoli and Tunis is the emergence of a post-modern form of Islam with clear calls for ‘an universal move towards democracy, social equality and resistance to political tyranny’.

The challenge for future governments in the region and for the international community as a whole will then be to help with realizing these requests whilst avoiding the risk of what Samuel P.Huntington referred to as possible 'reverse waves of democratization' - that is to say - the return to previously established forms of authoritarianism.

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