Global Extremes: Opinion

Can worsening economies and increasing repression herald a new Arab Spring?

North Africa today is reminiscent of the period leading up to the 2011 uprisings. Tensions are further aggravated by the pandemic damage

Mehdi Lahlou
26 April 2021, 6.55am
Tunisia has had increasingly violent protests since late last year
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Fauque Nicolas/Images de Tunisie/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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Ten years after the Arab Spring, which brought hope for more dignity and better living conditions for people in the Middle East and North Africa, the region appears far from hopeful.

The situation is particularly bad in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco that cannot rely primarily on oil and gas exports. These three North African countries were the subjects of our research as part of the Radicalisation, Secularism and the Governance of Religion: European and Asian Perspectives (GREASE) project. They are highly dependent on tourism, textile exports and remittances.

COVID-19 has dealt a severe blow to all three economies as they all have strong informal economic sectors, where people live in very precarious conditions. All three have recorded a significant increase in unemployment figures.

According to a report released by the Egyptian Ministry of Finance, about 2.3 million Egyptians lost their jobs in the last quarter of 2020 due to the pandemic. In Morocco, a study by the High Commission for Planning (HCP) revealed that 322,000 people lost their jobs in 2020. In Tunisia, the Ministry of Development, Investment and International Cooperation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that around 274,500 jobs were lost in 2020.

The poor get poorer

Adding to this, Egypt and Tunisia have been experiencing strong devaluation of their national currencies against the US dollar and the euro since 2011. This amounts to over 10% on an annual average in Egypt and 5-6% in Tunisia. This has strongly contributed to the weakening of the lower and middle classes in the two countries.

According to a report by the World Bank, COVID-19 has pushed more people in the Middle East and North Africa into poverty. This applies also to the rich countries that export oil and gas – some of which are embroiled in the war in Yemen or the political and ideological confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The absence of any far-reaching economic, social, fiscal and institutional reforms, including the need to fight corruption or respect human rights, can only exacerbate political and social conflicts

The World Bank report says that the pandemic has disproportionately affected poorer householders who are more likely to be self-employed or work in the informal sector, as these two areas have been most affected by the pandemic.

Just over one year since most of the world entered lockdown due to the pandemic, the overall situation is no better for many countries than it was at the end of 2020. In fact, it appears that more difficult times are yet to come.

Crackdown on freedom

All of this comes into play in the absence of any far-reaching economic, social, fiscal and institutional reforms. This absence, including the need to fight corruption or respect human rights, can only exacerbate political and social conflicts. In the case of North Africa, one result we have observed in our research has been a strong increase in migratory flows.

In Tunisia, this also shows up in the numerous and increasingly violent protests that the country has been witnessing since the end of last year and the start of this year, which is reminiscent of the beginning of the revolution in December 2010.

According to Amnesty International, Moroccan authorities used the pandemic to pass “restrictive legislation” and continue to crack down on freedom of expression by targeting journalists, activists and individuals who are critical of the state.

As for Egypt, the military regime continues to grow its hold over the country, preventing any possibility of dissent, let alone one that would resemble the mass protests that erupted in January 2011.

We may be unlikely to witness another Arab Spring in the very near future, but worsening economic conditions, entrenched corruption and an increasing crackdown on freedom of expression could prove to be the recipe for a future one.

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