North Africa, West Asia

The political economy of the Arab Spring: searching for the virtuous circle

No matter how tragic the short and medium-term consequences of some of the uprisings, their outbreak might eventually lead the Arab world to enter steadily the trajectory to democracy and good governance.

Samir Makdisi Paul Aarts
28 July 2016
Amr Nabil/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Amr Nabil/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.In a recent piece in The Washington Post, Marc Lynch argued it’s wrong to say that the Arab uprisings have failed. “Success or failure”, he contends, is not a helpful way to understand these ongoing societal and political processes. “Let’s not talk in these binary terms”, he concludes, noting  that after five years new political systems have taken shape that must be understood on their own terms – which by the way is a correct  though not a novel finding.

We have seen this before as is shown by ample research on regime transitions since WWII, and more in particular after the end of the Cold War. Here, we may refer in particular to the work of Barbara Geddes and her team and to Steven Lewitsky’s and Lucan Way’s work. It was found that more than half of regime breakdowns were transitions from one autocracy to another. Fewer than one-quarter of leadership changes resulted in “democratization” or a move towards democratic governance (but in a majority of cases remaining short of achieving  a consolidated “democracy” as commonly understood).

So nothing new here. There is no linear “transition” towards democracy, which is very much against the school of thought of those scholars, both inside and outside the Arab World (and – perhaps more understandably – among many activists), who may suffer from what the Germans call Zwangsoptimismus (translated as “forced optimism”). Of course other scholars have been more cautious, emphasizing the implementation of inclusive  political and socio-economic policies as pre-requisites for a successful transition to democracy. 

Dignity and bread

A basic motive behind the initial uprisings was the wish to break out of the autocratic hold and achieve some of form of political freedom. But what greatly reinforced this wish were growing levels of unemployment, especially youth unemployment that came to reach relatively high levels. Subsequently three of the uprisings turned into brutal civil wars, intertwined with active foreign interventions, with all their horrific socio-economic and political consequences.

So far, in one case (Egypt) it has effectively led nowhere. Only Tunisia is a more promising case, though the successful implementation of more inclusive economic policies, including the tackling of the issue of unemployment, is yet to be seen.

Generally speaking, the pro-democracy protests have been less focused on the question of economics than politics. Thus, while the Arab Spring was to a large extent rooted in protest at the neo-liberal “solution”, these protests remained basically political, issues of economic injustice or dysfunction attracting lesser attention. And what indeed evolved following the uprisings was a further worsening of the economic and job situation.

Hence whereas the removal of sitting dictators could be interpreted as a sign of success for the Arab uprisings, the consequent worsening situation, including job prospects, is a countersign of their non success, at least so far. Different sources give different numbers when it comes to jobs needed in the near future. But no matter which source is consulted, the numbers are staggering – in particular when looking at youth unemployment. In general, young females are three times less likely to find employment than young males.

Consent vs coercion

Not only have economic conditions worsened since 2011, and unemployment has been on the rise, new regimes (like in Tunisia) face the great dilemma of how to recover economically while maintaining a stable transition process. Seeking international assistance traditionally forces them to introduce market-oriented reforms (imposed by international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank) – such as slashing subsidies and laying off government employees. By doing so they risk losing support of the people that brought them to power, i.e. they run the risk of losing recently acquired legitimacy.

The alternative of not giving in to demands from these institutions, and “listening to the people”, may lead to an even deeper economic malaise with uncertain political consequences. Hence the bottom line and paramount question: How to reconcile market-oriented reforms with social justice?

This is the great challenge facing the post-uprising MENA region: creating a balance between the need to restore economic stability while generating growth prospects and implementing more equitable socio-economic policies. This challenge has been successfully met elsewhere as in the case of Chile. In the existing conflictual Middle Eastern region this task will be much more difficult than otherwise would have been the case.

Searching for the ‘virtuous circle’

A lot of research has been done on the link between regime type and economic development. As Przeworski has summarized: there is no reason to believe that on average non-democracies have a higher rate of growth than democracies. Or, quoting another economist, Dani Rodrik: “For each authoritarian country that has managed to grow rapidly, there are several that have struggled. For each Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, there are many like Mobutu of the Congo.”

Whether democracies perform better economically, however, is open to divergent views. There is just one finding that is robust: It is certain that established democracies are more likely to survive in countries with higher per capita income (India is a notable exception while growing authoritarianism in Erdogan’s Turkey – clearly apparent well before the recent post-coup developments – might throw a spanner in the works of democratic theory).

It looks like “democracy seldom appears in economically underdeveloped countries, and when it does, it does not last long.” Does this mean that, as Tarek Massoud claims, a healthy economy then is a kind of prerequisite for an inclusive policy? Does this imply that democratization must be put on hold? No, of course not, is Massoud’s reply.

It is without doubt that democracy is important in its own right, but what might be relevant to point out is the need for an “enlightened political leadership that prioritizes building competent state institutions, fighting corruption, and expanding economic opportunity.” The ideal then is to achieve a virtuous circle where governance reforms support growth which in turn leads to better governance and even faster growth.

In this context, the growth of the middle class and the rise of education levels can have a modernizing influence that helps in creating more favourable conditions for a move towards a democratic environment. (Though this is not to claim that the middle class always and everywhere is the “vanguard of democratization”).

Specifically in the case of the Arab region, this has  generally not been the case (in contrast with other regions of the world), mainly on account of the negative political influences of abundant oil wealth in already existing non-democracies (in the oil-rich Gulf region) as well as raging conflicts, including the Arab-Israeli conflict that is yet to be justly resolved. The interaction of these factors has drawn in corrosive foreign interventions that further destabilized the region, thereby hindering economic development.

A post-work, deindustrialized future

It’s a truism to notice that in this grim context finding enough jobs will be an uphill battle – if not a mission impossible. Add to the above-mentioned specifics of the MENA region – where oil wealth has tended to retard potential economic diversification – the global trend towards a “post-work” future (with more time for leisure made possible by automation), and it will be hard to be optimistic. Rather than repel the advance of the machine, the West ánd the MENA region need to work on a revolution in social thinking.

For newcomers to the world market it would be difficult to emulate the industrialization experience of the Four Asian Tigers, or the European and North American economies before them. Many (if not most) developing countries are becoming mostly service economies without having developed a large manufacturing sector – a process which Dani Rodrik has called “premature deindustrialization.” This also applies to countries in the MENA region, though it may vary per country.

In general, however, as Rodrik argues, what the region most likely is going to miss is crucial building blocks to be able to come to some kind of a less autocratic system. Let’s remember that indeed some of these “building blocks of durable democracy have been by products of sustained industrialization: an organized labor movement, disciplined political parties, and political competition organized along a right-left axis. The habits of compromise and moderation have grown out of a history of workplace struggles between labor and capital.” 

Threat to stability

This has serious implications, also for the relative “success story” of Tunisia: The new government may have gained “input legitimacy” thanks to its election by the people, but that does not automatically entail “output legitimacy” in terms of policy delivery – more concretely: in particular more jobs for the massive numbers of unemployed and underemployed youth.

No jobs lead to disappointment. What comes after is difficult to say. Unless this problem is successfully addressed isn’t a likely outcome a massive permanent class of jobless people whom the state will see as a persistent threat to stability? This in its turn might necessitate repressive-exclusionary modes of governance.

Against this backdrop, the MENA region will most likely travel a rocky road to an unknown future. It’s against this pessimism of the intellect that we have to put the optimism of the will, leading to our belief that, no matter how tragic the short and medium-term consequences of some of the uprisings, their outbreak might eventually lead the Arab world to enter steadily the trajectory to democracy and good governance. 

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