The Middle Eastern revolutions still lack a clear political agenda.
29.03.2012, Hannes Hanso
The Middle Eastern revolutions still lack a clear political agenda.
A former Maltese foreign minister told me at the end of last year that he had visited Libya 26 times in the course of his three and a half year long period of office. He claimed he had become acquainted with practically every top official and prominent person who had by then been killed or imprisoned there or who had fled the country. During his term of office, he had also visited Tunisia a couple of dozens of times. However, this man, who certainly was intimately familiar with North Africa, was forced to admit that the developments that began in these two countries almost a year ago, and their outcomes, came as a complete surprise to him. I believe that this remark by the ex-minister reflects quite accurately a broader global confusion regarding the so-called Arab Spring issue. No-one could predict the events that were to occur in the region. Similarly, no-one can say where exactly all this is going to take us.
Still, we can now use hindsight knowledge to draw certain conclusions. Why did the Arab Spring take place? There are certainly many answers to that one, but let me highlight some of the more significant root causes here: decades of dictatorial rule, human rights violations, a disconnect between the people/nation and the government, unequal development and uneven distribution of wealth (an ordinary Egyptian earned 2–3 US dollars a day; Mubarak’s total wealth was estimated to be up to 80 billion), corruption, the arbitrary exercise of power by the security forces (in the service of those in power) and the regime, the absence of public services, the treatment of public assets as private property, massive demographic pressure, i.e. rapid population growth (e.g. in Yemen 3% annually) not accompanied by an increase in opportunities, unemployment, humiliation and social exclusion.
It is difficult to make generalisations about the processes that have occurred in the Arab countries. The West and the Arab world occasionally use the rhetoric on Arab unity or monolithism, but it remains rather empty – it is a fantasy that has never been brought to life. Nationalism has always been stronger in the Arab countries than Islamism or pan-Arabism. These countries are inherently different from each other; most of them do not have a common political culture and joint economic structures. Moreover, each state has a unique key for deciphering the events that have happened there – the mix of religious groups (Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Copts, Maronites, the Druze and Alawites), loyalty networks between tribes, administrative practices and economic models differ in every country. Maybe this fact also accounts for the transformation of conflict in the region during the last few decades. Frictions between various Arab countries, i.e. inter-state conflicts, used to be prevalent; today domestic pressures and tensions between religious groups and tribes clearly dominate the scene. Only one year has passed since the beginning of the political turbulence and we can already trace extremely divergent development trajectories in the region. Oddly enough, not one of the region’s numerous monarchs has so far been dethroned. Regime collapses have not followed a standardised pattern. In the case of Libya, the possibility of state collapse looms on the horizon; Gaddafi was killed. In Tunisia, free elections were held and the country’s leadership was replaced; Ben Ali and his family fled swiftly to Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, a military transition government seized power and is still only making plans for the handover of power to a civilian government; Mubarak and his sons are on trial. The Yemeni head of state left his country and office after being granted unconditional amnesty and headed for the United States.
What seems to be certain is that before positive changes take root, the situation in the region has considerable potential to get worse. It is naive and premature to think that revolutions in the Middle East and in North Africa will lead to the emergence of more Westernised states, which for us in the West represent the climax in the development of states. The truth is rather the reverse. In a way, it is inevitable during a period like this that the pendulum will swing from one extreme to the other. A point of balance will be reached later, hopefully. In simple terms, the West should be aware beforehand that the will of the people in this region could differ quite radically from what we have hoped for in our dreams. The rise of anti-Western forces can hardly be excluded after fully democratic and proper elections. Organisations that have forcefully been banned from power for decades have now been given an energy boost and they attempt to prove themselves not as clandestine organisations, but as legitimate political actors. The suppression of moderate Islamic forces in the region ultimately led to the formulation of much more radical forces – the Salafis and the Wahhabis are products of this process. There is a wide variety of new religious parties, often unpredictable and unknown entities, which have never really been in power and have been deprived of chances to apply their ideas in everyday politics. Only a year ago, opposition forces and parties probably did not believe that one day they would actually come to power. In any case, these completely alternative forces are not adequately prepared and competent for public administration. Unfortunately, there is a lack of an independent and non-political class of civil servants who could autonomously take decisions based on competence and best practice. Institutional frailty, created by years of personal leadership, means that essentially state institutions must be re-built in many domains.
If we compare the crumbling of old regimes in Eastern Europe a couple of decades ago with the current events in the Arab world, we can detect one fundamental difference. The people living in the Eastern bloc knew more or less what they did not want, while they also had a general picture of what they did want. They wanted an end to one-party rule, to the Communist system; they wanted economic freedom and an open society. Later, various political parties and interest groups emerged as parts of a normal political process. The common denominator in the Arab Spring was the people’s conviction about what they did not want (or do not want) – they did not want the old autocratic, corrupt, dynastic, family-based structures to stay in power. At the moment, however, it does not look like the power vacuum that was created is going to be filled with some kind of ideology or worldview. Changes were made for the sake of making changes. So far, the revolutions that have occurred have actually been staged without any political agenda. Copts, Christians, Sunnis, Shias, Sufis, Arab nationalists and Islamists gathered on central squares in Arab capitals and, figuratively speaking, they all joined hands on these Tahrir Squares. The glue that held the protestors or insurgents together disappeared with the departure of the Mubaraks, Gaddafis and Ben Alis. So, what is the ‘Arab dream’ about?
Logic dictates that states should tackle two fundamental challenges after the overthrow of their autocratic leaders. The first challenge is political: it concerns civil freedoms, civil rights, justice and elections. The second is economic: the collapse of a stagnant regime usually leads to heightened expectations for improvements in economic conditions and impatience for quick results. For this purpose, a transparent and clear commercial code must be established and the role, responsibilities and rights of the private sector defined.
The anti-establishment sentiments, i.e. the revolutionary forces, in Egypt were mostly driven by disaffected youths with the active participation of women – snapshots of Tahrir Square show that both groups were visibly and strongly represented there. An Egyptian academic assured me that 40% of the protestors on Tahrir Square were women. Yet these social groups have systematically been sidelined from political affairs in the course of the post-revolutionary period. One of the key decisions by the transition government was to set up a 100-member assembly responsible for the drafting of a new constitution. Not a single woman was appointed to it. Today, they call it the Council of Wise Men. Another crucial factor is the future role of the military and the security forces in public administration. Of course, the security services in Egypt, and elsewhere too, protected the regime, not the population. It has become obvious in Egypt that the military are not willing to give up their power unless their privileges are retained and civilian control over defence expenditure is ruled out. If the military are granted their wishes, the transfer of power from the military government to a civilian one will take place in June. The Muslim Brotherhood has won around half of the vote in the parliamentary elections, which were held in three stages. The representatives of the people have started debates on such issues as whether or not to ban alcohol and what kind of bathing suits are suitable for beaches, but news about discussions on how to develop the nation’s economic and financial affairs has not yet reached me. To be honest, if I could vote in Egyptian elections, I would not know which force more to trust in economic issues – the military or the Muslim Brotherhood?
One is left with a nagging impression that the Arab Spring still remains incomplete. The toppling of one ruling faction led to its replacement with another, but there are no indications that the problems that were the actual root causes of the revolutions will be tackled. The people who exercise power have changed, but the way they do so has not. To announce reforms is not the same as to implement them. It is already clear that discontent in Egypt is once again boiling to the surface. So, the keywords here are not only political freedoms in the spirit ‘we are ready to sweat blood to attain them’, but rather the fulfilment of the most elementary economic needs of the people. The list of alarming tendencies seems to get longer – clashes between various religious groups used to be commonplace, for example, in Iraq, but they are now spreading to North Africa too. Anti-Israeli sentiments are also on the rise. The ongoing changes could decrease the participation of women in social life, instead of increasing it.
The developments in Egypt – a political heavyweight in the Arab world – should serve as a clear warning: stability is unattainable without meaningful changes in administrative logic. After a similar, i.e. democratic, rise to power in Palestinian Gaza, Hamas has still not demonstrated that the act of gaining access to real power has de-radicalised its convictions – rather the opposite. It is too early to say whether Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis or Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement will adopt more moderate worldviews when in power. What is certain, however, is that there can be no guarantee that this will happen.
What should be done to facilitate normal economic development in overregulated states that are drowning in red tape? In Arab countries with ever-increasing populations, the annual economic growth rate must be at least 6–8% to retain the current level of employment; it must be even higher to increase employment. Investments per capita in the region amount to 4.2 euros annually. Growth rates will not accelerate as long as the bureaucrats command the primary source of wealth – the almighty rubberstamp – and are in charge of monopoly licensing in the export/import sector. Algeria, a massive oil producer, has invested 150 billion US dollars in Eurobonds and in US government bonds, while its domestic economy suffers from chronic under-investment. No wonder that the total production of five North African non-oil-based economies equals that of one country – Belgium. Industrial production makes up only 10% of the North African economy and its added value is extremely low. In the future, the economy will have to be transformed into a more broad-based and diverse system. The Egyptian revolution cost the nation an estimated 600,000 jobs and state collapse in Libya led to the disappearance of around one million jobs, including those of immigrant workers who had come to Libya from neighbouring countries. Economic growth feeds on credit, but credit facilities have become much more expensive due to the unstable environment. Oil importing nations – Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Yemen – are in the most difficult situation. In North Africa, the so-called Maghreb countries have not managed to secure any functioning economic integration at a regional level. There is practically no trade between such important neighbouring countries as Morocco and Algeria; after years of bickering, the two nations recently managed to re-open one border crossing point on their 1500 km long joint border. According to some assessments, the lack of regional cooperation costs the countries about 2–3% of GDP annually.
The statistics for economic freedom in the Middle Eastern countries are worrying, to say the least. Unemployment among young people was a key driving force behind the Egyptian revolution. A year has passed since the events in Cairo, but the situation has not improved in this respect. Egypt has been pulled into a political whirlwind, forcing one of its primary income sources – the tourist industry – to face an unclear future. The signals coming from recently elected parliamentarians with Islamic backgrounds are definitely not positive. All this can only have a detrimental effect on investments and employment.
Regional comparisons have shown that unemployment in the Middle East is among the highest in the world. According to the estimates of an IMF analysis from May 2011, the level of unemployment among 15–24 year olds has reached 40% in the region. In some states, for example, in Egypt and in Syria, unemployment rates have climbed as high as 60%. Let us not forget at this point that it was nothing but the desperation of the people, incited by the grim outlook and persecution by local officials, which triggered the Arab Spring in the first place and set off a domino effect across the whole region.
The West has a lot to learn from the events, although recent history has shown that lessons learned tend to be quickly forgotten. The first lesson might be that intervention by force need not necessarily lead to the establishment of a better, friendlier regime or solve the problem at hand. The second lesson is that spontaneous regime change, i.e. without foreign intervention, also need not bring a positive power transformation. This is why we might need to spend more time talking. The absence of structural dialogue between the EU and the Arab League is quite baffling. Preventive dialogue, i.e. a regular format for communication, on issues of common interest should not be optional. It should be a must.
The West has cultivated a hypocritical attitude to the Middle East, which is why we cannot expect the Arab man in the street to trust the West and to treat outside advice as if it did not have a hidden agenda. The West has tolerated violence, massive corruption, human rights violations and autocratic rule for decades, despite its selectively employed rhetoric to the contrary. When the need arose, the Western leaders patted Gaddafi, al-Assad, Ali and Mubarak on the back. The Arab man in the street considered Egypt’s long-term President Mubarak and Yemeni President Saleh to be American bootlickers – in return for their cooperation on such issues as the recognition of Israel and the anti-terror campaign, their repressive security forces received hundreds of millions of dollars of financing, while infringements of the fundamental rights of the people remained unnoticed. The European and the American authorities must have known of the massive corruption and thefts by those in power, as most of the stolen assets ended up in the developed countries. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the public mood in the countries under question is lacking in pro-Western enthusiasm. The dilemma over how to treat these states has not disappeared – the question of whether or not to ignore the masses demanding change and to continue to support the slightly obnoxious, but nevertheless cooperative autocrats, for example, in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is still relevant today. To pursue a policy based on both values and interests might be difficult, but it would be more sustainable. Governments that manage to implement changes and to accommodate popular opinion at least to some extent survive in the long run; governments that do not, fall sooner or later. I think that the Arab Spring is not over yet.
The Ease of Doing Business Index – 183 economies are ranked on the basis of how conducive the regulatory environment is to the starting and operation of a local firm: Tunisia 46, Yemen 99, Egypt 110, Syria 134, Algeria 148, no ranking available for Libya in recent years.
The Corruption Perception Index – 183 countries are ranked on the basis of perceived corruption in the public sector: Tunisia 73, Egypt 112, Algeria 112, Syria 129, Yemen 164 and Libya 168.
The Mubaraks: the estimated total assets of the family are valued at up to 80 billion dollars. Corruption permeates every level of society from the lowest policemen to ministers, the military leadership and the presidential family.
The family of Ben Ali: its fortunes almost equal one annual budget of the state, i.e. around 17 billion dollars. The state and its operations were gradually appropriated by the family.
The personal and family assets of the now deceased Gaddafi are estimated at least at 75–80 billion dollars.
The percentage of under 14 year olds in the population: Tunisia 25.3%, Algeria 29%, Egypt 33%, Libya 33.9%, Syria 37.4%, Yemen 46.5%.