My take on Arab Spring

In: Uncategorized

6 Jun 2011

There follows the opening paragraphs to my Fund Strategy cover story on the Arab Spring. The full article is available here

Rising numbers of educated youth, surging food prices and a crisis in the legitimacy of regimes stoked unrest in Arab countries. But the region faces uncertainty and the process of change is likely to be protracted.

With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to view the Arab Spring that erupted last December from a more considered perspective. The world was taken by surprise when pro-democracy protests started in Tunisia and even more astonished when they spread to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond. Many experts had long concluded that authoritarianism was too embedded in the Arab world for it to ever be challenged. A common argument was many Arab regimes had instituted “authoritarian bargains” in which they provided basic welfare in return for their citizens eschewing political rights.

Until now, and with some exceptions, the discussion of the wave of protests has followed a predictable pattern. Political pundits have given their take on the latest round of demonstrations and pontificated on what might happen next. Then their economic counterparts have pondered on the likely impact of rising oil prices on the global economy. Such an approach misses the true significance of events in the region.

To get a more rounded view it is necessary to step back to examine the real forces behind the protests. Much of the discussion has so far focused on marginal factors rather than appreciating the importance of the key forces at work. Once the real dynamics are identified it will then be possible to grasp the broader significance of the Arab Spring.

From this perspective it is important to appreciate that the transformation of the Arab world is probably still in its early stages. To talk about “revolutions” is exceedingly premature. So far its most dramatic achievements are the overthrow of the elderly rulers of Egypt and Tunisia. However, the basic structure even of these regimes remains intact. For example, Hosni Mubarak may no longer be Egypt’s president but the army is still firmly in command. There is also a concerted push back against protestors by regimes such as Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, often with the support of regional players such as Saudi Arabia.

This article will focus mainly on Egypt, the most populous Arab state, and Tunisia. But many of the trends it identifies can be applied to the Arab world more generally. Although it is almost a truism to say there is a huge divergence between Arab states – from super-rich Qatar to dirt-poor Mauritania – there are common themes that straddle the region. Indeed non-Arab Middle East states such as Israel, Iran and Turkey in their own ways all play roles in the story.

The article will argue that the unrest in the Middle East can be understood as an interaction of three sets of forces. First, economic and social factors including rising food prices and the emergence of a better educated, but socially frustrated, young population.

Second, the demise of the traditional sources of legitimacy of the Arab regimes. Neither pan-Arabism, anti-Zionism or political Islam have the purchase they once did in the Arab world. Finally, the decline of western influence, particularly of America, in the region.

It will conclude by outlining the prospects. Both the economic and international factors point to the potential for greater instability. On the other hand, the weakening of the legitimacy of the Arab regimes is a more ambiguous trend. Although the opposition threatens to destabilise the regimes its limited goals could, paradoxically, put a self-imposed brake on political change.

[The remainder of the article is available at the link here ].