The 21st Century Arab Awakening?

Tunisia has triggered what was long assumed impossible – contesting the grip of entrenched dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East. Already hundreds of thousands of protesters battle the police in streets in Egypt, and challenge the regimes in Yemen and Jordan, furious about the authoritarian governments’ dismal economic performance and corruption. Arab governments have resisted full global integration, and trade, media and other exchanges and maintained their corrupt regimes, explains Jean-Pierre Lehmann in this YaleGlobal article. Opportunity filtered only to those with powerful connections, leaving millions educated, yet unemployed. In this demographic revolution, young Arabs are desperate enough that one Tunisian young man set himself on fire, followed by several others in neighboring countries, and countless others defy government controls. The protests have unsettled leaders throughout the region. New forms of governance may take hold, religious or democratic. Regardless of the form, protesters who risk their lives anticipate economic and legal reforms or, in the very least, an end to complacency among their rulers and the international community. – YaleGlobal

The 21st Century Arab Awakening?

Could Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution prove to be the Arab world’s “Gdansk moment”?
Jean-Pierre Lehmann
Friday, January 28, 2011

LAUSANNE: Inspired by their Tunisian soulmates, Egyptian demonstrators adapt the same slogans from the original French – “Mubarak, degage,” or “Mubarak, push off” – and use the same technologies, Twitter and Facebook.

The question is whether the fire of the Tunisian revolution will take hold in the region, or be rapidly extinguished by formidable police power. Will Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution prove to be the Arab region’s “Gdansk moment” – the birth of Solidarność on 31 August 1980 that set off a chain of events ultimately culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade later?

A lot can happen in 10 years. Liberation from the oppressive suffocation that the Arab world has endured for decades need not be an impossible dream. But given the entrenched nature of the regimes, their propensity for violence, an Arab awakening may prove to be as turbulent, if not more so, than the collapse of the Soviet empire.

How to explain the seething masses and the stultifying Arab economy? When it comes to the transformations, China, opting after the death of Mao to “embrace” globalization, has emerged as a global leader. India, Vietnam, Brazil, Peru and South Africa are among the countries that chose a similar path. Arab countries, by mostly staying out of the global process, earned the epithet: “the orphans of globalization.”

Violent protests have also erupted in Yemen. Yemenis are not only among the most impoverished and most oppressed among Arab countries, but also the most fertile. Today the population stands at 24 million, which will reach 40 million in 2030 and 50 million in 2045. As much of the world ages, in 2045 the average age in Yemen will be 18! What’s happening in the Arab world may be a “digital revolution,” but it’s certainly a “demographic revolution”.

By virtually any indicator, excluding oil, the region’s global integration is weak. For example, 80 million Egyptians export less than 14 percent of what 68 million Thais export. The Vietnamese, 89 million, only recently rejoined the global economy and their exports are more than double Egypt’s. The United Arab Emirates, 6 million people, account for more than 50 percent of total Arab League exports, excluding fuel. Ten out of the 21 members of the Arab League are not in the World Trade Organization, and others like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have only recently joined.  

Foreign direct Investment is small. There are a number of reasons, not the least because the region has not regionalized let alone globalized. Cross-border investments and trade between Arab League members are minimal. There is no Arab market.

Weak global integration refers not just to economics, but also to intellectual and cultural dimensions. More books are translated into Greek, population 11 million, than into Arabic. Whereas in the 1960s there were some 3000 books published annually in Egypt, the number has dropped to 300. This penury is ironic as the Islamic Caliphate and its House of Wisdom in Baghdad once translated into Arabic all the Greek and Latin classics, saving them for posterity. The first UN Development Programme Arab Human Development Report, published in 2002, compiled by Arab thought-leaders, highlighted three shortfalls – in freedom, knowledge and womanpower.

Being the orphans of globalization does not mean the region is independent of the outside world. Most Arab countries have a high proportion of their populations living and working abroad, in Europe, the Gulf states and North America – for example, 6 percent of Tunisians live in France. Hence, the region’s economies are highly dependent on remittances. Tourism and foreign aid are also vital. All this reinforces the notion of the Arab region as a passive actor on the receiving end of the global economic stage.

The Arab region bifurcated from many other countries and regions in responding to globalization late last century. As Lebanese author Saad Mehio commented: “while the rest of the world geared up to join the march of globalisation [after the end of the Cold War],” the Arab region experienced “more political oppression, more intellectual and cultural stagnation, and more economic and social despair.”  

There are a lot of “orphans” and most are young – 65 percent of the population of the Arab League is under the age of 30. Youth unemployment rates are exorbitantly high – as high as 75 percent in some countries like Algeria. While the informal economy provides partial compensation, this does not provide security; the Jasmine Revolution was triggered by the self-immolation of a young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, unemployed after police confiscated his wheelbarrow, used to make ends meet by selling fruits and vegetables.

When asked their greatest ambition, up to 40 percent of young Arabs reply: to emigrate permanently. More oppressive than the lack of political freedom are pervasive corruption and cronyism. A bright former Egyptian student of mine explained why he was settling permanently in the US. He was from the minority Copt community – roughly half of whom are believed to have left Egypt – and from a lower middle-class family, hence lacking “wasta,” or connections; there were no opportunities for him in Egypt. Multiply that loss by millions, and one gets a sense of human capital flight from the region.

The forces for political change are strong and mounting, emerging mainly from young Arabs and facilitated by the digital revolution. The Jasmine Revolution may be the harbinger of change from within and by civil society, and may inspire forces in other authoritarian stagnant regimes. There have been a number of self-immolations following Bouazizi’s example, in Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania. The political atmosphere remains tense, to put it mildly, throughout the region. Arab leaders are not normally peacefully ousted at the ballot box. Following Jasmine, more unrest and revolution may come, from which democracy may emerge.  

What would an Arab awakening look like? The political repression of the opposition and the ideological void provide fertile ground for the Islamists. Close connections between big business and dictators, huge amounts of wealth acquired by the elites, have tarnished liberal capitalism. Therefore, many fear an “Iran scenario.” 

There are alternative models, even among predominantly Muslim countries. The political transition in Indonesia is encouraging. Malaysia has managed the balance between economic growth, multi-ethnicity and politics reasonably well.

But the most relevant model and partner for the Arab region is Turkey. The combination of moderate political Islamism with a liberal market-oriented economy and the rise of new entrepreneurs transformed that country from a political and economic backwater for much of the 20th century to an increasingly global dynamic player in the 21st.

Europe can play a constructive role by favoring the forces of awakening rather than siding with the forces of repression as France seemed to do in the early days of the Jasmine Revolution.

In the last century when dictators still ruled in Southern Europe and standards of living were low, the gap between North and South Mediterranean was narrow. In the last 25 years, however, the gap has become a deep chasm as the North democratized, prospered and globalized, while the South stagnated, or, in some cases, regressed. By cozying up to dictators, Europe must bear its share of responsibility; Europe could, indeed should, play a constructive role in narrowing the Mediterranean chasm.

But ultimately, the initiative must come from the Arabs themselves. As the world is painfully aware with Iraq, attempts to bring about regime change by foreign invasion result in mayhem. Just as the courageous Tunisians took to the street, inspiring the army to stand back, forcing the dictator to flee, so must similar scenarios emerge elsewhere in the region.

The Arab awakening is not an impossible dream. With Jasmine, and now Egyptian ‘days of rage’ we may be seeing early glimmers of hope.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is professor of international political economy, IMD, and founding director of the Evian Group.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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