The dizzying pace of events across the Arab World during this fourth year of continuous citizen protests for a better life sees a very wide variety of developments in different country circumstances. It is easy to become confused by the very erratic pattern of events, and even to write off the last three and a half years as a noble but failed attempt to end the long Arab nightmare of security-ruled, family-run states. One symptom of this is the mass popular embrace of former armed forces commander Field Marshall Abdel Fattah Sisi to become the new president of Egypt, seemingly a move back to military rule in a new guise.
We will see in the year ahead whether this kind of popular reaction allows Arab countries to resume their gradual transitions to more democratic and participatory rule, or condemns them to several more generations of security regimes. In such situations across the Arab world that experiences such flux and uncertainty, I find it useful always go back to the beginning of the uprisings and recall what promoted this historic citizen rebellion in so many countries simultaneously.
Many books and articles have been written about the causes of the Arab uprisings, and most of the ones I have read tend to be very good. In my humble view, one recent short text best captures succinctly the heart of the drivers of the uprisings. In so doing it also provides a handy checklist we can use to gauge current developments, to know if genuine change is underway or assorted Arabs are simply rearranging old actors and forces without truly transforming the underlying abuse of power.
The text I have in mind was published a few months ago in 2013, by Melani Cammett (Brown University) and Ishac Diwan (Harvard University). Entitled The Political Economy of the Arab Uprisings, it is the extracted concluding chapter from the 2013 Updated Edition of the classic book, A Political Economy of the Middle East, Third Edition, by Alan Richards, John Waterbury, Melani Cammett, and Ishac Diwan. It is available from Westview Press as a nifty little 46-page book that offers the most succinct, comprehensive and accurate analysis that I have read about the causes of the uprisings, correctly anchored in a political economy analysis that weaves together several crucial strands of modern Arab public and private life.
It analyzes the interaction of economic development processes, state systems, and social actors and how these have reinforced authoritarian governance in the region, which slowly lost its capacity to rule due to economic and political excesses, and was finally challenged by the Arab uprisings.
From the mid-1980s, they note, “…the rollback of the state began without a concomitant democratic opening…. [A]n elite, capitalistic class benefited from personal connections to acquire disproportionate access to lucrative opportunities. The elite allied with state security apparatuses, which enforced their dominance through repression (sticks) and economic co-optation (carrots) to maintain the support of the middle class. Tight state-business relations within a supposedly ‘liberal’ economic environment and political repression did not translate into a successful industrial policy. Instead, a system of gift exchange between the state and key constituents developed; the moderate performance of this system inhibited growth and thus did not foster the creation of good jobs.”
Across the Arab world, most countries ended up with variants of the same “crony capitalist systems” that used a combination of subsidies, repression and fear-mongering about political Islam that led to increasingly fragile governing coalitions. After several decades, this authoritarianism started to crumble, and the state’s retreat from some quarters of society alongside worsening levels of social services delivery further hurt poor and marginalized regions. This led populations to identify increasingly with the poor rather than the middle classes. As middle-class elements defected from authoritarian coalitions, they evolved into champions of change, driven by the lack of opportunities for socioeconomic advancement and anger about rising perceived inequalities, the authors note. The mix of economic discontent and broader sociopolitical stresses ignited the uprisings, as ordinary citizens no longer accepted stagnation alongside the perceived rise in inequalities and lack of “social justice” that resulted from the rollback of the state and economic liberalization characterized by cronyism.
They conclude, “The inability of government to provide for citizens and a growing sense of economic insecurity were particularly egregious. This combination of factors created a dam of accumulated grievances and rising aspirations, ready to burst. The inter-linkages between economic and political grievances point to the value of a political economy perspective in understanding the Arab uprisings.”
If any or many of these factors are indeed changing, we can applaud the outcomes of the Arab uprisings. Any interested citizen or analyst should keep a copy of this fine little volume and read it regularly, to recall what ailed us and what needs to change radically.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global