Many Early Warning Signs Signaled Current Arab Disarray

Ten significant developments across the Arab world since the mid-1970s—early warning signs that raise the question of whether today we acknowledge and act on early warning signs, or just repeat the mistakes of the past.

Never in modern history has the Arab World experienced such a wide range of jarring political developments as it does today, including fragmenting states, refugee flows, a terrorism export industry, and long-running devastating wars. These conditions did not suddenly emerge overnight.

Many early warning signs in recent decades should have been appreciated as signaling structural problems and deep injustices in our political, economic, environmental, and social systems. Those signs were never grasped by the Arab power structures, or the external powers that supported them—the very same powers (United States, UK, France, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia) that now actively engage in warfare in several Arab lands.

Here is my list of ten significant developments across the Arab World since the mid-1970s that should have been seen as early warning signs of problems in our societies. They raise the question of whether today we acknowledge and act on early warning signs, or just repeat the mistakes of the recent past?

  1. The first big sign of widespread Arab citizen discontent was the rapid expansion of support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other non-violent Islamists in the mid-1970s. They were the only locally credible opposition group, and they always did well in elections that were held as of the mid-1980s.
  1. Because all Arab electoral systems were configured to give the ruling power elite a built-in majority and permanent control of public life, discontent with the inability of the Muslim Brotherhood to actually improve people’s lives led to the birth of some more extreme, small Islamist groups that used violence against their governments. Such groups in Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia were quickly smashed by the state, which nevertheless never addressed the underlying discontent that gave rise to popular resistance in the first place.
  1. A tremendous sign of personal discontent and societal dysfunction as of the early 1980s (and continuing today) was the permanent emigration of tens of thousands of the Arab World’s smartest and most dynamic young men and women, who found abroad the professional opportunities and political-cultural rights that their societies denied them.
  1. By the early 2000s, public opinion polls repeatedly confirmed Arab citizens’ low trust in most of their public institutions. In countries other than wealthy oil-producers, half or more of respondents routinely said they had no confidence in their government, courts, media, political parties, or parliament.
  1. Simultaneously, large numbers of Arab citizens by the early 2000s were expressing pessimism about their future well-being, in terms of material needs (jobs, income, health care) or political rights and opportunities for self-improvement. Nationals of wealthy oil-producers who enjoyed welfare state benefits remained the exception.
  1. These sentiments reflected social and economic polarization that had started in the 1980s: Larger and larger numbers of Arab citizens lived near or below the poverty line, while a small wealthy minority enjoyed luxury and opportunity. This led to the slow retreat of the state from some sectors of society, which gave rise to powerful non-state organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon, various Islamists in Egypt, and assorted ethnic and sectarian groups in Iraq and Yemen. It was clear that Arab sovereignty and state legitimacy started to fragment 30 years ago.
  1. Alongside this, political violence became a common means of expression by many groups in society. After the Cold War, by the early 1990s political violence was (and remains) practiced by the four major actors in our lands: national governments, opposition and sub-state organizations, foreign governments, and small terrorist and criminal groups. Along with our polarization and fragmentation came our militarization.
  1. These trends culminated in the 2010-11 Arab uprisings, the most dramatic sign of mass disconnect in modern Arab history. Millions of citizens who had reached breaking point spontaneously rebelled against their ruling elites; yet those elites today with their foreign supporters continue to ignore most of the uprisings’ underlying drivers of discontent and disparity.
  1. The birth of Al-Qaeda and “Islamic State” (Daesh) are the latest sign of deep distress in our societies. Such violent Salafist-takfiri movements did not suddenly emerge from a vacuum; they developed slowly over 25 years, and now find active support among hundreds of thousands of Arabs, and passive support or understanding among millions.
  1. Arab governments mostly are unable or unwilling to fight these groups, so we rely on non-state militias and foreign military power to do the job—the same foreign militaries whose involvement in our societies in recent decades contributed to the chaos and massive citizen discontent that helped give birth to Al-Qaeda and “Islamic State” (Daesh) in the first place.

Our ruling establishments and their foreign backers consistently ignored these and other glaring signs of social disequilibrium and mass citizen discontent across the Arab region. Let us hope eyes and minds are more open and active today, as new early warning signs continue to emerge and explode all around us.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global