Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Arab Spring: The Devil’s-food-cake-you-know vs. the Devil’s-food-cake-you-don’t

It's been over 2 years since the Arab Spring first kicked off and you would be forgiven for asking'What for?'  Over 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the attempt to unseat Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Egypt’s democracy has been rudely interrupted by a coup d'état and American diplomats in Libya, who had supported the deposing of Muammar Qaddafi, were murdered in September 2012. To many, the revolutionary Arab Spring now seems like a damp squib. Has it been worth it? Would the region have been better off without it? Through two cakes I'm going to untangle which is better; the devil's-food-cake-you-know? Or the devil's-food-cake-you-don't. 

Both of these cakes start with the same base and it’s only to the second recipe that I'll add some catalysing ingredients, to give it a bit of a revolutionary kick.

Ingredients - Base

  • High Unemployment 
  • De-legitimisation 
  • Inflation 
  • Social Media 
You need to begin with an autocratic regime, the fundamental ingredient. Without this, the  recipe with simply will not work. It could be in the form of a royal family, or perhaps a dictator who came to power in a coup. Basically they need to be the sole source of power and to have little legitimacy with their own people. For an example you need only think of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since 1981 or Ben Ali who had run Tunisia since 1987. However it is Colonel Muammar Qaddafi who takes (or should I say took?) the cake,with 42 years in control of Libya. Each of these exerted their own version of autocracy. Mubarak deployed pretend legitimacy, winning office four times but in three of elections no other candidate was allowed to stand. Qaddafi on the other hand, came to power in a revolutionary coup, overthrowing the ruling monarchy. While he allowed a form of symbolic direct-democracy to take place, the General People's Committees, these were largely a sham and he came to rule by decree. 

To autocracy you now must pour in a healthy dose of oppression. This ingredient is another key element of the recipe and is indeed often found in recipes where an autocracy is the base ingredient; they are natural bedfellows. Oppression is how an autocrat keeps his regime stable, suppressing any tendency in the batter to rise or revolt. On one end of the scale there is repression like Ben Ali's, of Tunisia. His government tightly restricted free expression and attempted to stifle online dissent through hacking and hijacking Facebook and email accounts. On the other end, we had Qaddafi who, in the name of a 'permanent revolution', banned all private ownership and retail trade, eradicated the free press and subverted the civil service and military service. Quite apart from the crippling lack of expression the  populace suffered, this oppression could have some quite nasty side-effects. In Syria, anyone who expressed dissent or an opinion differing from that of Assad, would often find themselves in the hands of the Mukharabat, the regime's secret police. This most often meant torture for the dissident and sometimes death.  

Into this mix we add a hearty glug of kleptocracy and a sprinkling of corruption, other   complementary ingredients. In an autocracy, with no civil society to contain the actions of the ruling class, those in power are free to plunder a country's wealth and resources. Back to Colonel Qaddafi, while his people starved he quite literally sat on a golden sofa in the shape of a mermaid. (I'm not even kidding. The wealth of nation does not buy taste apparently.) He and his family used Libya's huge oil resources to fund a life of luxury and as a result of Libya's corruption (and the ban on private enterprise) the economy stagnated. Similar, less extreme, situations existed in Egypt and Tunisia. Both created a type of crony capitalism which benefited only the ruling class and their friends, and not the majority of the population. In Egypt, this created a privileged elite, while the majority of the rest of the population lived on less than $2 a day. To compound this financial hardship, supposedly cheap public services, such as education or even obtaining a driving licence, became increasingly expensive due to corrupt off-the book-payments. The situation was similar in Tunisia where no investment deal could happen without a kick-back to the ruling family. Ben Ali's network of relations garnered the rather Mafioso title of 'the Family' while he was in power and with good reason - over half of Tunisia's business elite were personally related to Ben Ali. 

Our final ingredient will be a demographic boom. The population of Arab nations doubled between 1975 and 2005, creating a large number of young people in the Middle East. Indeed, two-thirds of the population in Egypt is under 30. In other, more liberal nations this might prove to provide a boost to growth, but in a corrupt economy it results in rising rates of unemployment

The resulting mixture creates a weak and stagnant economy, no matter how much of a demographic boom you add. Where autocracy allows corruption and kleptocracy, the private sector cannot flourish and subsidies handed out by autocratic regimes weaken industry still further. National "champions" owned by friends of the ruling family are mismanaged and not subject to the competition which could have strengthened them and allowed them to expand globally. The Devil’s-food-cake-you know results in a predictable tragedy; squandered natural resources, high unemployment, the wasted potential of a population, instead oppressed and silenced by an elite unwilling to sacrifice their luxurious lifestyle. For many this recipe bore much worse; poverty, starvation and torture. Could it really be that's this Devil’s-food-cake-you-know is better than a Devil's-food-cake-you-don't?

To see if this is true I'm now going to describe how to you turn this uninspiring but predictable recipe into something very different...

Ingredients - Catalysts for the Devil's-food-cake-you-don't
·         High unemployment 
·         De-legitimisation 
·         Inflation 
·         Social media

We are now going to focus on the last ingredient we added to the mix; demography. Over time, this creates unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, and it becomes a highly reactive ingredient. Prior to the Arab Spring, the youth unemployment rate was 25% across the Middle East, the highest in regional unemployment rate in the world. Thousands of young people, angry about the uncertainty of their economic future and with the large amounts of time on their hands, became the basis for the first protests. It was also the spark. Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26 year old Tunisian, had failed to find paid employment despite applying for military draft as well as for many other private and public sector roles. There were just too many other job-seekers. When government officials confiscated the vegetable kiosk he was using to feed his family and pay his sisters university fees, it was the final straw. He set himself on fire in the middle of the street. The angry, young and educated in Tunisia seized on this tragedy, starting demonstrations against the Tunisian government which would spread across the Middle East. 

Now to add another highly reactive ingredient; De-legitimisation. This ingredient is, in part, the result of a reaction between the oppression and corruption experienced by people living under autocratic governments. However, the real driver of de-legitimisation is a lack of economic growth and development. For example, people living in China similarly live without democracy and under an oppressive and to some extents corrupt regime. However, the Chinese government works hard to drive growth and development and has therefore gained legitimacy among the majority if its citizens. The same cannot be said of governments in the Middle East. Ageing leaders, corruption, ineffectual government and failure to provide not just growth but even basic services had de-legitimised them in the eyes of their citizens.

These ingredients alone give the batter enough of an impetus but to speed up the reaction further we'll add a dose of food price inflation. This was prevalent in the period leading up to the Arab Spring and by its peak food price inflation had become a problem all across the Middle East, rising to 18.9% in Egypt just before Mubarak fell. In a place where poverty is so prevalent it is no surprise that the rising price of bread drove people on to the street.

Our final catalyst, the one that is guaranteed to push the batter over the edge, is a couple of spoonfuls of social media. This is the ingredient which allowed the anger, caused by youth unemployment and de-legitimisation, to find a voice and to organise. The first mass protest in Egypt was organised on Facebook and it helped thousands of protesters outwit the police. It also spread revolution across national borders creating copycat protest movements across the region.

And there you have it; the Devil's-food-cake-you-don't. The risk with this recipe is you're never quite sure how it will turn out, no matter how many times you bake it. On the one, oven-gloved hand, you could get a fairly stable result. I'm thinking about Tunisia where Ben Ali left relatively quietly and the Tunisians are working to create a democratic system, albeit still with unimpressive economic data and the odd protest. Far from perfect but a functioning state on (hopefully) the eventual road to development. On the other, you could get, for example, something as traumatic what has happened in Syria. This includes; death, violence, mass migration, the increasing destabilisation of the region, and a total breakdown in the rule of law. Over 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict and 45.2 million people have been displaced, according to UN estimates, spreading instability across national border.

This brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece; Has it been worth it? Would the region have been better off without it? It is easy to look at the results above and declare a resounding no. The results seems largely to have been loss of life, economic damage (if not collapse) and political turmoil. None of the countries has transitioned to a fully formed democracy. Tunisia is closest but in Libya functioning democracy seems far away as militants have banning anyone who ever worked with Qadaffi from taking part in government. Thus the most capable reformers and incidentally passionate anti-Qadaffi fighters have been dismissed from government. Egypt recently ousted their democratically elected (but wannabe autocrat) leader, Mohammed Morsi. And in Syria, not just democracy, but any form of functioning government seems years away.

Against this background it almost seems callous to suggest that this suffering and instability were in anyway worth it - that the Devil's-food-cake-you-don't was the wise choice. And yet that is precisely what I am going to argue. I'm going to propose that however hard the transition is, it is, in fact, worth it.

Many are suffering as result of the instability, a fact that is hard to ignore when it makes the nightly news. Yet, even before the Arab Spring people were suffering. Repression's tools are often imprisonment and torture. The number of prisoners suspected to be held by Assad in Syria varies between 10,000 to as many as 120,000. However, the true cost of the Devil's-food-cake-you-know cannot just be measured by present suffering but by the lost potential of generations who had few opportunities to improve their lives under these regimes. The perfect example of this is Libya - a country with minimal education, limited free speech and a stagnating economy left the population in extreme poverty with little opportunity to improve their own lives. 

While some economist still rely on narrow and solely economic data to judge a countries development economists like Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum have expanded the approach with less traditional measures such as their capability theory. In this they define development in terms of the opportunities available for the population to flourish instead of by GDP-per-head. If we adopt this view, even in countries with healthy levels of growth, development may still not be achieved and populations can still suffer what they term “capability-deprivation” under repressive regimes. If these regimes are not removed, then it is not only the present generation that suffers but future ones too. 

The path to democracy is rough but instability now needn't mean instability later. And just because a process is prolonged and painful it does not mean it isn’t worth is, as many developed countries have proven. For example, the 1848 Spring of Nations which involved death and the exile of many Europeans. And yet in the long run it was in fact the catalyst for all the changes which led to the European monarchies falling over the next hundred years. Similarly England's glorious revolution in 1688 put it on a very long road to democracy, one which led finally to universal suffrage in 1928. The fact is that, quite frankly, it often can take a long time to make a democracy and it is not without disorder and chaos.

While this sounds demoralising it shouldn't be. The prolonged instability in Tunisia, which some have been predicted as harbinger of doom, is actually a good thing. It shows that Tunisians are unwilling to allow one party rule - they want real democracy and for this constant pressure needs to be applied to those in charge to avoid a hijacking of power. Tunisia’s street protests now will hopefully result in a stable democracy in the future. Of course, one could holdup Egypt as an example where street protest just lead to further instability under a coup d’état. It’s true that the results with the Devil's-food-cake-you-don't are never guaranteed. Since the end of World War II, there have been roughly 50 major revolutions that have either toppled autocratic regimes or led to significant political reform in “flawed” democracies. For those revolutions that have occurred under dictatorships, only about a third have resulted in transitions to democracy. Yet when the alternative is years of stagnation, suffering and missed opportunity the fight is still worth it. 

The devil's-food-cake-you-don't is a risk. Though I've given you the ingredients, I've also given you the odds. Democracies don't spring up over night and to have believed that the overthrow of autocratic regimes in the Middle East would bring about stability and democracy in a couple of years would have been naive. Yet I hope I've shown, through my two recipes, that when the certain results are poverty and the loss of so much potential that the Devil’s-food-cake-you-know is the right, if risky, choice. It's a gamble, but one definitely worth taking. 


1 comment

  1. Although I tend to agree with the general argument of the recipe, I would argue that there is one, if not two, ingredient(s) missing.

    The first is international consensus and support:

    In Libya, the revolution only succeeded after massive support from the NATO which first instated a no-fly zone with approval of the UN Security Council and subsequently interpreted the resolution rather broadly to destroy the vast military superiority of Qaddafi and help the rebels gain control over the country. The subsequent events are in your post.

    To a much lesser extent, the US helped organising rallies against Mubarak by providing airborne internet connection to the protesters when the government decided to cut access to it.

    The lack of international consensus and support is, on the other hand, painfully visible in Syria where death and destruction on a completely different scale to what we witnessed in Libya have resulted in… absolutely nothing. Alright, let me correct that. It resulted in a lot of talking, no one was saved. It now looks as if Assad may even be able to bring the country back under his control; at what cost?

    External intervention and support thus appears to be a key ingredient to a successful revolution. This obviously raises the question of our responsibility in the world. Should the EU or the US intervene to restore peace (or at the very least stop the massacre)? Is it our duty to protect innocent lives as we tried in Libya? Should external intervention limit itself to promoting a peaceful solution to the conflict, if and when possible? I leave this debate open.

    Let us add a bit of religion to the cake. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood largely contributed in organising the revolution and leading the post-Mubarak stumble towards democracy, with all the consequences it had. In Syria, Islamist groups with rather worrying connections are spearheading the war against Assad’s men; religious extremism goes more or less un-punished in both Libya and to a lesser extent Tunisia.

    Whilst the religious affiliation of political parties is in itself not problematic, a democracy needs to cater for all the people living in the country, of whatever religion or lack thereof. When a party tries to enforce a religion as the base for a country’s law, we get the recent events in Egypt. Of course, a lack of vision and economic planning contributed a lot to the general unhappiness. The sole rule of one party which refused to listen to other religions did not help. Tunisia has fortunately avoided this trap to date.

    So, was it worth it? Time will tell. The challenges ahead are enormous, the autocratic traps innumerable. It will require a lot of courage, honesty and time before we will see a true democracy in some of these countries.


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