Counting the cost of the Arab uprising

06 April 2011

The Middle East has lost more than it has gained during three turbulent months. There must be a better way

Whatever its long-term consequences may be, the Arab uprising has, so far, done more harm than good to the Middle East and its people.

In Tunisia, where it all began at the end of last year, a long debate has begun. The first milestone will be elections, to be held in July, to a special assembly that will recommend changes to the constitution. Only when that is done will presidential and parliamentary elections be held. It is unlikely a new and representative government will be in place before the end of the year and hazardous to forecast what policies it might pursue. Months of uncertainty are inevitable. This will do nothing to create jobs and lift living standards, the pre-eminent daily concerns of the Tunisian people.

Until it is clear where Egypt’s political pendulum will finally rest, the incentives for long-term private investment are zero

The future is even more complex in Egypt. Perversely, radical reformers, who called in February for former president Mubarak’s immediate resignation, are now complaining that events are moving too fast. They voted against revisions to Egypt’s constitution in the March referendum and unsuccessfully pressed for parliamentary and presidential elections to be deferred. Their fear is that the winners will be the established political parties, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party, the ruling party until 11 February when Mubarak surrendered all powers of government to Egypt’s armed forces.

Optimists believe the freest elections in Egyptian history will place the republic this autumn on a new trajectory to an era in which liberty and prosperity will flourish. But there is no guarantee that the Egyptian masses, whose views are unknown, will vote for the uncertainties that entails. Until it is clear where Egypt’s political pendulum will finally rest, the incentives for long-term private investment are zero.

These are the fruits of the region’s two most successful anti-government movements. Elsewhere, they are, at best, non-existent. In Yemen, President Saleh has rejected calls for his immediate resignation. This is creating conditions where neither the government nor the opposition can rule. Deep-seated fractures in Arabia’s poorest and most populous nation are threatening to divide Yemen along confessional and tribal lines. Foreign companies have fled and economic development has halted.

Syria’s President Assad has been even more resolutely determined to avoid the fate of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak. Demonstrations in Deraa were violently repressed and his government promises no tolerance of fresh manifestations of discontent. In Bahrain, the anti-government movement has been smashed along with the country’s appeal to regional and international business. The impact on Bahrain’s aviation and financial services sector, the largest private employers of Bahrain nationals, is potentially devastating.

And then there is Libya, which will probably become, rather than Egypt, the defining symbol of the Arab uprisings of 2011. A country that had, until this spring the highest per capita GDP in Africa and was among the most credit-worthy in the Mediterranean is now an economic and political wreck. Libya will probably be divided. Long-term foreign occupation of at least part of it is possible.

Libya is a disaster for those arguing that swift and peaceful political change is possible in the Middle East. The rebels look like a leaderless rabble, the government reaction has been regularly disproportionate and the ensuing chaos has attracted international intervention. There is no more compelling advertisement of the merits of the Arab status quo.

A case can be made, therefore, that the Middle East would have been better off if most of the events since the start of the year had not happened. If Mubarak had been permitted to serve out his term of office, Egypt’s radical reformers would have had more time to decide what to do once he was gone. If US President Obama had not declared his support for Arab street protests, then perhaps demands made by anti-government forces in Bahrain that the regime was bound to reject would not have been voiced. And if the illusion had not developed that rapid change was possible in a region where social peace and economic prosperity depend upon stability, perhaps more would have been achieved than the uprisings have so far delivered.

Idealists say the damage done is a price worth paying for democracy, but there is no certainty that is the destination of the journey the region has started. It can be argued that fear of social disintegration that events across the region have inspired may make progress less likely.

It is too soon for firm conclusions to be drawn. But there are lessons to learn. Lasting political progress takes time and requires the active assent and participation of the overwhelming majority, not just an educated minority. Reformers will need to be more precise about what their ultimate goals are and provide greater reassurance that they can be achieved without serious disruption. It will have to be recognised that those in power also have a part to play in a process that the events of 2011 have, in the main, so far suggested is disruptive and dangerous. And those dreaming of change in the Arab world need a better way of making it happen, or the Arab uprising of 2011 could be the last.

A MEED Subscription...

Subscribe or upgrade your current package to support your strategic planning with the MENA region’s best source of business information. Proceed to our online shop below to find out more about the features in each package.

Get Notifications