A year and a half into the so-called and misnamed “Arab Spring,” it may be time to take stock of the wave of uprisings that have reshaped the Middle East and draw some preliminary conclusions. So far, the balance sheet is not positive.
The British Guardian newspaper did this a month ago, at the time of the first round of voting in the Egyptian presidential election, giving various countries in the Arab world a grade from one to 10 in a “democracy scorecard.”
It gave the highest mark of seven to Tunisia, five to Jordan and Libya, four to Bahrain, two to Yemen and one to Syria. Strangely, it did not grade Egypt itself – but it would be hard to imagine a grade above five, especially in the light of more recent events.
Another scorecard emerged this week from Foreign Policy magazine’s annual index of “failed states” and an accompanying article headlined “Was the Arab Spring Worth It?”
The grim conclusion: “For average Egyptians, growing political tensions and the cratering economy probably outweigh the violence between protesters and security forces. Yemen was well on its way to failed statehood and economic collapse before the Arab Spring, and virtually all indicators are distinctly, and in some cases alarmingly, negative, while the benefits of the protest movement have yet to manifest themselves in any concrete way. In Syria, there is only cost — including thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of displacements, and an incipient economic meltdown.”
The focus on economics rather than politics is absolutely correct. The key point is not whether these countries are more “democratic” but whether they have taken steps on the road to achieving some sort of economic viability that promises a better life for their citizens. A survey of Arab youth in 12 countries conducted by public relations firm Burston-Marstellar finds: “Earning a fair wage and owning a home are now the two highest priorities for young people in the Middle East – displacing living in a democracy as the greatest aspiration of regional youth.”
Being paid a fair wage was cited by 82 per cent of Arab youth as “very important, while the percentage of respondents who said that living in a democratic country was “very important” to them declined by 10 percentage points in the 2012 survey to 58 percent.
That’s not surprising given the catastrophically high youth unemployment rates throughout the region. Britain’s Economist magazine noted in an editorial last year: “We are all rightly fixated on the politics of what is going on in Egypt at the moment. But it is worth sparing a thought for the economics, too. If Russians in 1917 wanted peace, bread and land and ended up with totalitarianism, gulags and collective farms, Egyptians, particularly young Egyptians, want jobs.”
To have any hope of delivering, governments in these countries must fight rampant corruption and nepotism, rein in the deadening hand of bureaucracy and regulation, institute basic educational reform, enshrine the rule of law and a clean justice system and encourage a culture of entrepreneurship. That’s a long way from happening.
In his new book, “The Syrian Rebellion,” scholar Fouad Ajami points out the way in which the ruling Assad family for decades stifled the wishes of the Syrian people not only for greater political expression but also for economic progress, offering them instead “the slogans of Pan-Arabism and permanent war with the Jews. Let them eat anti-Zionism,” is how Ajami describes it.
It’s clearly time to jettison the title “Arab Spring” for the wave of bloodshed and instability that has gripped the Arab world. That’s not to say that nothing good will come out of it for some countries – eventually. But right now, the outlook is for more instability, more bloodletting, the erosion of women’s rights and little progress toward meeting the desperate needs of the people.
Alan Elsner is executive director for the Americas of The Israel Project and was a reporter for Reuters for 30 years.