Whatever happened to the Arab (economic) Spring?

I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
Bob Dylan, “Pity the Poor Immigrant”

After almost three years of a still undecided struggle otherwise known as the “Arab Spring”, the globally welcomed demonstration of the Arab peoples turning out in the millions to oppose seemingly invincible Arab regimes has largely soured. The first flush of hope that the region was about to undergo a revolutionary democratic transformation has been replaced, for many of its supporters, by deep pessimism and scepticism as to whether the peoples of the region can escape the adverse legacy of tribalism, sectarianism and ethnic rivalry. The earliest rallying cries for bread, jobs and social justice have been replaced by the drone of murderous civil war and regional conflict being fought out in Syria, the restoration of populist military rule in Egypt, inter-Muslim sectarian strife and a variety of stand-offs elsewhere in the region. What has gone so terribly wrong?

From the outset of the mass movements that shook the pillars of Arab ruling elites from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf, at least two competing narratives from both inside and outside the region have dominated expert analyses and opinion of the causes and dynamics of the continuing upheaval. The prevalent explanation, especially among pundits, is that Arab masses have finally had their democratic revolutions, akin to political and economic changes of 1848 in Europe or more recent examples in Asia and Latin America. They have acted to overthrow despotic or parasitic family-based, capitalist-linked and thoroughly corrupted ruling elites and systems.

Another, less widely accepted but in many respects more convincing view is that these movements were as much about the social and economic impacts of globalization and liberalisation as they were about denied constitutional and human rights. While the Arab region may have been immune from the most adverse impacts of the Great Recession, the same economic policy model that gave rise to the 2008 financial and economic crisis in the advanced countries of the West has been challenged in the Arab east by a popular uprising against the model’s very real outcomes as they affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Arab citizens. Accordingly, “the jobless economic growth pattern in Arab countries and the growing inequality in the last three decades was the outcome of, inter alia, a deliberate trade and financial liberalization process, sustained wage-compression and retreat of the State from the economy in the same formula that was promoted around the world.” [1]

The latter narrative does not treat the Arab countries and their democratic deficit as culturally or otherwise exceptional but as the result of the frustration of impoverished masses. Around the region, tens of millions were deprived of the the material benefits and social advancement that only a few enjoyed after the liberalisation and privatisation adopted by the ruling elites who, along with many countries of the South, adopted the prescriptions of the Washington Consensus. These policies were adapted to the anti-democratic and conservative political and economic systems predominant in the region while retaining its core formulae.

Some Arab scholars argue the Arab world’s economic structure is explained by the predominance of a “merchant capitalist” mode. As Ali Kadri recently put it: “German mercantilism, or Chinese for that matter, is the commerce of industry selling its products and accumulating a trade surplus consistently over time. The Arab merchant mode is principally about taking raw or semi-raw products out of the nation states and selling them abroad and importing manufactured goods for sale at home.” [2] The predominance of this mode of production in the region (to the detriment of national industrial capital and ownership), explains why “the Arab World thus became an economy that could not for structural reasons produce jobs, and where profits without effort had gripped the ruling class mindset.”

The interplay of the political, social and economic factors shaping the revolutionary trends in the region, is also explored in a new book by Professor Adam Hanieh of SOAS, who concurs that a full understanding of the uprisings needs to go beyond a simple focus on ‘dictators and democracy’.[3] Such a critical comprehension is especially required today as the image and reality of the contestation of Arab regimes has reached a bloody phase, even among the traditionally gentle Egyptian people, while the even more peaceable Tunisian people have somehow avoided the worst even as revolutionary transformation proceeds. This has brought back into circulation the worst stereotypical representations of the Arab peoples as terrorists (now even defined as such by their own governments), their societies as enduringly tribal, their economies as primitive and unproductive and their nation-states no more durable as the ink on the Sykes-Picot map that drew their borders in 1917.

Meanwhile the main centres of Arab counter-revolution, in an attempt to retain power, have responded with desperate measures to the stirrings of popular discontent on a mass level. The responses of the ruling establishments have been unprecedented in the history of Arab regimes, of which eight are the last remaining absolute hereditary monarchies on the face of the earth. The pacification of the peoples of the Gulf states through a mixture of cash transfers, and cosmetic reform, the subjugation of millions of Asian labourers to servicing the lavish lifestyle of the oil-kingdoms, the eager and generous support from Gulf States for the military led counter-revolution in Egypt and the unleashing of armed salafist fundamentalism in Syria and Iraq, all attest to the extent to which the Arab Spring is still alive in the minds and fears of Arab rulers.

Certainly the financial and security power of the Arab governments, whose combined sovereign wealth funds, for example, boast some $1.5 trillion of assets, is a force to be reckoned with in the battlefield of ideas, values and policies. It is already deployed to co-opt Arab hearts and minds or to fuel conflict in a region easily divided along religious, sectarian or ethnic fault-lines. While the Egyptian post-Mubarak regime(s) have stumbled from one half-effort to another at being seen to respond to the call of Tahrir Square for jobs and social justice, none of them has come up with a new concept for economic or social policy. Nor do the new rulers seem to realise how essential this is to their ability to remain in power. Even the Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa el Din confessed to the NY Times (4 November): “Every time I talk about economics, no one seems to care.”

The inability to shed break with a failing economic legacy is, no doubt, partly due to the fact that policy-makers in the Arab Spring countries still depend on agreements with the IMF and thus on the Washington Consensus. But the aspirations and basic interests of the working masses of the countries of this region cannot be indefinitely subject to the whims of authoritarian rulers or tribal, monarchical regimes. However popular the new Peronist-style leadership of Egypt may be in the wake of the year of failed Islamist rule, it is hard to see how the core issues of the Arab (economic) Spring, equality and participation, if not addressed seriously, will simply go away, now that the genie is out of the bottle.


[1] UNCTAD, January 2012, “In the wake of the global economic crisis: New opportunities for economic growth

with social equity” (http://unctad.org/meetings/en/SessionalDocuments/td454_en.pdf )

[2] Ali Kadri, “The Return of Merchant Capital to the Arab World, Triple Crisis, 30 October 2013  (http://triplecrisis.com/the-return-of-merchant-capital-to-the-arab-world/#sthash.AVVWM6h7.dpuf)

[3] Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, Haymarket Books, London, 2013.

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