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Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Middle East six months later: From self-immolation to transformation

Tunisia’s revolution has sent its shockwaves to the rest of the Arab World. (Illustration By Amarjit Sidhu)
Tunisia’s revolution has sent its shockwaves to the rest of the Arab World. (Illustration By Amarjit Sidhu)
The Middle East and North Africa face an uncertain future six months into the anti-autocratic revolt sweeping the region, but one thing is clear: it will never be the same again.

While the future shape of the region is uncertain, some outcomes of the revolt are starting to crystallize. Decades of autocratic rule are on the defensive and its demise is no longer if, but when. Already, revolts in Egypt and Tunisia succeeded in ousting the two countries’ autocratic leaders even if the kind of political system and society that will emerge remains a matter of debate.

Also up for debate is how transitional governments and their eventually elected successors will manage unrealistic expectations of immediate tangible economic results as well as the transition away from repressive, corrupt and nepotistic rule. Even the goals of the transition, in terms of how free a society and what kind of economy Egypt and Tunisia are moving toward and the role of the state in the economy remain undecided.
The battles in Syria, Libya and Yemen as well as events in Bahrain demonstrate that autocratic rulers are willing to risk becoming international pariahs and partitioning of their countries and spilling enormous amounts of blood to cling to power at whatever cost. They also reveal a degree of resilience and perseverance on the part of large numbers of protesters willing to put their lives and livelihoods at risk in the face of brutal crackdowns to throw off their autocratic yoke.

This newly found resilience means that irrespective of the outcome of the violent battles in Syria, Libya and Yemen, governments will no longer be able to ignore public opinion and will be tempted by populism.

For the United States, Europe and Israel that means that governments, whether autocratic or democratically elected, will find it increasingly difficult to set public sentiment aside on the question of Palestine as for example ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did.

Mr. Mubarak effectively joined forces with Israel in imposing a crippling blockade on the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip – a move that was deeply unpopular even if a majority of Egyptian has ambiguous feelings towards the Palestinian Islamists.

The impact of public opinion is certain to also make itself felt on, and complicate economic policies. That is all the more true at a time that countries like Egypt and Tunisia are suffering economically as a result of the loss of tourism receipts, reduced productivity and dried up investment in the wake of their revolutions. It will fuel greater reluctance to take unpopular measures like a reduction if not abolishment of crippling subsidies in Egypt for bread, a major staple. This is equally true for Libya, Syria and Yemen irrespective of the outcome of their domestic battles.

The debate over economic policies is further complicated by the fact that multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the free market policies advocated by them, and Western governments, are often seen as the very policies that kept and keep autocratic rulers in power and allow them to turn their economies into an ATM for themselves and their cronies.

The outcome of the struggle in post-revolution Egypt and Tunisia over future economic policy will moreover have an impact far beyond the two countries’ borders. For one declining standards of living against the backdrop of spiraling food prices, unequal income distribution and the distorting effect of patronage, nepotism and corruption were and are a core driver of the protests across the region. For another, the ultimate political and economic shape of Egypt, the region’s most populous nation, will influence perceptions of protesters and governments elsewhere in the region.

Increasingly the revolt is likely to polarize the Arab world with on the one hand more populist governments in Egypt and Tunisia, the Saudi-led Gulf oil-rich countries determined to preserve the status quo to the degree possible and weary of nations that have already deposed their leaders and those whose place is undecided as they battle for survival.

The impact is not simply a more complex, more divided Arab world but one that creates uncertainty for policy makers as well as investors who fear that the revolt could spread even to those countries that have so far been able to use their resource-based wealth to buy off potential discontent. Many see the buy-off as only a temporary way of fending off public expression of discontent.

The same is true for Morocco and Jordan, the two countries whose monarchs are still granted the benefit of the doubt by protesters, but where it remains uncertain whether the political and economic reforms they are willing to embrace go far enough to satisfy public demands.

All in all, much of the outcome of the Arab revolt remains uncertain six months after a humiliated Tunisian fruit vendor unleashed the greatest wave of social and political protest in modern Arab history by setting himself on fire.

The one thing however that is certain, is that by immolating himself he has transformed the region to the degree that it is hardly recognizable anymore. That is all the more true with the sheer brutality and disregard of human life that leaders in Syria, Libya and Yemen employ to cling to power against what is an ultimately unstoppable tide of history.

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