Middle East and North Africa: The earthquake

By Jean-Baptiste Gallopin

Fault lines

The collapse of one of North Africa’s longest-serving rulers – Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia – sent shockwaves through the Arab world and triggered an uprising of equivalent proportions in Egypt, the most populous Arab country. The revolts, which have been on an unprecedented scale, have surprised many and prompted widespread speculation over a possible ‘domino effect’, as a result of which successive authoritarian regimes fall as the impact of developments in Egypt and Tunisia begin to be felt. In this spirit, a guessing game of ‘who’s next?’ has begun.

However, rather than a ‘domino effect’, the Arab world is currently experiencing something that bears closer parallels to an earthquake; while shattering some buildings, most homeowners are merely being forced to undertake long-overdue repairs. The Tunisian and Egyptian examples have shown that large-scale, sustained revolts can occur when specific local incidents tie in with long-standing grievances spanning a broad spectrum of social classes. While such factors are present in many Arab countries, making copycat unrest inevitable, fully-fledged revolutionary change relies on a complex mix of much rarer ingredients. As such, reactive change will be broad but its form will vary.

Much of the Arab world faces deep socio-economic challenges associated with rapid urbanisation and a young, unemployed population. Official unemployment figures across the Middle East and North Africa range from 9.2% in Syria to 30% in Mauritania and 35% in Yemen, though these figures are subject to government manipulation and are in all likelihood greatly understated. They also disguise the fact that the unemployment rate for the region’s growing number of young graduates is much higher than for the declining contingent of uneducated youths – a key factor fuelling socio-economic frustration. To take one example, the official unemployment figure for young graduates in Morocco was 20% in 2008, twice the national unemployment rate.

Added to these socio-economic difficulties is the prevalence in Arab states of authoritarian regimes that actively exclude populations from involvement in public affairs, restrict freedom of expression and rely on brute strength for enforcement. Combined with widespread corruption and cronyism among ruling elites, the exclusion of major segments of populations from the political process is fuelling growing frustration and resentment towards incumbent regimes.

The Arab world’s socio-economic problems have long been highlighted, most notably by the UN’s Arab Human Development reports, first published in 2002. However, the recent uprisings have propelled these issues back on to the political agenda. This clearly shows how a country’s long-term trajectory is intimately tied to broader socio-economic and demographic developments, even in the most authoritarian environments.

Spreading the word

At the same time, these uprisings are ‘giving people ideas’. From Algiers to Amman, Arabs have been closely following recent developments on Twitter and the powerful pan-Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera, whose influence on Arab public opinion is greater than ever. As the Arab world has watched first the Tunisian and then the Egyptian people rise up against their authoritarian rulers, a ‘fear threshold’ has been breached and new political possibilities have suddenly entered the regional imagination. If the Egyptians and Tunisians have succeeded – albeit at this stage to varying degrees – in exerting pressure through street politics, it is almost inevitable that other regional populations will try to emulate their model. In the near-term, therefore, copy-cat demonstrations are likely to continue across the region. However, their scale, frequency and political significance will vary greatly according to the socio-economic and political environment of each country.

It would be wrong to assume that the Tunisian uprising provides a blueprint for what will happen elsewhere in the region. Egypt’s uprising, despite its similarity to that in Tunisia, has shown that regime change is far from an inevitable outcome of popular unrest and that regime insiders are skilled in preserving the essence of existing systems through cosmetic reforms. The appointment of Omar Suleiman, a military man, as vice-president has shown how the Egyptian army has sought to preserve its authority; despite his unprecedented dialogue with the opposition, Suleiman has adopted a stalling strategy in the hope of wearing out the protest movement without implementing radical reform.

Unrest may emerge in other countries, but in most places is likely to be short-lived, class-specific or localised. This is partly because few regional leaders have managed to alienate such a broad sweep of society, including both the lower and upper classes, as in Tunisia and Egypt. In the same vein, however, few regimes will now allow demonstrations to escalate to the point at which they could threaten their survival. Arab leaders have been watching these events with trepidation and will act pre-emptively to ward against similar uprisings in their own countries.

As a result, most Arab regimes are likely to muddle through the immediate aftermath of the current uprisings with a calibrated mix of security crackdowns, cosmetic political openings and a renewed commitment to subsidies on staple goods. In addition, structural factors including the cohesiveness of security apparatuses and broader power bases are likely to make many Arab states more resilient than Tunisia.

Long-term outlook

The significance of this ‘Arab awakening’ may well lie in the longer term. It seems inevitable that the uprisings will open a new era in the Arab state system, in which the politics of populism and street action become more relevant than identity politics focused on sectarian, religious and ethnic divides. For example, Egyptian society, which just two months ago was experiencing growing divisions between Muslims and Copts, has demonstrated a singular unity of purpose in its demand for an end to the Mubarak regime. Accordingly, the fault line in Arab politics could emerge most clearly between regimes and their populations, with the former finding it harder to manipulate social divisions to their own ends.

Beyond the immediate consequences of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the events of recent weeks have provided a reminder of the possibility of contested politics, even in authoritarian environments. Over the next few years, the region is likely to witness renewed mobilisation efforts by opposition groups and previously unpoliticised and currently invisible segments of the population. Such new actors in the coming years could pose a meaningful challenge to regimes that today appear solid and could alter the nature of these regimes, depending on rulers’ understanding of the lessons learned from Egypt and Tunisia. Growing popular opposition could also lead to reconfigurations of power within narrow ruling elites, particularly in countries where the security apparatus is firmly entrenched.

Finally, sensitivity to unrest will encourage regional governments to enact more ‘pro-poor’ economic policies in a bid to ease domestic frustrations, for example by stalling on subsidy reforms or pre-emptively buying in staple foodstuffs to forestall ‘bread riots’. Authorities may also be tempted by more overtly populist policies towards foreign companies. While the latter phenomenon has not been prominent in Egypt or Tunisia, it is already becoming apparent elsewhere in the region. A Libyan official in mid-January declared that homes being built by foreign companies ‘belonged to the Libyan people’ and should be seized, prompting the occupation of the buildings by crowds of demonstrators. In Mauritania, meanwhile, higher taxes and more far-reaching local content regulations in the mining sector, which is widely viewed as bringing little benefit to local socio-economic development.


Hot spots

More than poverty, it is frustration that drives unrest; more explicitly, it is the anger of young men with limited prospects in the face of a system viewed as unequal and unfair. This is why Algeria, a rich hydrocarbons-producing country that is marred by high unemployment and weak economic development, is likely to prove most susceptible to further unrest in the near future, not least because the government’s unresponsiveness has made rioting one of the few effective popular tools of public accountability, and somewhat of a tradition. Although the regime has proved capable of weathering major domestic unrest, the departure in the coming years of Algeria’s ‘independence-era’ generation could erode elite solidarity and lead to deeper changes in the political system.

Protests were a feature of political life in Yemen before the recent uprisings, but have received increased media attention since. They will continue in the coming months, in particular around parliamentary elections planned for April, though for now they appear unlikely to gather sufficient momentum to threaten President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s hold on power. Despite his lack of popularity, Saleh continues to be perceived by many, including much of the mainstream opposition, as the only figure capable of preventing the fragile country from collapsing into chaos.

Sudan is currently feeling the shockwaves from Tunisia as it enters a transition period that will culminate in independence for southern Sudan in 2011, and which is leading the north Sudanese economy to the brink. An upcoming drop in oil revenues is pushing the northern authorities to cut subsidies on basic staples in a context of crippling debt and an ailing local currency, which is placing a premium on food imports. As global food prices continue to rise, it seems only a matter of time before northern states experience major episodes of unrest. This could threaten President Omar al-Bashir’s control by providing competitors in the ruling elite with the chance to grab power.

Jean-Baptiste Gallopin is a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a political risk consultancy.

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2 thoughts on “Middle East and North Africa: The earthquake

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention African Arguments » Blog Archive » Middle East and North Africa: The earthquake -- Topsy.com

  2. thank you for this fabulous article and analysis. being an Egyptian, i believe that we can overcome whatsoever obstacles and not only us but every Arab nation wants to do that. i hope our brothers in Libya and Yemen can achieve what we have done.

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