The Seven Pillars of the Arab Future
The United States cannot make a success of the Arab Spring. Only the region’s nations can. Here are the ways they need to mature.
The early days of the Arab uprisings were uncomplicated and inspiring, as they reaffirmed many Westerners’ long-held beliefs regarding universal values, human rights, and democratization. With the fall of long-standing dictators and the spread of unrest and protest, historical parallels were quickly drawn to the transformative events of 1989, which witnessed the fall of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the acceleration of events that soon thereafter led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
But as violence assumed a more prominent role in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, the straightforward and attractive image of organic protest against authoritarian rule became muddied. The uprisings and their consequences—the murders in Libya of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others, the democratic enfranchisement of illiberal factions, the Mali unrest, the ongoing crises in Egypt—have forced Western liberals to grapple with their fears regarding both regional instability and Islamists and their attempts to insert religion more prominently into governance and the public square.
So what does the future hold? As we watch these riveting, often exhilarating, and sometimes horrifying events, the bottom-line questions in all our minds are simple. Can democracy take root in the Arab world? How long will it take? Ten years, 20…50? We all hope for a great transformation, in which Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and their neighbors embrace democracy and pluralism and cast off autocracy and extremism. But is there reason to be optimistic?
While we cannot make specific predictions, we can say broadly that the ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of seven core areas. They are: economic growth and equality; education policy; security-sector reform; transitional justice; decentralization; the development of regional norms on democratization; and—in many ways, the linchpin for everything—the flourishing of a more pluralistic politics. These are the seven pillars of the Arab Future. They are the yardsticks by which we can measure progress in the region in the coming years.
The United States has not played a central role in this story. Nor should it be expected to. Change must be initiated organically and in accordance with the perceived interests of local actors. The United States, along with the international community, cannot dictate change, but it can guide and encourage it. Despite debates about American decline and diminishing leverage, the United States remains the most potent outside actor in the region and will, with its allies, have a role to play in supporting regional change.
Economic Growth and Equality
If transitioning states fail in retooling their economies, the prospects for reform in other areas are dim. Virtually all the nations of the region have a long, long way to go. With the exceptions of the petro-rich Gulf states, which post impressive economic numbers for obvious and anomalous reasons, the region is in terrible economic shape.
Per capita GDPs are low. According to the CIA World Factbook, the highest per capita GDP in the region (outside of the petro-monarchies) is Lebanon’s $15,500 per year, which ranks it just 78th in the world. Egypt, at $6,500, comes in at number 137. Syria, at $5,100, is 152nd. GDP growth is also meager. According to World Bank data for 2011, Jordan’s GDP grew at 2.6 percent, Egypt’s at 1.8 percent; Tunisia’s “grew” at -1.8 percent; Libya’s was not even calculated. In terms of income inequality, the region has just one country in the world’s top 50 least unequal countries, as measured by the Gini coefficient: Egypt sneaks in at number 50. (The United States has nothing to boast about here, ranking 97th.)
These lagging indicators are exacerbated by the region’s demographic youth bulge and, according to the World Bank, the highest levels of youth unemployment on earth. Youth under age 25 represent 60 percent of the region’s population. The 2009 Arab Human Development Report, one of a series of controversial reports sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme and independently authored by intellectuals and scholars from Arab countries (and attacked by nationalists and Islamists alike as serving Western interests), estimated that the region would need to create approximately 51 million jobs by 2020 to keep pace with new entrants; some more current estimates for needed employment gains range as high as 80 million new jobs in the coming decade.
Unemployment is also high among the most educated of the region. The 2011-2012 Arab World Competitiveness Report notes that among those with a college education in states for which statistics were available, 43 percent are unemployed in Saudi Arabia, 22 percent in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and 14 percent in Tunisia.
Of course, the economic challenges vary from country to country. The World Bank recently described the region as having a “two-track growth path” between nations that export oil and gas and those that either import or produce small quantities (which include Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia). This divergence is illustrated succinctly by a comparison of the 2010 per capita GDP of two Gulf countries: Qatar, which is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and registered at $72,398, and Yemen, which reached a paltry $1,291. The bank’s current forecast for economic growth in oil and gas exporting countries is 4.8 percent in 2012, and just 2.2 percent for importing countries.
Such disparities and stagnation have meant the basic economic questions that have been largely resolved in the West are now once again a feature of open political discourse, particularly in the region’s transitioning states. These questions tap into long-dormant notions of social justice rooted in the region’s twentieth-century history, when Arab nationalism was often coupled with a state-dominated economic model. However, expectations for economic change are incredibly high, bordering on the fantastical, and managing them will be essential for the region’s leaders. It is nearly inevitable that they will be judged harshly if they fail to improve the material conditions of citizens. A lack of progress runs a real risk of sparking popular backlash against the uprisings, alienating people from the electoral process, and raising the specter of authoritarian relapse.
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