Issue #28, Spring 2013

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.

In light of these expectations and the current economic dilemmas, five priorities emerge. First, governments must recognize that the main prerequisite for economic reform in transitioning countries is a firm political foundation upon which they can make difficult decisions that might entail some degree of social dislocation. Western policy-makers and local technocrats have often disaggregated economic reform from the politics that undergird it. But that’s a grave error. The importance of some semblance of consensus politics is heightened by the current polarization in the region’s transitioning countries, most notably Egypt, where the botched transition and disastrous constitutional drafting process have created the prospect of institutionalized crisis and political dysfunction.

Second, the region’s leaders must deal with their citizens transparently. Economic decision-making has often been opaque. This has led to the belief, heightened by recent history, that reforms will inevitably entail distortion and corruption.

Third, regional governments will have to work to ensure that macroeconomic gains have a tangible impact on unemployment and social mobility. The gap between GDP growth and per capita GDP growth for the region is among the world’s highest (meaning that population growth has outstripped economic growth). The disconnect represented by long-term structural unemployment is at the root of disenchantment, particularly among the young; coupled with the flagrant corruption associated with crony capitalism, past performance has hindered current efforts and tarnished perceptions of economic policy.

Growth will inevitably require some level of fiscal discipline to manage debt. However, austerity cannot form the crux of economic policy or provide the roadmap toward inclusive growth. As such, more progressive taxation to create a broader revenue base is essential, as is support for small and medium enterprises, including assistance to bring many of these businesses out of the underground economy. This will necessitate reforms to ensure greater transparency, reduced bureaucracy, and a predictable legal framework. It will also require that the international community eschew ideology and lend its support for big public-works projects that can employ large numbers in the near term and improve dilapidated infrastructure.

Fourth, economic policy will also face challenges with respect to gender. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2011, in Egypt and Yemen, for example, the labor force participation for women is a meager 24 percent and 21 percent respectively. Remedying such gender gaps and providing expanded opportunities would enhance productivity and increase economic security.

Finally, regional economies will have to implement economic-diversification and investment policies focused on high-growth and labor-intensive economic sectors, such as clothing and textiles. This type of diversification can contribute to more stable, higher rates of growth. For non-oil-producing countries, this will require investments in infrastructure and technology.

Education Reform

What is the state of education in the Arab world? The UN Human Development Index offers the following statistics: In Libya, students have 7.3 years of schooling on average; Tunisia, 6.5 years; Egypt, 6.4 years; Syria, 5.7 years; Yemen, a sobering 2.5 years (for the United States, it’s 12.4 years).

A March 2011 UNESCO report found that while the region has made progress on elementary and secondary education in the last decade, it still lags behind most of the world. Over six million primary school-aged children—the vast majority of them girls—do not attend school. Enrollment in post-secondary education is 21 percent, below the worldwide average of 26 percent. Teacher salaries are often abysmal—in Egypt, for example, the starting salary is $20 a month, rising to $70 a month after five years. This has led to perverse practices, such as teachers withholding information in the classroom to encourage participation in private tutoring sessions for those few students whose parents can pay for the extra time.

Another problem is the rigid and outmoded pedagogy that is practiced in the region’s schools. There is a heavy emphasis throughout secondary education on rote memorization and a lack of focus on analytical and creative thinking, which are essential to advanced learning. This approach has limited the capacity of students to translate their education to the labor market.

Educational participation also reflects clear patterns of inequality. A 2007 World Bank study focusing on economic performance in the Middle East and North Africa noted that “[p]overty and level of education are strongly and consistently correlated in populations in the region, meaning that programs targeting secondary and higher education will reach few if any poor children.”

Aside from poor investment and outcomes, education in the region faces an additional problem: The educational systems of the region have been corrupted by the imperatives of regime survival. Among their primary functions, schools have been a means of maintaining order and control. This has led to censorship and limitations on research deemed threatening to the state. Today, Islamist regimes pose another threat. Mohammed Faour of the Carnegie Middle East Center predicts that “the Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia will target education reform to ensure more Islamic content is included in all students’ schooling.” This will create new barriers to inquiry and research.

To the extent that the educational sectors of transitioning societies have seen reforms, they have largely centered on political activism and expression. State interference in political life in Egyptian universities, for example, has declined since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Similarly, university administrations have been shielded from direct political intervention, with Cairo University and other campuses holding internal elections for administrative leadership positions.

What needs to be done? The most urgent priority must be dealing with the mismatch between educational attainment and the requirements of the labor market. Closing this gap will require investment in advanced research and scientific institutions. It will also require greater coordination with the private sector to better tailor educational programs to labor demands, as well as pedagogy reform that begins a shift toward critical thinking and analysis and away from the more traditional and outmoded forms of learning. Vocational training and technical schools should also be encouraged as practical alternatives to university education and contributors to the production of skilled labor. Finally, it is critical that reformers protect inquiry, creativity, and expression against the potentially stifling imperatives of ruling Islamist political parties.

The financial strains on educational systems will be difficult to ameliorate at a time when resources are stretched. The youth bulge has put further pressure on the education sector. The countries of the region must reassess their budgetary priorities and consider options once thought politically untenable. For example, national universities in Egypt are currently free. Ursula Lindsey, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Middle East correspondent, argues that some students should be charged fees in light of current budgetary realities.

The pressures on public education have also encouraged private institutions of higher learning to proliferate in some Arab countries. While some have adopted higher standards (exacerbating social divisions in the process), others are nakedly opportunistic enterprises responding to market demand and often do a poor job of preparing students. As such, the establishment of accreditation bodies is absolutely necessary to ensure baseline metrics for the approval of new institutions of higher learning.

Security-Sector Reform

One of the major drivers of popular outrage in the Arab world has been and continues to be the repressive and brutal tactics of the security sector. Yet there is a great deal of variation among the region’s security apparatuses. In Egypt and Tunisia, the armed forces have largely been focused on external security rather than repression, with such duties falling to internal security forces and mukhabarat, as the region’s intelligence services are known. This is in stark contrast to Syria, where the conscript army and elite military forces have been used to violently suppress internal dissent and armed opposition. In Libya, security-sector reform represents a unique challenge due to the proliferation of regional and independent anti-Gadhafi militias that have remained outside the scope of centralized authority. In Yemen, the balkanized security sector and its divided loyalties represent a key impediment to centralizing authority behind a reformist agenda. Other countries in the region that have not experienced regime change or transition, particularly Bahrain, have increased repression in the hopes of smothering any impetus for change.

The security sectors of the region are steeped in a brutal and corrupt culture that privileges confessions and encourages torture in the service of both maintaining regime security and policing minor crime. Those detained for petty crimes often suffer the same coercion and abuse met by citizens arrested on suspicion of oppositional activities or terrorism.

Issue #28, Spring 2013
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I enjoyed this. Fascinating and comprehensive.

It seems to me that the empowerment of women in the region will contribute greatly to easing or eliminating many of the problems/challenges now faced there, especially the pressure created by the increasing segment of the populations that are young and unemployed. Of course accomplishing that will be a monumental challenge of its own.

Apr 15, 2013, 10:17 AM

I enjoyed this. Fascinating and comprehensive.

It seems to me that the empowerment of women in the region will contribute greatly to easing or eliminating many of the problems/challenges now faced there, especially the pressure created by the increasing segment of the populations that are young and unemployed. Of course accomplishing that will be a monumental challenge of its own.

Apr 15, 2013, 12:02 PM
Evil Overlord:

1. Interesting analysis, with some good suggestions. However, I saw little in this that would suggest a path to actually making it happen. Primarily, I see little incentive for those rulers who are not truly committed to reform - which I fear includes most of them.

2. Re the US portion - I can't see the US becoming truly influential in the Arab world until it a) becomes genuinely objective, and b) shows less anti-muslim sentiment at home. I have hopes for amelioration of the latter, but if last year's standing ovation for Netanyahu was any indicator, the former won't change any time soon.

Apr 23, 2013, 9:18 AM

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