Once again our attention is being drawn back to the unfolding drama in the Middle East. Enthralled though I am by the daily 24 hour news coverage – yes, I’m a news junkie – I find myself none the wiser as to what is really going on.
Questions remain unanswered. Is Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) an obstacle to democratic transition? Does the SCAF speak for the whole army? Even if the SCAF sees its role as guiding the country towards transition, will it still be power averse at the end of the process? Has the Army deliberately stoked up sectarian tension to provide a pretext for maintaining the authoritarian nature of the state? Even if Assad does step aside, is Syria at risk of descending into an Iraqi style sectarian civil war? Would such a conflict be localized or spill over into neighboring states?
All of this reinforces my feeling of being nothing more than a frustrated spectator. It also heightens my concern that our fixation with making sense of what is going on doesn’t extend beyond the here and the now. The dominant narrative appears to be shaped purely by political considerations. That’s fine up to a point but we need to remind ourselves that the Arab Spring is a response both to political authoritarianism and economic disenfranchisement that together has contributed to a form of nepotistic capitalism.
Getting the politics right – a huge challenge in and of itself – will help, but it will count for little if the economics remains the same. Correcting both at the same time will require a Herculean effort. If the quest for austerity in Europe is seeing the democratic credentials of a number of countries called into question, then what hope is there for the democratic experiment in the Middle East?
My anxiety is heightened when I read the Rand Corporation’s recent analysis as to the implications of demographic and economic trends on the future challenges for many Arabs states. To say it doesn’t make for pretty reading is an understatement – it’s downright depressing.
We have heard a lot in recent months about how the Arab Spring grew out of the frustrations of the young adults but we seem to ignore the fact that the number of young people entering the labor market will continue to rise until 2020. How will Arab states respond when the public sector is already bloated and in need of reform? Will democratic governments fare any better in this task than authoritarian ones?
The Arab world is now one of the world’s most urbanized developing regions. The risk here as the RAND report makes clear is that “under conditions of rapid growth and large numbers of job seekers, cities will be cockpits of social unrest and political change. As shown by recent events, unbridled urbanisation is likely to fuel an already explosive mixture of social discontent because of the proximity of rival ethnic and religious groups within Arab cities, the erosion of social restrains and the anonymity conferred by urban areas.”
All of this brings be back to the question of religious freedom and tolerance in the Middle East a subject that I have written on before.
Much has been made in recent months about the need to ensure that the transition from authoritarianism protects religious freedom. That is quite right and proper, but to believe that religious freedom in the Middle East depends on securing constitutional rights for minorities is to be enchanted by the revolutionary spirit of the moment and to overlook the more ominous economic trends at play in the region.
My long-term worry is that the scale of the economic challenges ahead allied to the threat of rising social tensions will continue to see an exodus of Christians from the Middle East such that the argument for a secular state becomes that much harder to advance.
All in all I’m left wondering whether it’s about time we should reconfigure our own response to the region and worry less about the politics and more about the economics. As Bill Clinton would say – It’s the economy stupid!