The Arab Spring’s bottom line

By Khaled Diab

The Arab uprisings are not just about democracy and dignity. But with domestic and global economic crises, how likely are they to deliver on bread and butter issues?

Tuesday 16 August 2011

The ideals of the ‘' or have largely been dominated by the high, yet somewhat abstract, demands for liberté and égalité. This ‘Arab Awakening' has been portrayed as an epic battle pitting the enlightened forces of democracy and dignity against the dark powers of dictatorship and despotism.

Based on this vision, the revolutionary discourse within the Arab world – and public debate beyond it – has mostly focused on making the political process more open and transparent, as well as applying the rule of law fairly and equally. 

While these issues are of critical importance to the future of the region, since they will help ensure that the poor or marginalised are not trampled on by the rich or powerful, and protect minorities from sometimes hostile majorities, the picture is missing a vital element: fraternité

You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing the bread and butter issues of poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow, as a number of mature Western democracies shaken by recent unrest are learning.

In fact, although the uprisings are regularly viewed as something uniquely Arab and separate from the rest of the world, I see them as part and parcel of a global backlash against growing inequalities and the increasing economic of the young. In fact, the Arab world and Europe share surprising similar youth unemployment rates (around 20% and 25% respectively). 

That would explain why, a couple of years before young Tunisians and Egyptians took to the streets, their Greek peers across the Mediterranean were out in force protesting not only against police brutality but growing youth unemployment (which stands at over 40%). Despite the ugly and selfish scenes of looting and theft that have accompanied the UK riots, one important factor behind them is the economic and social marginalisation of – who are raised in a society of ‘born consumers' yet too often deprived of their birthright.

This raises the question of why, given the obvious importance of and the strong presence of labour movements and unions in the protests, issues of job creation, wealth generation and economic solidarity have been left to fester by the wayside? 

In Tunisia, for example, the pace of reform has been incredibly sluggish, with little beyond a cash handout scheme appearing since the . “There hasn't been enough provided or offered,” one Tunisian professor complained. “The few programmes that came were late or insufficient.” 

This is doubly ironic when considering that in and trade unions and workers were a vital driving force behind the protests, holding regular strikes and sit-ins. Even the , which called for the first protest of the on 25 January, was originally set up to express solidarity with textile workers.

One reason is the nature of the popular uprisings themselves. In Tunisia and Egypt, in order to topple the old order, they needed to appeal to all strata of society – young and old, rich and poor, socialist and conservative. To do this, they focused on the lowest common denominator: regime change, the creation of a level political playing field and the protection of human rights. 

But there has been no consensus about how to proceed on other pressing issues, and the once-united opposition has splintered into political factions. In addition, in Egypt, many of the revolution's leaders, though young, come from educated and relatively privileged middle or upper-middle-class backgrounds, and so few were likely to seriously challenge the country's underlying economic structure, despite its harsh inequalities. 

Moreover, the surviving elements of the political elite that have been leading the country in the interim have been working hard to ensure that as much of the old system remains intact as possible. Towards that end, Egypt's supreme council for the armed forces has skewed the post-revolutionary political system, at least in the short term, away from the young and radical and towards more conservative opposition forces. 

This is epitomised by the electoral pact between the liberal al-Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice parties, which numerous analysts say is likely to emerge as the largest bloc in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Although the two parties are bitterly divided over questions of secularism versus religion, which threaten their alliance, they have remarkably similar neo-liberal economic agendas. 

Another factor might be termed the “death of political ideology”. In Arab countries, as in many other parts of the world, neither past socialism nor current neo-liberalism have delivered satisfactory results: one brought a relative equality of poverty while the other reaped a massive inequality of wealth. 

In fact, the Egyptian and Tunisian economies have not been doing at all badly in recent years, yet the fruits have only gone to a small minority with the rest of society excluded from the rewards. And with the high price tag attached to the recent domestic upheavals and global economic fragility, fuelled by the debt crises in the United States and Europe, the economic cake is unlikely to grow much but though the demands on it are likely to do so. 

One part of the solution is to foster entrepreneurship and innovation. But that alone will not bridge the gaping economic chasm. Egypt and Tunisia need to build (and in some cases rebuild) their welfare and solidarity infrastructures.

In Egypt, for example, the interim government has taken some steps in the right direction. The budget for the fiscal year that started in July sets a new government sector minimum wage at LE 700 (£72) per month, which though modest and insufficient will nonetheless boost the incomes of several million people. 

In order to finance such measures, the government is depending partly on foreign donors but also on the gradual introduction of progressive taxation, as well as indirect taxes. In fact, in a country where tax evasion has long been a problem, Egyptian tax revenues have actually risen by 16% – perhaps a sign of a greater sense of ownership of the political process and solidarity.

Still, the tax burden on the wealthier strata of society remains minuscule in comparison with the egalitarian social democracies of northern Europe and, if the Arab democratic spring is not to turn into a winter of economic discontent, then the haves need to do more to empower the have-nots.

This article first appeared in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on 12 August 2011Discussion of this article is available here.


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