The filtering (blocking) of websites was once assumed by many to be something conducted by the most authoritarian of regimes. But while we’ve all heard of China’s Great Firewall--that imaginary wall that divides the Chinese-hosted Internet from the rest of the world’s sites, allowing for the government to easily block anything that doesn’t pass muster--China is only one of dozens of countries that censors the Internet. Across the board, the Middle East and North Africa rank poorly as a region. While some countries--such as the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman--mainly target “offensive” or “inappropriate” content, caught up in their filters are various social networking websites.
Have the Arab revolutions definitively rebuked the so-called Arab exceptionalism—the notion that Arab nations would somehow be immune to economic modernization and democratization? After the massive popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and other parts of the Arab world, it would be tempting to say yes. Far from any exceptionalism, what the Arab streets are demanding is what everyone reaching a minimum standard of living eventually demands: dignity and freedom. This call for dignity has been a major departure from the post-independence Arab social contract made of subsidies, public employment, and various rents and privileges at the price of freedom. To use an economic terminology, the Arab revolutions happened because the “exchange rate” between entitlement and freedom became unsustainable and had to be corrected. “Dignity before bread” was the slogan of the Jasmine revolution.
There is widespread belief that consumers across Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are largely insulated from global food price increases due to government food consumption subsidies and other policies. This, perhaps, explains why prior to its April edition, the World Bank’s Food Price Watch and many papers written on the topic did not report changes in domestic food prices in any MENA country. Limited access to microeconomic data has been another reason for focusing mainly on the macroeconomic implications of food price shocks in the region. Still the absence of systematic monitoring of domestic food price movements and analysis of their implications for households in MENA are surprising.
When I first received an invitation for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Spring Meetings, my friends said I shouldn’t open the e-mail because it was probably a spam. My family said I should check the source of the invitation and investigate the reason behind it before accepting. My tutors said this was weird. It seemed like everyone was skeptical about the fact that these international financial institutions could be genuinely inviting young people to this important event. With a lot of curiosity, I traveled to Washington D.C. hoping to reconcile the puzzling ideas in my head about this meeting and these institutions.
While most of us working on development issues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, will probably know at least a couple of examples of renowned social enterprises or ventures in the region, I am not sure we have all truly come to know the real magnitude and potential impact of this sector in general. Looking through the pretty widespread literature and case studies on social entrepreneurship, MENA is sadly under-represented. Why, one wonders.
Khaled Said was not the first Egyptian whom police allegedly beat to death. But his death sparked a virtual revolution that in retrospect was a perfect rehearsal for the real revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in 18 days. Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian businessman, was brutally beaten, his family and activists say, by two plainclothes police officers in June 2010. An Interior Ministry autopsy claimed that he suffocated after swallowing a bag of drugs. But a photograph of a shattered body, his family confirmed was his, started circulating online. His family said he was targeted after posting a video online allegedly showing police sharing profits of a drug bust.
With the Arab spring bringing into sharper focus the long-standing challenges of inequality and unemployment in the Arab world, the question is what to do. It is clear that in the medium term only a dynamic market-based economy can generate good jobs for the unemployed and, importantly, the underemployed. It might seem tempting in the face of popular pressures to expand the public sectors further, but it is not feasible and not desirable. That said: "In the medium term we are all dead" (this was a famous Keynes statement and he actually said it about that favorite economist phrase "in the long run" but it suits me here).
Among the saddest iconic stories to come out of MENA’s rapidly changing political landscape was the first: the dramatic self-immolation of a fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, and how his act was a response to government officials trying to confiscate the fruit he was selling, taking away from this young man the sole means he had found to support his family.