An Arab spring: Demanding good governance

This page in:

ImageLike most of my friends from the Middle East, I have been glued to media reports from Tunisia, Lebanon, and now Egypt for weeks. What is happening is truly historical. Already, the region has changed in indelible ways. The Arab Street has come roaring back to life – but this time, it is not simply to vent anger and frustration, but also to demand good governance and dignity.

Arab solidarity has found a new cause to cherish, and there are already strong signs of contagion all around. Fear is disintegrating, and the long awaited Spring of the Arabs (as referenced in this touching piece by the assassinated Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir) seems to be unfolding in front of us, raging in the streets of Tunisian and Egyptian towns, and roaring through many capitals around the region.

What is really going on? After all, for all the complaints about the economy which have triggered the recent riots in many capitals, the economies of the region have apparently not been doing so badly in recent years, according to our Bank colleagues. The Bank’s most recent country briefs on Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan suggest success stories of growth and social development in the making.

The point about economic performance, I believe, is this:  it is not good enough to neutralize the deeply felt discontent related to corruption, repression, and unpopular policies. Economic performance has not been at stellar Chinese levels, and growth rates of about 5% have been insufficient to absorb the new waves of educated youth. The anger is now directed at a social contract that has become unacceptable – people are voting with their feet to say that economics alone cannot justify and legitimize autocracy anymore.

But why all the surprise? Why believe there could be an Arab exception?  The popular mood is all too understandable. While Turkey may be the closest example to emulate, there are many other cases of countries in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America that show that a successful transition to democracy becomes possible where societies become rich enough.

ImageAnd indeed, many of the cases in front of us today resemble countries in the ”later-stage dominance category”, as discussed in Brian Levy’s recent post on socio-political pathways to development.  Like countries in this category during other times and in other places, many Arab countries have successfully traversed the early stages of the ‘dominant state’ trajectory, and have come to increasingly confront a new generation of governance-related challenges. It is actually the success in accelerating economic growth itself that has resulted in a more sophisticated private sector, a growing middle class, and an emerging network of civil society organizations – all of which are now seeking institutions that are impartial and more just. This enhanced social and economic complexity has now come in open conflict with control-oriented political and state institutions – with the outcome still uncertain.

There are added complexities in the Middle East, and it will be important for the newly unleashed  forces  to find ways to nurture the positive yearning of the Arab people, while preventing the occurrence of other types of outcomes that have occurred in similarly complex circumstances in other countries. The two main risks I see – fragmentation, and radicalization  – are related. Fragmentation is about the difficulty of forming coalitions among those demanding change. Radicalization is what spoilers offer when all else fails – in the region, this is pretty much either reformation by security forces, or revolution by small radical groups.  

On the positive side, the momentous, hard-won change will by itself create further momentum for the institution of a new national pact around which the widely shared aspirations of a socially oriented liberal democracy can coalesce. These principles are simple and this simplicity should facilitate the formation of credible coalitions united around shared principles. Trade unions, moderate Islamic groups, and civil society activists, with the support of sections of the private sector, coming together around such a new deal should be able to find an acceptable institutional way to move forward – reforms of the current regime, transitional arrangements to elections, or snap elections, are all possibilities. Perfection is not essential . As long as there is an agreement on key principles, positive momentum will ensure that design details will be improved over time.

In some countries, these forces will have to contend with the army, as a transition mechanism to provide security, or where its economic interests are well entrenched, even possibly as a partial party to the new deal. The role of the army will be especially crucial where it plays an important regional role. This becomes more complicated, because trade-offs get involved, and compromises may be needed. Turkey has shown us that complex transitions of this type can take place in relatively stable ways.

Radical forces, however, would try to perpetuate insecurity and chaos, denying the new order legitimacy. The dynamics of attacks and repression can lead ultimately to a military or a radical revolutionary outcome. While fighting extremism should be at the heart of the efforts of the founding coalition, this must be done in ways to win hearts and minds in a contest for legitimacy, through open social debates on the type of society people aspire to belong to. These aspirations are likely to include regional postures that may not be of the liking of the West, but external support for unpopular causes will, as in the past, only strengthen radical causes.

ImageDependency on tourism, foreign direct investment, and capital markets will constrain the length of the window of opportunity that is opening up. Finding quick solutions, at least for orderly transitions, should be a priority. Later, it would be safer for the first wave of democratic governments to reduce dependence and improve resilience, even at a cost, at least until democratic traditions start taking root. It is going to be important to realize that the road to democracy will be long and bumpy.

In the Mashriq, ethnicity and external influences also play a role. But chaotic multi-ethnic democratic orders are possible, perhaps even unavoidable. As Michael Young reminds us in a telling account of recent Lebanese politics , it is precisely the need for all to recognize the reality of more than one vision of the world as a precondition for their own security, which has lead to the creation of a liberal space in a multi-ethnic setting. 

History is unfolding.  Let’s try to figure out our role in making this historical transition work!  


Ishac Diwan

Lecturer on Public Policy

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000