Monday, March 28, 2011

Arab Spring and the Consequences of Democracy

This will be the first of two related posts.

Rebels in Libya are on the outskirts of Sirte, in what could be a pivotal moment in their campaign to dethrone Muammar Gaddafi.  In the meantime, popular uprisings and pro-democracy protests in the Middle East have spread even to Syria, one of the most tightly-controlled and repressive Arab states.  Other protests are ongoing in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia.  Governments in Eygpt and Tunisia have already fallen.  Some in the media are calling this Arab Spring.  But what does that mean and what are the consequences?  And perhaps even more importantly, how are we perceiving it here in America?  I want to find out.

To start, the Mideast is undoubtedly experiencing one of its greatest upheavals since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Ironically, one of the results of the protest movement may be to ultimately strengthen Turkey's military and diplomatic clout in the region, as we're already seeing in Libya (see the first link in the post).   I'm not going to pretend I know what the consequences of a democratic Egypt, or Syria, or Yemen or Libya specifically are.  However, there are some general patterns to the unrest and to young democracies in general that we can use to make some rudimentary forecasts.

I see two major patterns in these uprisings.  The first has to do with where the uprisings are taking place and where they are not, and the second has to do with the consequences of the uprisings that have taken place.  First, and most importantly, it's important to remember where these protests are not taking place on a wide scale.  These countries include Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait.  As you can see on a table of the UN Human Development Index, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar rank very high on that list.  Oman and Kuwait are also relatively wealthy and stable countries. You'll note that Bahrain is also on that list, however Bahrain also contains a Shi'ite Muslim majority (whereas the ruling party is Sunni), and we've all seen the power of sectarian strife in the Muslim world in Iraq.  The pro-democracy protests in Bahrain may be a natural result of Bahrain's wealth, but the Shi'ite-Sunni factor is enough to allow me to set it aside for the sake of this particular argument.  I'll write more on it later.

Countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar however, have, over the past several decades, wisely invested oil revenue in infrastructure and education, and can now be considered "developed" countries with a very high standard of living relative to the rest of the Middle East.  While it's true that Libya has significant oil wealth, its oil revenue has largely gone to enriching Muammar Gaddhafi, his inner circle, and favored tribes, rather than in infrastructure or education.  Egypt and Tunisia are not significant oil producers.  We can also add to this list Yemen, whose oil reserves are largely depleted, and for which little to no investment in infrastructure has taken place over the past several decades.

Clearly, infrastructure and education are two major reasons for stability.  All of the countries currently facing uprisings are both economically stagnant and suffer from major unemployment problems.  Indeed, it was unemployment and the rising cost of food and other basic necessities that initially sparked the protests in Tunisia.  People want a better standard of living, and their governments have been unable to provide for them.  Geography and sectarianism may at times and in places exacerbate these sentiments as well, as it did in Libya and it seems to be doing in Syria and Bahrain.  A population without jobs, food, or shelter is always going to be a restive population.  We're seeing the natural consequence of it now.

My second point on democracy regards its consequences.  Because American democracy has facilitated a system in which a lot of wealth has been produced over a long period of time, I think there is the tendency in the American media and government to believe that democracy can "cure" the conditions that generate repressive authoritarian governments and/or anarchy.  Certainly that's a lesson that the Bush Administration learned rather harshly in Iraq.  In truth, imposing democracy has had at best mixed results worldwide.  In places like Chile and South Korea, where democracy has evolved from fiscally-minded and at times brutally repressive dictatorships, it has been rather successful.  It has also been largely successful in former communist central and eastern Europe, though at times chaotic.  It has also been successful in Turkey as well, albeit with the influence of a politically powerful armed forces.  Democracy as a system is not inherently "better" or "worse" than any other system; it all depends on the circumstances.  A nation with an educated populace poised to take advantage of a strong and robust internal infrastructure is a good place for democracy to succeed.  One thing democracy does very well is ruthlessly and mercilessly expose the health of the society that participates in it.  Indeed, a place like Egypt will need a powerful army willing and able to intervene on democracy's behalf to prevent creeping Islamism, corruption, and neo-authoritarianism.  Whether or not that's actually the case and democracy will succeed remains to be seen.  Doubly so in Libya, should the rebels eventually succeed.

It may ultimately be the case in Bahrain that the ruling party is a victim of its own success.  That remains to be seen as well, however, due to the sectarian makeup of the country.  I don't know.  It's possible we could see the Emirs of the UAE peacefully overthrown and replaced with democracies in the next few decades.  As I stated above, such an occurrence is not unprecedented, as examples in South Korea and Chile illustrate.  But it may also be that in ethnically and religiously divided countries, democracy ultimately weakens society rather than strengthening it.  Case in point, Syria and Iraq.

As unpleasant as figures like Hafez al-Assad (and his son, Bashar al-Assad) and Saddam Hussein were, we saw the effectiveness of their admittedly brutal regimes at holding their respective countries together.  A democratic Syria, like a democratic Iraq, means chaos and civil war.  Their borders were drawn artificially by the European powers following World War I with little to no regard for demographics, and the entire Mesopotamian and Syrian region is a sectarian powder keg.  As for Yemen, there are four times as many guns as people, and much of the country is ungovernable even for an authoritarian dictator like Ali Abdullah Saleh.  Democracy will only exacerbate this problem.

Hopefully this illustrates some of the nuances and complexities surrounding Arab democracy and Arab Spring.  I'm not saying it will fail or succeed -- I'm only attempting to illustrate both the circumstances that allow for it and some of its consequences.  Undoubtedly in the short term, a democratic Middle East will be a less stable one, but that instability was probably inevitable given the economic stagnation and underdeveloped infrastructure.  Ultimately, there may be little that President Obama, or David Cameron or Nicholas Sarkozy can do to influence the course of events, despite their intervention in Libya.  When I talk next about the media and our perception of these unfolding events, that will be of major consequence.  For now, though, I'll leave with what I've already written and come back tomorrow with the follow up.

1 comment:

  1. I think an important distinction must be made between "developed" countries like the UAE and Qatar and truly developed countries... The UAE in particular is relying heavily on slave labor, coercion, and corruption. While it may be "stable" in the sense that it is unlikely the actual residents will initiate an uprising in the near future, I suspect that these nations will either suffer an extreme economic collapse followed by civil unrest or may even experience slave uprisings and international sanctions (particularly due to their habit of seizing the passports of people who owe debts, forcing them to be unable to return home and collect the money.)