“Arab Spring” anniversary: A decade of lost opportunities?

Image: Piece of parchment with two hands shaking each otherTaking stock ten years after the so-called Arab Spring is a rather sobering undertaking. While conventional wisdom has it that the political and economic situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is as dire as – or even more instable than – it was ten years ago, analysing state-society relations of individual countries in the region helps to identify possible reasons behind this stasis.

In several recent publications, the team at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) working on “Stability and Development in the Middle East and North Africa” analysed current developments and events through the lens of their jointly developed concept of the “social contract”. Their publications show that throughout the region, people feel that rights and responsibilities in state-society relations are unevenly distributed: While societies bear most of the burden and face social injustice, MENA governments notoriously under-deliver on their duties to protect citizens from violence, to provide basic public services and to give them a voice in political decision-making.

In the countries of the region facing war and violent conflict – Libya, Syria, Yemen – national social contracts ceased to exist. For instance, in war-torn Syria, the area under Assad’s control offers only truncated public services to selected parts of society, leaving disloyal parts of the populace behind. Elsewhere, “unsocial” social contracts were kept in place, for instance in Egypt, where continuously low job creation in the private sector forced flocks of people to enter the low-paying informal sector. Ever more social groups are being excluded from public welfare and the government legitimises itself increasingly as the only possible guarantor of security and order. Even in Tunisia, which was considered the Arab Spring’s only success story transitioning to democratic governance, the situation is not only economically dire but also politically highly unstable. Increasing scarcity of water and fertile land challenges the rural social contracts in the region. MENA governments’ income sources dried up and they fight historically high debts and a notorious lack of legitimacy. The downward spiral continues, as even a slightly more favourable geopolitical context under the Biden administration seems to provide no meaningful window of opportunity for the MENA countries. While in Morocco constitutional reforms enabled the creation of new institutions for citizen participation, these do in some instances provide opportunities for stronger citizen involvement, but in other cases reinforce existing power imbalances.

Solving these problems will be very difficult as long as there are such strong vested interests in the status quo. Resistance is too strong by those parts of the political and economic elites who benefit from granting access to protection, provision of services and participation in exchange for political loyalty. The few reform-minded policy-makers have little leeway. Systemic reforms can hardly be expected, and only if citizens exert massive pressure. Or if external actors do so – but Western donors lack the necessary clout, especially if they do not act jointly. This might change as MENA governments are in no good financial shape to counter the COVID-19 pandemic, let along to tackle structural reforms. Donors should grant generous aid, but they should tie it – in a more direct way than within the last decade – to reforms that improve protection, provision and citizens’ participation in MENA countries.

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