Senior lecturer in politics Nigel Parsons writes
It is frequently observed that the events we have come to know as the Arab Spring took everyone by surprise, and in a sense this is true. The sudden overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, head of a tough police state that I have heard described as ‘the East Germany of North Africa’, did indeed take everyone by surprise – including him. Similarly, pictures of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak protesting his innocence from a hospital trolley behind bars could not fail to prompt a double-take on the part of any seasoned Egypt watcher. Just imagine how Mubarak and the Presidential Guard must have felt! The unprecedented contribution of social media to this upheaval is undoubtedly a story worth telling. But much deeper forces have also been at work. Look beneath the surface of events to the economic and social structures underpinning Arab politics and it becomes apparent that the potential for upheaval has long been there and understood for some time; moreover, this was documented by Arab research and discussed (albeit often discreetly) by Arab publics. It was also perceived on a certain level by Arab regimes, and we know this because they took extensive measures to compensate for it; witness the various political roles afforded police forces, intelligence services and militaries across the region. Built upon uncertain foundations, our Arab regimes were compensating for a legitimacy deficit.
The concept of legitimacy offers us one of the more tried and trusted tools in the political science toolkit. Economic and social structural factors are essential when accounting for the rise of the revolutionary tide in the Arab world; legitimacy can then help explain why that tide swept through some political regimes to such devastating effect while others survived relatively intact.
Structural origins of the revolutionary tide
The Arab uprisings of 2010-11 are commonly traced to problems of economic and social development, principally a much-remarked-upon ‘demographic bulge’ that has corresponded with high rates of youth unemployment. To give some credit to Arab states, the demographic challenge is in large part a measure of earlier success. In 2002 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published the first Arab Human Development Report (AHDR); it found that during the 20th century, the Arab world witnessed “dramatically reduced poverty and inequality”, that life expectancy “has increased by 15 years over the last three decades, and infant mortality rates have dropped by two thirds” (UNDP, 2002: 11). The problem is that progress has faltered; the recent past has been hard on much of the Arab world.
Long-term socio-economic phenomena such as those recorded by the AHDR did not take anybody by surprise; the data had been gathered by competent professionals for years. But post-9/11 and driven by Arab initiative and expertise, the AHDR did find a wider audience and it carried a certain authority. I was in Cairo when the first one was published and I remember well the interest and controversy it generated. Key findings included an observation that, considering the Arab world in “comparison with the Asian Tigers, per capita output was higher than the average of this group in 1960. Now it is half that in Korea”. In addition, “growth in per capita income was the lowest in the world except in Sub-Saharan Africa”. It was clear that the Arab world had been losing economic ground; and of course, this level of economic performance had social implications. Prefaced by incumbent UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, the latest AHDR (2009) reports that, “about 30 percent of the youth in the Arab States region is unemployed. Considering that more than 50 percent of the population in Arab countries is under the age of 24, 51 million new jobs are needed by 2020 in order to avoid an increase in the unemployment rate”. Neoliberal reforms have stimulated a modicum of economic growth but the benefits have been highly uneven; market reforms routinely prompt deteriorating conditions for workers alongside spectacular consumption by the upper-middle class. This feeds an appreciation of inequality.
Structural challenges such as these would stress-test any political system, but the Arab world has typically capped society with opaque state structures that are neither responsive nor accountable to ordinary people; how might an angry Arab get their voice heard, let alone expedite change? One answer developed in Egypt: beginning in 2005, the prospect of an ailing Mubarak engineering the succession of his son led to the formation of the kifayya (enough) movement. In parallel with that, from late 2006 strikes and demonstrations in the unfashionable Nile Delta town of Mahala saw textile workers and their families increasingly ready to confront the state. The findings of the AHDR and industrial action in provincial Egypt were just two indications that the tectonic plates of Arab society might be preparing to shift.
Why did the tide knock over some regimes and not others?
The political discontent that has swept through the Arab world has shaken and in some instances toppled those regimes most lacking in legitimacy. The holy grail of politics, legitimacy is that priceless capacity to transform power into authority; the authority that legitimacy bestows on a government is valuable because it makes governing so much easier. Modern scholarship has pushed and pulled the concept in various directions, but back in 1918 Max Weber identified three basic mechanisms through which legitimacy might be generated: charisma, tradition and legal-rational mechanisms such as elections. Keeping in mind the broad socio-economic strains outlined by the AHDR, Weber’s century-old take on legitimacy can still gain some traction on the politics of the Arab Spring. There are three more-or-less distinct parts of the Arab world to consider: North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant.
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