Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The 12th Al Jazeera Forum: Session 3 - Change in the Region?

A New Arab Spring Fueled by Socio-Economic Factors?

On April 28-29, 2018, Al Jazeera held its 12th Forum providing an opportunity for leading scholars and other experts to discuss a variety of topics affecting the Arab world.  The website for the forum, @aljazeeraform, provides additional information and links to the videos of each session.  You can follow the Twitter coverage at #AJForum.

As I noted in my first post in this series, I am working from my notes, so I apologize in advance if I incorrectly paraphrase the remarks of any speaker. I was also reliant on the quality of the translation services and their audibility. Therefore, I am happy to make any needed edits to this summary.

For summaries of the other sessions see:
Session 3:  Will socio-economic difficulties in the Arab world explode into a new wave of change in the region?

Session focus:
More than eight years have passed since the beginning of the Arab Spring revolutions.  The main demands of these revolutions were employment, development, and social justice.  However, despite the rapid changes witnessed by the region during these past years, social, and economic conditions are worsening continuously with warnings of new waves of popular movements and protests.  This is also the case in countries in which the movement of change continued to develop, even if it did so at a rough pace, and countries experienced counter-revolutions in the form of military coups, the spread of chaos, and sectarian and tribal conflicts through repeated attempts to restore the status quo.  Even the countries that were not part of the first wave of revolutions seem to be prone to spontaneous social eruptions.  Is the region really advancing towards a new wave of change?  What are the political and geopolitical reflections of this wave of change, should it happen?
  • Mohamed Mahoub Haroon, Professor of Social Science at the University of Khartoum.
  • Hmoud Al-Olimat, Professor of Sociology at Qatar University.
  • Haoues Taguia, Researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.
  • Niccolo Rinaldi, Vice-President for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and a member of the European Parliament's Committee on International Trade (INTA).
  • Hamed Abdelmajed, Visiting Professor of Political Science at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Key points:

Mohamed Mahoub Haroon:  A number of factors contributes to instability in the region.
  • Urbanization:
    • Increased urban populations.
    • More cities.
    • Resulting in external migration when people can't find jobs.
  • Change in needs:
    • Country versus city.
  • Youthfulness:
    • See here for a discussion of the number of youth in the MENA region.  Fifty percent of the population is younger than 25 years old. 
    • Bulge in the number of younger people.
    • Links to other factors.
  • Retreat from isolation:
    • People are interacting with a wider world.
    • Creates higher expectations.
    • People want more political participation.
  • Markets:
    • Investors want stable situations.
    • Or, they invest in unstable situations.
In the Arab world, all these conditions will exist simultaneously yielding ongoing conflicts in the region.  People will continue to push for political, economic, and social transformation.

Hmoud Al-Olimat: People revolt for many reasons. The desire for dignity and social justice are two important reasons.

Revolt typically leads to a counter-revolt.  But, when people break the barrier of fear, they will continue to pursue their interests.  They are like "seeds."

Counter-revolt is typically worse and more harsh than the status quo ante.  Can ignite the next round of revolt.

The explosion in the youth population creates a need for jobs and a demand for social justice.

All the conditions exist for change in the Arab world.

High unemployment in the Arab region:

  • Engenders little hope for new entrants to the labor market.
  • Has created a "critical situation."
States should preoccupy their youthful populations with building their countries.

  • Otherwise, they will become radicalized.
Education is key. 

  • Born by poorer people. 

Haoues Taguia:

Two dynamics in play:

  • Needs of the population that must be met for education, jobs, housing, and medical care.
  • The state's inability to respond.
Push for change will increase:
  • About 358 million people in the Arab world.
  • Will increase to 468 million in ten years.
Youth expect a decent life.
  • 80 percent of wars happen where youth are 60 percent of the population.
  • Region is seeing 20-30 percent unemployment even for educated people.
    • 25 percent of those unemployed have advanced degrees.

If oil prices are less than $100/barrel, most Arab states cannot meet the needs of their people.

Arab countries have difficulty attracting business investment because they do not respect the needs of business people.
  • Look at how the Saudis used the Ritz Carlton as a prison.
The majority of Arab people do not trust their governments to deliver on their unfulfilled promises.

Speaker does not expect peaceful changes.  Is fear high enough to keep the peace?

Sectarian segregation makes it harder to create one opposition group.  Instead, we see more separatist groups along sectarian lines.

Seeing more intervention in the Arab region by other powers, including Russia and Iran.

Seeing a rise in populism in the US under Trump and in Europe.  Democracy is taking a second seat to security interests.  Western powers do not want to see another Arab Spring.  Too destabilizing for the region [and oil production].  Want stability even if it keeps authoritarian power in place.

Increase in regional violence points to:

  • The failure of the Arab Spring.
  • The efforts of ISIS.
Military, as governments, can not achieve economic development.  That is one reason they are eventually forced to turn over power.

People can't bear current situation.  Will get even more bleak in the future. 

But, few peaceful options for change exist.

Niccolo Rinaldi: No one predicted the Arab Spring or the war in Syria.  

Once change takes place, governments can halt it temporarily, but it can move forward again.  Change, however, can take time.

Reasons for social discontent exist given large youth population in MENA region.

States allocating very little money for research on the future.  Less than 2 percent in most countries.

No political space exists for change to take place easily.
  • Access to political arena is difficult.
  • Judicial power is limited.  Cannot assist change with law, orders, and fairness. 
So people create a space in the roads and on social media.

The EU is impressed by:
  • Youth who did not oppose older people, but protested with them.
  • Cross-border learning among protesters.
Opposition can reactivate quickly even if currently dispersed.

Need inclusive citizenship and rational policy.  Need institutionalized trust and optimism.

Hamed Abdelmajed: Economic and social factors are not enough to create change.  Political and institutional failures created conditions for the Arab Spring.  But, even these failures may not lead to revolutionary change.

The UN list of human rights includes:

  • Education
  • Housing 
  • Food
Loss of human rights may be a better predictor of revolutionary change.

We need to be more humble about predicting change.

Status quo will prevail in the Arab world for some unpredictable time.
  • International players support authoritarian governments.
  • Regional alliances support authoritarian rule. 
  • Authoritarian leaders will fight any effort to change governing systems.
  • Institutional memory of harsh counter-revolutions exists.
Accordingly, these circumstances create a dangerous situation.  Will lead to failure of more Arab states.  They will see more economic and social deterioration.  The military will not be able to control it.

Change could come if:
  • Military or security institutions are weakened in a state.
  • New tools for revolution evolve (social media or something else).
  • Groups with an established leadership coalesce away from authorities . 
President Obama supported the Libyan revolution expecting democracy to produce friends in the region.  But then, the rebels killed the US diplomats at Benghazi.

Public support exists for the Arab Spring, but political elite are more cautious because they were friends with the people overthrown.

The West wants to avoid the consequences of these conflicts:
  • Refugees.
  • Instability in the region.
  • Terrorist attacks.
At the same time, speaker does not agree that the West supported the counter-revolution. 

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