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Arab world: the seeds of a new Spring

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By Andrew England and Heba  Saleh

Drastic reduction of state subsidies, inflation, unemployment, repression, galloping population … All the factors of the explosion of 2011 are still there. And are getting worse.

“Friends were shot dead next to me, in front of me and behind me,” Soghayer recalls as he recalls the turbulent days of 2011. The Tunisian security forces then tried, with live ammunition, to crush the mass demonstrations that were taking place. have come to terms with the brutal regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Deciding that long-oppressed peoples stand up against their autocratic and corrupt regimes, the events in Tunisia were the catalyst for the Arab Spring.

Yet seven years later, Soghayer, a graduate struggling to make ends meet with the 6-8 dollars earned in a coffee shop every day, has returned with thousands more on the street. At the origin of anti-government protests last January: the reduction of fuel subsidies and higher taxes on cars, the internet and telephone calls.

Against revolution
For many, these austerity measures are only the latest illustration of the bullying suffered by the popular classes on the part of the ruling elite. […] Soghayer’s anger expresses a common reality in North Africa and the Middle East, afflicted by the world’s highest youth unemployment rate, but also by too rapid population growth.

Algeria and Jordan experienced smaller social movements but also motivated by rising food prices and cuts in public spending.

Without the emergence of a new economic and political discourse, an avatar of Daesh
These bouts of fever are an expression of general disillusionment among those who expect their leaders to respond to their demand for a more equitable system that generates jobs, individual freedoms and prosperity. This same hidden anger catalyzed the 2011 uprisings in the region, provoking conflict in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and making the bed of extremist groups, like Daesh.

The latter is now retreating after the loss of his strongholds in Iraq and Syria. But experts warn: the failure of governments to renovate failed systems – which, for decades of stability, have combined decades of repression and state largesse – represents an even greater threat to the long-term stability of the region.

Untenable status quo

“Without the emergence of a new economic and political discourse, a Daesh avatar will resurface,” said Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian Foreign Minister and Vice President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“These [social fractures] are the central problem. Unfortunately, few leaders have a cure. If they continued to ignore them, we could witness a new Arab Spring, more radical and violent than the first. No one can say when it will take place, as no one knew how to predict the outbreak of the first. But the status quo is no longer tenable. “

Few Arab countries have been spared from the 2011 uprisings. Some, like Morocco, have enacted some reforms. But most came back to tried and tested recipes to muzzle the unassuming populations: allowances and repression. But in the Middle East, the traditional social contract – state subsidies financed by petrodollars against the limitation of political freedoms – is eroding.

It was better before the revolution, life was cheaper, today everything is priceless. And I have been out of work for two years
After a prolonged period of declining oil prices, instability and economic stagnation, governments are facing fiscal deficits and increasing dependence on foreign debt. They are required to cut public aid, which has played a role of social safety net but which engulfs one-third of government spending.

The experts point out that these reforms were highly anticipated, but that they are implemented in a volatile context characterized by the intensification of the feeling of injustice among a young, urbanized and better informed population. Many Arabs feel that their lives have worsened since 2011. “It was better before the revolution, life was cheaper, today everything is priceless. And I have been out of work for two years, “says Mourad Zaabouti.

The Tunisian example?
This 34-year-old Tunisian lives with his mother and survives thanks to his father’s pension. “I had faith in the revolution, but nothing changed. Tunisia, however, is the only Arab country that can claim to have engaged a democratic transition after the 2011 uprisings, while others have experienced only escalations in repression. But economic success has not kept pace with Tunisia’s political progress, which remains handicapped by unemployment affecting 25% of young people and by striking disparities between relatively prosperous coastal areas and the interior.

In 2016, Tunis signed an agreement with the IMF for a $ 2.8 billion loan to relieve its budget, under pressure. But this loan was conditional on the implementation of painful reforms, including the austerity measures that caused the January protests.

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in a coup in 2013, thousands of people have been arrested and 450 websites closed in a dynamic that Human Rights Watch describes as “the savage repression of form of dissent “.

The Saudi case
In Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince has taken a multi-layered approach to reforming an oil-dependent economy and a coffin-to-casket allowance system. The 32-year-old dolphin sought to seduce young people by promising a more tolerant and open society. It has also attempted to reduce the fiscal deficit by reducing public service benefits, raising fuel prices by 127% and introducing a value-added tax.

Yet, even if any dissent was stifled, Mohamed Ibn Salman is on a tightrope. Just days before the introduction of a 5% VAT and higher fuel prices, Riyad anticipated the grievances by giving state employees a monthly increase of $ 267 for one year.

Even if the Saudi heir achieves its goals, the next generation, competing for private employment, will have to moderate its wage and bonus requirements. According to the IMF, two-thirds of Saudis are employed by the state, and the public sector wage bill amounts to 10 percent of GDP.

“We are coming to unknown territory,” says Khaled al-Dekhayel, a former professor of political sociology. If the economic contraction gets worse, then everything is possible. Will the government take into account the popular sentiment? It’s possible. Otherwise, he may experience difficult political times. ”

A plague named unemployment
For Ragui Assaad, Egyptian professor of planning and public affairs at the University of Minnesota, the region owes its misfortunes to the conjunction of weak private sector, unable to absorb new job seekers, and more demanding requirements. unemployed, whose level of education has risen. “It was believed that the private sector would become a provider of quality jobs after the downturn. Which just has not been the case, he says.

Foreign investment has not materialized, and domestic investment has focused on very secure sectors, such as real estate, which do not generate quality jobs. Building alone accounts for more – often informal – jobs than the mining, services and industry sectors combined. The Egyptian population has exploded – 96 million people today, against 69 million in 2000 – and the number of university graduates is around 500,000 per year.

The job of governments is to attract investment in job-creating sectors, such as industry
“Educating young people is also raising the level of their demands. And when they face the impossibility of satisfying them, it generates a lot of frustration and anger in them, continues Assaad. Unemployment in the region is not the result of job destruction, but of the impossibility of finding one. After waiting for years, the aspirants end up working in the informal economy. ”

Repression can only hide such resentment, he says: “The risk is that discontent increases and mechanically hardens the repression. ”

“Popular rage”
The IMF is aware of the danger. In January, Christine Lagarde alerted the Arab countries on the need to accelerate job creation. “The popular discontent, which manifests openly in some countries, recalls that more urgent actions are needed,” warned the director general of the fund, pointing out that 27 million young people would enter the Arab labor market during these years. next five years.

The job of governments is to attract investment in job-creating sectors, such as industry. To lower the fiscal pressure, the IMF advocates more targeted “social protection programs”, such as replacing the generalized subsidy system and paying premiums to the poorest.

But Muasher, the former Jordanian minister, insists that economic reforms will only be effective if accompanied by political changes. “You can not have autocratic systems and hope at the same time as your economy progresses,” he says. Nobody talks about complete freedom and total democracy overnight, but if you demand more economic sacrifices from the people, you have to allow them certain political expressions. ”

The maintenance of the status quo will ultimately lead to new disorders, he is convinced. “The degree of anger rises constantly … Popular rage will reach a critical level. “