The Arab Spring: An Organic Political Movement in the Middle East – [Part I]

Last week, PITAPOLICY featured an analysis on the relations between Egypt and Iran pre- and post- the Arab Revolution.  This week, we continue highlighting political and economic analysis of the Arab Spring.  This theme was also highlighted in this September 2012 post on the economic impact of the Arab Spring on Egypt’s economy.  In this two-part essay, Whitney Vejvoda analyzes political and economic factors that address the question: Is the Arab Spring an Organic Political Movement in the Middle East?

 The Arab Spring: An Organic Political Movement [PART I]

By: Whitney Vejvoda

Officially marked as beginning on December 18, 2010, the “Arab Spring” refers to the revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests that have occurred in the Arab world since the end of 2008. Catching the world by surprise, the Arab Spring is most notable for its contribution to the visibility of discontent within Middle Eastern states. And yet, while regional and international tensions have been building throughout the past couple of decades, it is domestic turbulence that most readily accounts for the events now taking place across the Arab region.

Argued here, is the notion that the Arab Spring represents, for the first time, a completely organic political movement created within the Middle East. Of course, there is acknowledgement to the external influences that have been critical to shaping local public opinion, but the emphasis here lies with domestic unrest, in particular regard to economic disparities that existed among civilians and served as a foundation for political instability. Thus, the nature of North African states’ neighborly relations will be discussed.

Beyond simply economics is the reality that some external powers have historically supported tyrannical regimes existing in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) states “in order to achieve their strategic objectives,” (Cavatorta, p 342). Indeed, it is noted that the United States accepted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s repression of political parties as well as Morocco’s continued lack of transparency in order to maintain important regional ties and trading partners (Cavatorta, p 360).

To make matters worse, MENA states have continually come under pressure of international monetary organizations and donor countries to structurally adjust their economies, resulting in increasing inequalities and growing poverty levels across the region (Jamal, p 213). The result is a legacy of resentment and suspicion that still resonates within the Maghreb states today.

Economic Costs of War

The economic costs of war have created political furor within MENA and the larger Arab World as well. As the “epicenter of geopolitical struggles for decades” as well as the site of “multiple protracted regional crises, including Israeli-Palestinian conflict, US occupation of Iraq, and struggles between various Middle East governments and armed opposition or secessionist groups” (Cammett, p 107) the Middle East faces a dangerous climate both politically and literally.

Existing in an environment of looming danger would be reason enough for many to become despondent with their situation – even enough to take part in a revolutionary overhaul.

In addition to the economic burdens of war is the near absence altogether of strong state economies in the MENA region. This has certainly been a force behind the tensions that erupted into the revolutionary overhauls of 2011 due to the formation of rapid urbanization of the developing MENA states. A shift from agrarian labor to urban labor meant a substantial influx of people from rural areas to cities (Moghadam; Decker, p 77).

Impact of Mass Immigration on Labor Markets and MENA Unemployment

The consequence of this mass immigration was that “labor markets [were] unable to absorb growing labor force,” instigating an expansion of the urban informal sector, income inequalities, and high rates of unemployment. The urban informal sector consists of that part of an economy which is not taxed, monitored by any form of government, or included in any gross national product (GNP), unlike the formal economy (World Bank, 2008).

Currently, unemployment in MENA states hovers at an average of 15% (Moghadam; Decker, p 79), while World Bank and ESCWA estimates project that the number of poor people in MENA increased from an estimated 60 million in 1985 to 73 million in 1990, or from 30.6% to 33.1% of total population, and continue to rise (Moghadem; Decker, p 80). In Egypt, nearly 23% live below the poverty line.

Contributing factors for this reality are linked to: a decline in intraregional labor migration; continued rural-to-urban migration; and lack of formal sector job growth (Moghadam; Decker, p 79). It is noted that while MENA states share a stereotype as “Arab, Muslim and conservative,” these countries “differ in their economic structures and state forms,” (Moghadam; Decker, p 65).

“Expansion of education was cornerstone of state-building efforts during post-independence period,” (Moghadem; Decker, p 83), and indeed, the importance that education plays in the advancement of society as a whole cannot be understated. And yet, “despite advances in access to education, the region is facing concerns about education inequality, increasingly stretched resources, and the relevance of available education for the imperatives of globalization”. Thus, while it is noted and celebrated that literacy rates have risen, the developments of education have been uneven: reinforcing inequalities such as those based on gender and socioeconomic class (Moghadem; Decker p 84). While these inequalities exist, there is limited potential for the working poor to rise above their current standard of living, and the result is a shrinking middle class and growing sector of the working poor.



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