ARAB SPRING AT THE CROSSROADS OF POLITICS AND ECONOMY
June 15, 2012
The Arab world is going through a critical phase of its collective existence as the region is under the grip of a revolutionary fervour. The consequences are political springing from social contours in different countries. Economy is closely linked with all aspects of life be they political, social, cultural. In the Arab world dictatorial regimes not only tightly controlled the levers of power through the political manipulation and at their personal whims, but they had exploited whatever economic resources were available. The survey of the countries where the authoritarian regimes have been toppled reveals that the countries economically well-off were able to weather the storm of popular protests and the countries economically living at the margins could not withstand the onslaught of popular upsurge. It was December 17 2010 when in a small town of Sidi Buazid a young Tunisian graduate named Muhammad Buazizi had set himself on fire after having his fruit cart seized by a police woman on not being able to produce the permit. His self-immolation resulting from bleak economic prospects set the whole region on fire. Within a month of his act of ending his life Tunisian president Zine Al-Abidin Ben Ali who had been ruling the country for the last 23 years had to flea the country while giving up the desire to rule the land indefinitely. The success of Tunisian protest was replicated elsewhere in the Arab World. The wave of democracy is well on its way to devour the nonrepresentative rulers but at the same time economic factors which weighed against the authoritarian rulers pose a challenge to the democratically elected rulers in guiding the transition smoothly and successfully.
Unemployment is rampant and poverty still wide-spread in the Arab World and more so in the countries where the popular protests have resulted in the disappearance of the incumbent autocratic regimes. The challenge of transition to participatory political culture whose most potent symbol is free and fair democracy leading to elected government is further compounded by the prevalent economic malaise in the region. Unmet expectations and unfulfilled promises will put a heavy strain on the democratically elected governments as serious concerns are emerging already in Egypt and Tunis. The protests in Habib Bargiba square last month are a portentous development for the Ennahda-led democratic regime in Tunisia. People have begun to complain about injustices and luxuries and corruption of the sitting government officials and representatives. The town of Sidi Buazid which was the epicenter of the Arab Spring as it was here where Muhammad Buazizi committed suicide is simmering with manageable discontent as the residents complain of the polls being rigged to engineer the results. Next door Egypt is facing almost a similar situation as people began to show signs of impatience as they saw no qualitative change in their lives after the exit of Hosni Mubarak. Egypt has sensitive demographic mosaic having the distinction of the most populous country in the region and sizable Coptic Christian minority figuring 10 milllion-12 percent of the country’s population. Any unnecessary and unjustified delay in improving the lot of the people and pacifying their restive tempers is going to aflame the Egyptian landscape once again. Now the people have seen and tasted their power to stand up to an iron-fist ruler, so they would not sit back in the face of inaction of the government hwich owes its existence to them. The split mandate in the Egyptian presidential elections is an inkling of how divisive the nation is which is a sign of political awareness but a the same time can turn out to be bleeding wound given lack of consensus among the top players and unity among the masses. The verdict of Mubarak’s trial has stirred the discontent instead of pacifying that as people are not willing to pardon the iron man who lorded over them for three decades.
Now the countries which have the oil wealth and use it efficiently to keep the population contented with whatever political freedom they have. It is a classic case of buying people’s loyalty or at least keep them politically passive by using the state finances. The Arab states which have oil wealth have averted the raging tsunami of popular discontent unseating the long-ruling autocrats. They have for the time being kept their shores bulwarked against that tidal wave by pouring in the money to satisfy their populations. This is dangerous prescription as the current global economic meltdown shows no signs of receding hence these oil-rich Sheikhdoms would see their fortunes dwindle. Economic downturn wedded with social unrest may overtake the wisdom of the rulers of these countries and like their erstwhile comrades-in-arms they might have to lick the dust. Economic analgesics to keep people sedate politically is sure to bring some dividends in short term but in long term it is a recipe of disaster and it is this realization which needs to register with the regimes which can keep temporary calm over the storm which is about to blow. “Nothing is stronger than the idea whose time has come” says a French philosopher Victor Hugo, so the wealthy regimes in the Arab World have to realize in their own benefit and in the larger interest of the masses that economic fig leaf to cover up the volcanic eruption in political domain is doomed to fail.