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Outcomes from the Turmoil

February 23, 2011

A friend who lives in England commented on my last post about the chances of western-style democracy taking root in the Gulf countries. I’m abandoning the string by reproducing his comment here:

Thanks for this, Steve. I imagine of all the people I know, you must be the best informed about these matters. We’re all focussing on the Arab states at the moment, but I see this as a great global shift and there’s evidence that places like Iran and China will also have to face the consequences of the kind of universal awareness the internet has brought about. The outcome remains disturbingly uncertain. – it’s a classically chaotic situation we’ve all been thrown into, and although we all hope good may come of it, I get the feeling that Western leaders must be feeling somewhat nervous about the practical implications of this big word “democracy”. How fast can the world catch up on the centuries of socio-economic development that were a prerequisite of democracy in the West?

I certainly don’t consider myself to be the best-informed on these issues of all the people I know! But here are some further thoughts in response to Andrew’s comments.

In my opinion, the desire for democracy has not been the primary driver for the unrest in the Middle East. What has led most people onto the streets is a sense of personal grievance, rooted in poverty, inequality, corruption, oppressive policing and inability to speak freely. These grievances have crystallised into specific demands: the rule of law, freedom of speech, changes to constitutions, and in some cases the replacement of leaders. Democracy then appears to be the best way to satisfy those demands. So the cycle is grievance, demand, solution.

Egypt seems to be conforming to that model. In Libya an intermediate step seems to be in the offing. Because Gadaffi and his clan are inextricably woven into the fabric of govenment, the likely outcomes are bloody repression that successfully restores the status quo, or the whole edifice of government being blasted away.

I worry when people talk about moving to a “greater degree of democracy”, because you could argue that by a strict set of criteria you either have democracy or you don’t. Minor variants in the genome of democracy can result in the political equivalent of differences between homo sapiens and the gorilla. Some would say “give me the gorilla any time!”

Concerning China and Iran, I posted some thoughts on the prospects of serious change in those countries a couple of weeks ago. I took the view that popular protest would be unlikely to deliver change in the short term. But perhaps I underestimated the people of Iran. And even in China we have seen nascent protests. To those two countries you could also add Russia, Belarus and North Korea as candidates for change. But all these countries have been prepared in the past to use extreme violence in supressing dissent.

So will the events of 2011 turn out to be the equivalent of the “Wave of Revolutions” of 1848, which rippled through Europe and even extended to Brazil? What Andrew wrote about was not just the phenomena but the outcomes. The most recent set of political earthquakes in Eastern Europe had mixed results. The collapse of communism in the former Iron Curtain states has by and large led to more benign and enlightened systems of government in many of those countries, but integrating them into Western political and economic structures has led to strains in Europe and beyond. In Russia, the political progression since the end of the Yeltsin presidency been towards a more authoritarian structure of govenment under Putin and Medvedev.

As for the fall-out from the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, one of the more immediate effects seems likely to be pressures on the borders of neighbouring countries. We have already seen a flood of Tunisians arriving in Lampedusa. Expect a similar exodus of Libyans fleeing the violence. Should unrest spead widely among the Gulf states, it is also possible that we will see a repeat of 1991, when some of those states expelled a number of other Arab nationals, notably Yemenis and Palestinians, whom they considered a threat to the established order. Since many Arab countries rely heavily on remittances from expatriates in the Gulf states, such actions could exacerbate the economic problems in the home countries. These days though, it would be a hard decision to work out who is or is not a threat, so I think this is unlikely to happen.

Long term, who knows? I stick with my opinion that the best way to create stability in the region would be to establish a regional development fund dedicated towards social and economic regeneration in the neediest countries. I wrote a post about this last month.

Looking at the wider implications, yes, Western leaders will be worried, but instead of simply reacting to events, they would be sensible to have Plans A, B and C up their sleeves.

After the events of the first two months of this year, nothing that follows will surprise me. But personally, I’m excited by what is happening. If current events end up improving the lives of 300 million Arabs, I can only see positive outcomes for the rest of the world. One man’s fortune doesn’t have to be another’s pain.

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