Creeping toward globalization
Over 25 percent of the population in Arab countries lives below the poverty line, but these same countries have spent over $1.8 trillion on defense in the last three decades. These figures are trotted out whenever Arabs discuss globalization. But economic logic cannot be isolated from social and political life.
Two weeks ago, a friend who works for the Egyptian ministry of education had his job contract renewed. "Now I can stop working. My future is assured," he said. "If I had the money, I would join the demonstrators in Genoa and shout to the world to stop this globalization business. Actually, I don't care so much anymore. Me, they won't be firing. So whoever wants globalization is welcome to it."
The ironic tone is typical of this particular friend, but his remarks also tell us something about why the Arab countries are so afraid of globalization.
In Arab countries, the government ministries and public corporations account for over 40 percent of the job market. In Egypt, for example, there is a law that says once a public servant's job contract has been renewed once, he can no longer be fired except in the extreme cases. Even then, a person can go to court and join the long line of petitioners who may have to wait as long as 10 years for a verdict, but continue to receive their salaries in the meantime.
In the private sector, the situation is much the same. Laying off workers as an efficiency measure is so difficult that dismissal notices are sometimes built into the workers' contracts. "How can we talk about globalization when we sanctify localization?" wondered an Egyptian economist at a globalization conference held not long ago in Beirut. "The Arab countries hardly even trade between themselves. The talk about an Arab common market is just a slogan to keep the conferences going."
Globalization calls for competition, and competition calls for infrastructure, law and order, a liberal economy, proper administration, transparency and above all, the desire to be part of a global process. "What can we contribute to such a global process?" asked Mahdi al-Hafez, an economist who spoke at the Beirut convention.
"In the Arab world, only 36 percent of the population joins the work force. Women are virtually uninvolved in economic activity. Of the total global expenditure of governments on research and development, Arab governments contributed only 0.4 percent in 1998 and less than 0.2 percent in 2000. The universities allocate less than 7 percent of their budgets to research - and that is in the wealthy Arab countries. Over 25 percent of the population in Arab countries lives below the poverty line, but these same countries have spent over $1.8 trillion on defense in the last three decades."
These figures are trotted out whenever Arabs discuss globalization. But economic logic cannot be isolated from social and political life. "What do we want? Equitable labor laws, a decent minimum wage, non-exploitation of children. But none of this makes us economically competitive," writes an Egyptian economist. "International corporations prefer countries where wages are low and legislation is flexible. If we lay off 1,000 factory workers so that manufacturers are better able to compete on the global market, where will these workers turn? To the Muslim Brotherhood or other radical movements, whose sole interest is in toppling the government?"
In spite of such views, the concept of globalization is beginning to move from the realm of intellectual discourse into the work place, the factories and most importantly, the statute books. Over the last two years, new legislation encouraging investment has been approved in many Arab countries, and labor laws are on the agenda in several Arab parliaments. Human rights reports are starting to make more of an impact on Arab governments, and the public has also begun to wake up. Employers are being given more leeway in introducing efficiency measures and the privatization of enterprises once considered national assets is no longer taboo.
But all of this is being done in moderation, in a manner that will not exact too high a political price. The next question hovering in the air is whether globalization is possible without the surgical transplant of genuine democratic processes - not elections in which the outcome is known in advance and are only flaunted as democratic, but the creation of a true government of the people.