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The Arab Spring: Dumping Dictators Doesn’t Make for a Revolution

David Rosenberg
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graffiti depicting silhouettes of a man metamorphosing into a bird symbolising freedom, in Mohamed Bouazizi Square in the centre of the town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia on October 27, 2020
Graffiti showing silhouettes of a man metamorphosing into a bird, symbolizing freedom, central Tunisia on October 27, 2020Credit: FETHI BELAID - AFP
David Rosenberg

Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who unwittingly set off the Arab Spring a decade ago, is unlikely to have had any ideas about revolution, the state or society. But, when he set himself ablaze in the small town of Sidi Bouzid after an altercation with a policewoman about where he could set up his fruit cart, he was sending a double message – one a protest against arbitrary and oppressive authority and another against the lack of economic opportunity.

Bouazizi couldn’t have imagined how his protest would spread across Tunisia and much of the Arab world, toppling dictators and setting off wars that are still being fought to this day.

It’s no secret that one thing the Arab Spring didn’t do was to bring democracy or economic prosperity to the region. However, if there was one place where it has come the closest to the first of these goals – it's Tunisia itself.

Tunisia today may have a flawed democracy, but by every reasonable measure, the country has a democratic and free society.

The economy is a different story. There, Tunisians don’t feel there’s anything to celebrate.

Under the corrupt and dictatorial Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisian economic growth had averaged 4.7% annually in the decade to 2010. In the decade that followed under democratic rule, it shrank to 1.8%. Unemployment was a high 12% before the revolution; today it is a higher 15% and in the poorer parts of the country it can reach 30%. Government debt has jumped from 41% of gross domestic product to more than 70%.

Democracy and prosperity were supposed to go hand in hand. The autocracies that characterized the Arab world before the Arab Spring were not only oppressive but corrupt, incompetent and self-serving. The idea was that if you cleared away the Mubaraks, the Assads and the Gaddafis, the Arab world would employ its new-found freedoms to remake the economy and society.

As theories go it was simplistic. Some of the best-run countries in region, such as Israel’s new pal the United Arab Emirates, are in effect dictatorships. The ones that are the freest politically are economic disasters (Lebanon) or laggards (Kuwait, despite its vast oil wealth).

It's not the democracy, stupid

What Tunisia discovered is that democracy and freedom aren’t a panacea. Politicians wrote a progressive constitution and built an unusually inclusive political system that gives representation to Islamists and their opponents. Its leaders even won a Nobel Prize five years ago for their efforts at reconciliation. But those same democratic leaders couldn’t get the economy moving.

Instead, to curry favor with voters, they allowed the public sector to grow and grow. State-owned companies lost a combined $2 billion last year. The government-owned phosphate company increased its payroll to 30,000 from 21,000, yet its share of Tunisia’s exports has fallen from 10% to 4% Tunisair, the state-owned airline, employs 8,000 people to run a fleet of 27 planes.

Tunisia’s problem, like everyone else’s problem in the Middle East, is human capital. Except for a handful of lucky countries whose geological history left them afloat on huge pools of oil, the region has few of the kind of natural resources that in the old days could get a country started on the way to economic development through industrialization. But, as Israel demonstrates, in the 21st century you don’t need those kinds of riches. You don’t even need great government as our tattered political system and notoriously inefficient bureaucracy demonstrate.

Protest next to the White House, by Libyans and Syrians against the regimes of Moamer Kadhafi and Bashar al-Assad.April 9, 2011Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM - AFP

Except for a few Gulf oil states with the power to buy their way to the upper ranks, the Middle East scores very low on the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, which measures the knowledge, skills, and health that people accumulate over their lives. Israel leads the region with a score of 0.73 followed by the UAE (0.67), Bahrain (0.65) and Oman (0.61), but then the scores start sinking (even Saudi Arabia does no better than the West Bank and Gaza at 0.58).

In short, the Middle East’s problems don’t start at the top with corrupt leadership but at the bottom with masses of people that have neither the education nor the mindset to participate in a global economy that rewards entrepreneurship, innovation and achievement. The region has very low rates of new business startups and ranks low globally on technology smarts. More than most other parts of the world, the Middle East is resistant to integrating women into the workforce.

In retrospect, the Arab Spring only made things worse: Countries such as Syria and Libya were once at least functioning are now battlegrounds. But even that shouldn’t be a barrier. East Asia, which is now the world’s economic champion, had been buffeted by war, revolution and human disasters perpetrated by communist regimes in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet a decade later they were on their way to becoming tigers. While South Korea and Taiwan did it while transitioning to democracy, others like China didn’t.

The Arab world’s problem is that it is relatively easy to oust a dictator but it’s much, much harder to change the fundamental nature of society. The Gulf states are trying to do it by spending and reforming, but the results are at best mixed. Revolutions are supposed to be catalysts for change, but anyone who believes that hasn’t read his history books carefully. Those hoping for a new and improved Arab Spring that delivers democracy and human rights should think again.

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