Behind the Failures of the Arab Spring

After 10 years, Tunisians seem to have given up on democracy too as the economy sinks deeper into the doldrums

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Billboard showing Kais Saied, Kairouan, Tunisia, July 2022
Billboard showing Kais Saied, Kairouan, Tunisia, July 2022Credit: KABIL BOUSENA - AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

We’ve been saying Kaddish for the Arab Spring for so long, it’s hard to believe there is anything left to mourn. One after the other, the great hopes that arose in the early months of 2011 as one autocrat after another was toppled were dashed by the emergence of new autocrats (Egypt) or by chaos (Syria, Libya and Yemen).

Yet Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s birthplace, had soldiered on as a troubled democracy but still a democracy. But last week it too took the first steps toward a return to dictatorship, after Tunisians voted to approve a new constitution that strips away most of the country’s democratic rules and institutions and turns its president, Kais Saied, into something not far short of a dictator.

Tunisia’s democracy was fragile from the start. It suffered from political deadlock, corruption and ineffectiveness. But the main reason it failed is that Tunisia was never able to build the kind of economy that could give democracy a firm foundation.

Under democratic rule, Tunisia’s economy stalled, with GDP growth falling from 4.6 percent annually in the five years before Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled to 1.8 percent in 2011–2015 and 1.6 percent before COVID struck, barely faster than the rate of population growth. The unemployment rate was 16.1 percent in the first quarter of this year, not much lower than the 18 percent on the eve of the revolution. The best and the brightest were fleeing to better opportunities abroad.

The working assumption of many who believed in the Arab Spring is that political change had to come first and that the economy would follow.

It wasn’t an unreasonable point of view. The economies of the Arab world were beset by corruption, crony capitalism, and big, inefficient governments imposing burdensome regulations. Once the people were in power, governments would act to fix these problems, bringing peace and prosperity.

The thesis was never put to the test in Syria, Yemen and Libya, where the revolt against autocracy quickly turned into chaos and civil war. Nor did it really have a chance in Egypt, where the democratic era came and went within a little more than a year. Tunisia, on the other hand, started off the democratic transition quite promisingly and, despite all the problems along the way, held on for more than a decade.

Activists clash with riot police in Cairo, Egypt, to challenge President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, January 2011Credit: Ben Curtis / AP

But its multiparty system and regular elections did not result in progress toward addressing corruption or undertaking serious economic reforms. Instead, the country’s new leadership was focused on containing extremism and violence. Also, the new democratic constitution enacted in 2014 gave the labor unions and other interest groups who had been suppressed under Ben Ali the freedom to press their claims. Public sector pay ballooned, the economy was paralyzed by strikes and old monopolies remained intact.

Failing to move forward with reforms, the government kept the economy afloat as best it could by running bigger deficits, taking on more debt and turning to the international Monetary Fund for bailouts. Government spending wasn’t directed toward investment but rather toward consumption and social spending.

The fact is that there are few poor, low-growth countries lacking a dynamic private sector that support democracies over a sustained period, though India is a big example of exactly that; Costa Rica is a smaller one. More often democracy has ensued after dictators committed to growing and developing their economies eventually bring about democratic rule.

That was the history of South Korea and Taiwan, and might have been the story of China had Xi Jinping not chosen to reverse course and clamp down on the few rights and freedoms the Chinese did enjoy.

However, the downside for dictators who do encourage economic growth is that they are at risk of creating a middle class and powerful entrepreneurs who will want a say in how the country is run.

That may have been Xi’s concern – that the Communist Party was at risk of losing its monopoly on power and social control, in particular to China’s high-tech giants. Apparently Xi has decided that power is more important than prosperity and so followed the crackdown on Chinese big tech and the fearsome COVID lockdowns.

In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman is trying to create a dynamic economy led by the private sector without ceding an iota of political power. If he succeeds , he’ll run into the same dilemma in 15 or 20 years’ time.

One way a dictator anxious to see his economy grow mitigates the risk of a powerful business establishment emerging to challenge his control is to hand over the business sector to his friends and family.

That was the modus operandi of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubabak in Egypt and the Assad family in Syria. In Ben Ali’s era, politically connected firms (most belonging to his wife’s family) had captured 22 percent of private sector profits the year before the resolution even though their businesses employed just 1 percent of the workforce.

Korea and Taiwan had their crony capitalists, too. But instead of using their connections with the state to create protected monopolies serving the local market, as those in the Middle East have done, their cronies built export industries that

competed in foreign markets where their home-country autocrats couldn’t fix things for them.

The result was years of sustained economic growth with prosperity trickling down to large parts of the population and a dynamic business sector. Since World War II, that has been the way poor countries grow rich – and then become rich enough to sustain a democratic system. It’s no coincidence that the International Monetary Fund’s list of 39 advanced economies includes no non-democracies.

It’s not that the Arab world lacks visionary autocrats, like Crown Prince Mohammed or the late Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates. The election of Kais Saied in 2019 reflected the hope of Tunisians that an outsider could free the country of the corrupt and greedy politicians.

Saied may yet surprise us, but all the evidence to date suggests that he fits the mold of the typical regional autocrat, obsessed with power rather than prosperity. Saied could turn out to be a lose-lose proposition of no democracy-no prosperity.

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