Inspired by their Tunisian soul mates, Egyptian demonstrators have adapted the same slogans from the original French – “Mubarak, degage,” or “Mubarak, push off” – and have used the same technologies, Twitter and Facebook.
The question is whether the fire of the Tunisian revolution will take hold in the region, or be rapidly extinguished by formidable police power. Will Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution prove to be the Arab region’s “Gdansk moment”– the birth of the Polish Solidarity trade union movement on Aug. 31, 1980 that set off a chain of events ultimately culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade later?
A lot can happen in 10 years. Liberation from the oppressive suffocation that the Arab world has endured for decades need not be an impossible dream. But given the entrenched nature of the regimes, their propensity for violence, an Arab awakening may prove to be as turbulent, if not more so, than the collapse of the Soviet empire.
How to explain the seething masses and stultifying Arab economies? When it comes to the transformations, China, opting after the death of Mao to “embrace” globalization, has emerged as a global leader. India, Vietnam, Brazil, Peru and South Africa are among the countries that chose a similar path. Arab countries, by mostly staying out of the global process, earned the epithet: “the orphans of globalization.”
Violent protests also erupted in Yemen last week. Yemenis are not only among the most impoverished and most oppressed among Arab countries, but also the most fertile. Today the population stands at 24 million, reaching 40 million by 2030 and 50 million by 2045. As much of the world ages, in 2045 the average age in Yemen will be 18. What’s happening in the Arab world may be a “digital revolution,” but it’s certainly also a “demographic revolution.”
By virtually any indicator, excluding oil, the region’s global integration is weak. For example, 80 million Egyptians export less than 14 percent of what 68 million Thais export. The 89 million Vietnamese only recently rejoined the global economy and their exports are more than double Egypt’s. The 6 million people of the United Arab Emirates account for more than 50 percent of total Arab League exports, excluding fuel. Ten out of the 21 members of the Arab League are not in the World Trade Organization, and others like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., have only recently joined.
Foreign direct investment is small. There are a number of reasons, not least that the region has not regionalized, let alone globalized. Cross-border investments and trade between Arab League members are minimal. There is no Arab market.
Weak global integration refers not just to economics, but also to culture. More books are translated for 11 million Greeks than into Arabic. Whereas in the 1960s there were some 3,000 books published annually in Egypt, the number has dropped to 300. This penury is ironic as Abbasids in Baghdad once translated into Arabic all the Greek and Latin classics, saving them for posterity. The first United Nations Development Program Arab Human Development Report, published in 2002, compiled by Arab thought-leaders, highlighted three shortfalls – in freedom, knowledge and womanpower.
Being the orphans of globalization does not mean the region is independent of the outside world. Most Arab countries have a high proportion of populations living and working abroad, in Europe, the Gulf and North America – for example, 6 percent of Tunisians live in France. Hence, the region’s economies are highly dependent on remittances. Tourism and foreign aid are also vital. All this reinforces the notion of the Arab region as a passive actor on the receiving end of the global economic stage.
The Arab region bifurcated from many other countries and regions in responding to globalization late last century. As Lebanese author Saad Mehio commented: “while the rest of the world geared up to join the march of globalization [after the end of the Cold War],” the Arab region experienced “more political oppression, more intellectual and cultural stagnation, and more economic and social despair.”
There are a lot of “orphans” and most are young – 65 percent of the population of the Arab League is under 30. Youth unemployment rates are exorbitantly high – as high as 75 percent in some countries like Algeria. While the informal economy provides partial compensation, this does not provide security.
When asked their greatest ambition, up to 40 percent of young Arabs reply: to emigrate permanently. Pervasive corruption and cronyism are more oppressive than the lack of political freedom. A bright former Egyptian student of mine explained why he was settling permanently in the U.S. He was a Copt – roughly half of whom are believed to have left Egypt – and from a lower middle-class family, hence lacking connections to advance. Multiply that loss by millions, and one gets a sense of human capital flight from the region.
The forces for political change are strong and mounting, emerging mainly from young Arabs and facilitated by the digital revolution. The Tunisian revolution may be the harbinger of change from within and by civil society, and may inspire forces in other authoritarian stagnant regimes, most recently Egypt. The regional political atmosphere remains tense, to put it mildly. Arab leaders are not normally peacefully ousted at the ballot box. Following Tunisia, more unrest and revolution may come, from which democracy may emerge.
What would an Arab awakening look like? The political repression of the opposition and the ideological void provide fertile ground for the Islamists. Close connections between big business and dictators, huge amounts of wealth acquired by elites, have tarnished liberal capitalism. Therefore, many fear an “Iran scenario.”
There are alternative models, even among predominantly Muslim countries. The political transition in Indonesia is encouraging. Malaysia has managed the balance between economic growth, multiethnicity and politics reasonably well. But the most relevant model and partner for the Arab region is Turkey. The combination of moderate political Islamism with a liberal market-oriented economy and the rise of new entrepreneurs transformed that country from a political and economic backwater for much of the 20th century to an increasingly global dynamic player in the 21st.
Europe can play a constructive role by favoring the forces of awakening rather than siding with the forces of repression as France seemed to do in the early days of the uprising in Tunisia.
In the last century when dictators still ruled in southern Europe and standards of living were low, the gap between north and south Mediterranean was narrow. In the last 25 years, however, the gap has become a deep chasm as the north democratized, prospered and globalized, while the south stagnated, or, in some cases, regressed. By cozying up to dictators, Europe must bear its share of responsibility; Europe could, indeed should, play a constructive role in narrowing the Mediterranean chasm.
But ultimately, the initiative must come from the Arabs themselves. As the world is painfully aware with Iraq, attempts to bring about regime change by foreign invasion result in mayhem. Just as the courageous Tunisians took to the street, inspiring the army to stand back, so must similar scenarios emerge elsewhere in the region. The Arab awakening is not an impossible dream. In Tunisia, and now Egypt, we may be seeing early glimmers of hope.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is a professor of international political economy at the International Institute for Management Development and a founding director of the Evian Group. This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright © 2011, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.