Authoritarian Bargain Collapses in Middle East

Egyptian complaints are not specific to Egypt, but symptomatic of problems affecting most of the non-oil exporting states in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which are the most vulnerable to Tunisia – and Egypt-style events.

What has happened in Tunisia and now Egypt is that the classic Arab authoritarian bargain has collapsed. For several decades now, Arab rulers have remained in power by giving citizens a generous set of social benefits (free education, government jobs, subsidies, and other entitlements), and in return, the public accepted severe restrictions on political life.

But since the mid-1980s two “shocks” undid that bargain. First, economic recession in the 1980s and early 1990s harshly affected MENA states which found that they could no longer afford to give everyone employment guarantees and other entitlements without accumulating large amounts of debt. Many economies in the region were forced to undergo some form of structural adjustment (as did many economies in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe at the time), but in the MENA region these reforms tended to be incomplete. As a result, most MENA countries were not able to expand their private sectors, and were not able to benefit from globalization the way many Asian and Latin American economies, for example, managed to do.

This left these countries unprepared for the second shock: the large-scale entrance of youth into the workplace. Because of rising fertility rates and falling mortality rates in previous decades, a large cohort of youth began to seek jobs in the late 1990s and 2000s. Their parents would have been given places in universities, government jobs, and a generous set of benefits. But the new generation received none of that, and as a result, their frustrations with the system have been building for over a decade.

Now many of the governments in the region, watching what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt, are trying to tinker with the old authoritarian bargain – ce King Abdullah of Jordan’s effort to open some political space by sacking his cabinet, President Saleh of Yemen’s efforts to increase public sector salaries and allow for more opposition activity, and of course, Mubarak’s own announcement that he will not seek re-election.

But it is too late for Mubarak, and possibly for the others.