Change in the Arab World: Why Now?

February 21, 2011

What started in Tunisia is spreading like wildfire in the Arab world. With the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, popular demands for change in the rest of the region have gained great momentum. Given the long political stagnation in the Arab world, it is tempting to ask a simple question: Why now? What created autocratic stability in the past and what is creating such rapid change now?

In Western circles, one of the arguments explaining why the Middle East has been so resistant to democratic change was the Orientalist argument. In a nutshell, Orientalism is a culturalist and simplistic argument that can be summarized as “democracy is alien to the mindset of Islam.” Needless to say, Orientalism is easy to refute after a simple observation of facts in the Islamic world.

The social and political evidence on the ground does not uphold the argument that democracy and Islam are incompatible. Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Turkey contain hundreds of millions of Muslims who consider the right to vote as inalienable. Moreover, the repeated demands for human rights, political liberalization and democratic government in the Arab world in the 1980s and 1990s — demands that actually yielded contested parliamentary elections in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen — belie the concept of uniform hostility to democracy in the Middle East as well. Clearly, substantial numbers of Muslims support adoption of democratic procedures and institutions.

Yet, until recently these liberal segments of Arab societies did not have enough economic and political power to challenge deeply entrenched authoritarian states. If we follow this logic, we can conclude that socioeconomic developments affecting the middle classes accelerated political change. A brief look at European history may be informative. What we learn from the Western trajectory is that socioeconomic development precedes democratization. It was the Industrial Revolution and universal education that fueled the waves of liberalism and democracy in Europe. The emergence of a politically conscious middle class has been the key for democratization in Europe. Similar dynamics seem to be at play in the Arab world. A group of upwardly mobile, middle-class citizens developed a heightened sense of citizenship and political consciousness. Since these middle classes are taxed by the central authority, they insist that public officials be held accountable. In many ways, this middle class (or the bourgeoisie) constitutes the backbone of democratization and political liberalization projects.

Once this vanguard takes the lead, the larger cohorts of young people follow. The youth bulge has created a critical demographic mass of an unemployed, frustrated and bored young population in most parts of the Arab world. With the guidance of the more educated middle class, this youth is also behind what we are witnessing in the Arab world. Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter become critical here. Together with more traditional news outlets like Al Jazeera, such connectivity helps social and political mobilization. Simply put, information technology and globalization connect the politically conscious middle class with the frustrated youth.

Finally, in order to answer the question “Why is the change happening now?” we also need to understand the concept of relative deprivation: the gap between high expectations and diminishing opportunities. Breeding grounds for change emerge not necessarily under conditions of abject poverty and absolute despotism, but rather when negative social, economic and political trends converge. Absolute economic or political deprivation is not the real challenge in the Arab world. Instead, the more challenging dilemma is the absence of opportunities relative to growing expectations.

Such a focus on relative deprivation is important because deprivation is no longer an absolute concept in the context of globalization. Globalization creates an acute awareness about opportunities elsewhere. It is therefore the gap between expectations and opportunities that really matters. This leads to frustration, victimization and humiliation among growing cohorts of urbanized, undereducated and unemployed youth that are able to make comparisons across countries. In addition to socioeconomic deficiencies, the absence of political freedoms is also part of the problem. Improving educational standards without prospects of employment, or providing jobs without creating social and political outlets for participation, create a combustible mix.

Such dynamics fuel an even deeper sense of frustration because high expectations remain unmet. We are finally witnessing change in the Arab world thanks to the culmination of all these factors.