Up Front

Web Chat: Turmoil in the Middle East

Raj M. Desai

On Feburary 23, Raj Desai took your questions about the underlying causes of the expanding defiance in the Middle East and the collapse of the “authoritarian bargain” in the region during a live web chat moderated by POLITICO.

Seung Min Kim: Hello, everyone. Brookings expert Raj Desai is here today to talk about the underlying causes of the unrest in the Middle East and northern Africa and the implications for the U.S. Thanks for joining us, Raj.

12:30 [Comment From Marcus J.: ] What do you mean by the collapse of the “authoritarian bargain”?

12:33 Raj Desai: Usually, the term “authoritarian bargain” refers to the social contract between dictators and citizens, in which citizens give up some political rights in exchange for economic security. The reason that this bargain is collapsing in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is that the failure of countries to reform economically in the past has meant that they have not been able to remain competitive, or create jobs. With the large-scale entrance of youth into the labor force, unemployment and underemployment has risen quickly in recent years, the bargain is collapsing because some MENA dictators have been unable to fulfill the economic side of the “bargain.”

12:38 [Comment From Peter: ] Can you comment on the relationship between civil unrest in north Africa and the Middle East and food shortages arguably being driven by climate change? In a larger sense, how is a changing climate affecting instability throughout the world?

12:38 Raj Desai: Food shortages and rising food prices have, historically, caused plenty of (mostly urban) unrest–going back to the French Revolution and the “Springtime of Nations” in 1848. Food shortages–as well as shortages in general–obviously played a major role in growing discontent with central planning in Eastern Europe and in the USSR in the 1980s. In the Middle East (and elsewhere) food price hikes seem to have fed into a wider set of growing frustrations against long-tenured governments, and may have been one of the proximate causes of the protests.

12:41 [Comment From Mark, Greenbelt: ] Did this all start in Tunisia? Was there a single, triggering event?

12:41 Raj Desai: Actually, it may have started in Iran in 2009. There, of course, a youth-led uprising was brutally suppressed. But it showed many nations the potential power of youth in numbers, as well as the usefulness of internet-networking platforms. And in Iran, young people faced many of the same problems that young people faced in Tunisia: long wait-lists for public-sector jobs (that were once guaranteed), long periods of unemployment, etc.

12:43 [Comment From Guest: ] so you don’t think it’s about the demand for political rights in the first place or the desire to recover human dignity as citizens?

12:43 Raj Desai: I don’t think one can look at demands for political rights in a vacuum. It is an integral part of the Arab social contract, however. And we have seen that, in the past when Arab economies were suffering from austerity or economic problems, rulers have released the political “pressure valve” by allowing more political freedoms. But during better times, these rights have inevitably been taken away.

12:46 [Comment From Karin: ] Does the collapse of an authoritarian bargain apply to Iran, where surely there is a failure to provide economic security to all citizens?

12:46 Raj Desai: I think there is little question that the authoritarian bargain is under severe strains in Iran, and may in fact be collapsing. But note that some regimes–especially the more “totalitarian” states like Iran (and perhaps Libya)–can survive a long time through a combination of repression, limited political reforms, and wily leadership that capitalizes on factionalism, sectarianism, tribalism, etc.

12:53 [Comment From Caitlin Dearing: ] If the primary reasons for this turmoil are jobs, corruption and accountability, what kinds of US policies can be used to address these issues in the short-term?

12:53 Raj Desai: U.S. economic policies–including trade and investment–have been geared towards natural resource sectors, while foreign aid has been used as an extension of U.S. foreign policy in the region. All of this is understandable given security/energy needs of the U.S., and the vital role that regional allies have played. This is not to say that the U.S. has perpetuated authoritarianism in the region, but certainly U.S. assistance was one of the factors that enabled leaders like Mubarak to survive as long as he did in office without undertaking serious economic or political reforms. Your question about what the U.S. can do NOW, however, is vital. As the U.S. (and the EU) did in Eastern Europe and in the former USSR following the collapse of central planning, it is imperative to provide both economic assistance contingent on reforms that (1) diversify the economies of these countries and (2) promote competitiveness and innovation (and job creation), as well as institution building. This is not a simple task, and there may be many disappointments (and reversals) in the road ahead. But it is important to create incentives for governments to sustain needed reforms.

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12:56 [Comment From Benjamin Green: ] Did the authoritarian bargain start during the colonial era in these countries? or does it pre-date colonial rule?

12:56 Raj Desai: The authoritarian bargain is really a post-colonial phenomenon. Following decolonization, countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya,Tunisia, etc., adopted an “interventionist” approach to economic development and planning–some have called it “Nasserism” but it has much in common with national economic planning in many other developing nations. In the Middle East, this also involved significant redistribution of wealth–via job guarantees and subsidies. So the “bargain” was really created as a result of the developmental model adopted in the 1960s.

12:58 [Comment From John Hogarth: ] Everyone is talking about restoring human rights and building democracies, but is there any real experience of either in the region? Isn’t it more likely that new strongmen will arise to take control, as in the past?

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12:58 Raj Desai: That is certainly a possibility, but there is plenty of historical experience of countries that had poor human rights or democratic records (e.g., Romania, Indonesia, etc.) adopting reforms that made major steps. A “break with the past” is certainly necessary.

1:02 [Comment From Chavdar: ] What are the chances of the Saudi monarchy to have serious problems with youth-propelled protests?

1:02 Raj Desai: Several questions have been asked about Saudi Arabia, and the implications of these Arab uprisings for Saudi citizens. Saudi Arabia (and some of the other monarchies) seems to be one of the countries in which the degree of wealth redistribution remains high enough to satisfy most of the population. That is not to say that there are not plenty of economic grievances. But the subsidies, grants, job guarantees, etc. seem to be in place in Saudi Arabia. In addition, the political power of a dominant religious group means that any threats to the monarchy may be perceived as threats to the religious identity of the Saudi state. Having said that, it is likely that King Abdullah, witnessing what has been going on around him, will engage in limited political liberalization so long that it does not threaten the regime.

1:03 Raj Desai: Thanks to all for such great (if very complicated) questions.

1:03 Seung Min Kim: And thank you as well. Have a nice week, everyone.