Is Tunisia the Beginning?

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Is Tunisia the Beginning?

As time passes, post-independence Arab leaders continue to accrue political and economic failures. There are 22 Arab countries, which are 10 percent of world countries (220), with five percent of the world’s population and they also constitute 50 percent of undemocratic states in the world. Although they are home to five percent of the world’s population, their contribution is no more than 3.8 percent of world production, including in the energy sector. These figures are no surprise since Arabs only adopt the superficial aspects of modernization and reject its core.

Research in the political economic of development shows countries that are less institution-based (which are commonly less democratic) are more biased and corrupt. They are also less astute in their development policies and hence less able to achieve their goals. This undermines their ability to convert material capital (such as oil, land and water) into monetary and financial capital. The same is true in terms of human capital (education, health and administrative achievements), and in turn to overall progress.

Oil-rich countries, for example, which possess immense economic resources are unable to transform these into socio-economic progress in the same way that more democratic, institution-based states have with fewer natural resources. Imagine someone owning millions of pounds in cash but he and his family live in poverty like those who have no income, with little education, and suffer from illnesses that are treatable. They do not know how to convert their monetary capital into education, health and social capital.

According to the UN Human Development Report issued in 2008, the GDP per capita in Saudi Arabia (calculated as his purchasing power, not as a sum at his disposal) is around $14,000 per annum, while human development in Saudi Arabia (i.e. health and education) was around 77 in a 100 scale. On the other hand, the GDP per capita in Ecuador was $4,000 per annum, but Ecuadorian society is at the same level as Saudi Arabia in terms of human development. In fact, China with a population of 1.25 billion is also at the same level as Saudi Arabia in terms of education and health, while the average purchasing power of the Chinese is less than half that of their Saudi peers.

During the process of converting monetary capital into socio-economic and human capital much is wasted, which squanders society’s potential and hinders the state from capitalizing on its resources. Looking at Egypt as another example, one finds that the average purchasing power of a citizen is nearly $4,200 annually, but Egypt is only at 70 on a 100 point scale of human development. This is almost the score of Bolivia, although the average income of the citizen there is only around $2,800.

Is this a surprise? Unfortunately, no. In Arab countries, it is often reported that residential buildings are constructed then shut down; a parking lot is torn down as soon as it is built; construction of a ring road abruptly comes to a halt when incompetent officials “suddenly” discover that it penetrates historic sites. Better yet, the North Coast in Egypt which is 1,700km long and covers an estimated area of 72,000 sq km (note that Egyptians currently only live on 40,000 sq km), could have enabled a vast number of Egyptians to live in real cities similar to Alexandria. Instead, the area houses holiday resorts which are only used for three months of the year, and then locked up with no added economic or social value for the rest of the year.

Dr. Rushdi Saeed described the Toshka Project as “entirely mistaken”, while Dr. Farouk Al-Baz argued that it is “difficult to sustain permanent life there”. So far, the project has cost LE6 billion which could have been spent on something more beneficial and worthy.

It is not only about Egypt, but the Arab body is truly ailing with political diseases which are familiar to political scientists. This gives rise to questions about the extent of their legitimacy and competence to rule.

Any stable country is characterized by the following: independence, sovereignty, legitimacy, stable authority and developmental policies. Some Arab states lost their independence through occupation (Palestine, Iraq); others’ sovereignty is eroding because of civil war or terrorism (Sudan, Yemen); and the legitimacy of some states is linked to oppression of the opposition (Gulf states). Meanwhile, some countries are challenged because the state is unable to meet the needs of the people, which enables law breaking and defiance (Egypt); and finally, there is a race to protests, civil disobedience and strikes (Tunisia, Algeria and possibly elsewhere). This all implies that development policies, if successful, are not associated to equal distribution.

What about the future? In a previous article I noted that any incident (such as a rebellion or disobedience) is based on causes (and I assume they exist because of real injustices against a large sector of Arab youth resulting from unemployment, corruption, blatant discrepancies in income and wealth). But they also require permissive conditions and the absence of prohibitive ones, which is a formula that is gaining momentum by the day.

It is obvious that the suicide of the Tunisian young man Mohamed Bouazizi, and the ensuing show of sympathy for him and his cause, was the start of an expanding circle of awareness by Arab youth about the existence of alternatives to frustration and submissiveness, which is disobedience and possibly aggression.

This reminds us of the famous phrase which the rebels used against Ceausescu in Romania, when one old woman responded to the soldier threatening to kill her: “Kill me; you can’t kill us all”. Protestors spontaneously began repeating the phrase as if it were an anthem, and the soldiers came to realize that killing the woman would be futile because behind her stood thousands of protestors who will become more aggressive if any of them are killed.

In reality, this phrase is the essence of the victory of any popular movement seeking to change reality, because it implies three things at once. First, for the ruling authority it means that physical violence is no longer a deterrent; second, for the protestors it eliminates the possibility of “free riders.” The protestors assert they are all for one, and any harm to one is harm to all, and in time protests spontaneously snowball. Third, hesitant sympathizers have an incentive to participate in the rebellion because there is safety in numbers.

I recall a statement by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in which he said that Arab leaders have failed their people. The facts on the ground are proof of his words, and it appears that large sectors of Arab youth are finally convinced of this statement.

Tunisian turmoil has added another item to the menu of possible reactions to oppression, despotism and developmental failure.

Moataz A. Fattah is an associate Professor of Political Science, at Cairo University and Central Michigan University. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

This article was originally published by Middle East Online.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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