I am deep in grading week, and not likely to see sunlight any time soon. In the meantime, here's a guest post from Tamara Wittes, author of the new book Freedom’s Unsteady March: America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy. I might throw in some thoughts of my own later, but for now I turn it over to Tamara:
Guest Post: Freedom's Unsteady March
Tamara Wittes, Brookings
Marc’s kindly offered me some space to flog my new book, Freedom’s Unsteady March: America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy. The book is a two-part argument – why I think that, despite the failures of recent years, it remains in America’s interest to advance democratic reform in the Arab world, and how the United States can pursue that goal while protecting its other interests in the region. In this post, I’ll focus on the first part. I’ll begin, though, with the premise that the United States continues to have crucial national interests at stake in the Middle East, and will continue to engage in the region militarily, politically, and economically to advance those interests.
In brief, the argument is that global and regional trends have eroded the resiliency of Arab authoritarianism while presenting challenges that Arab governments are ill-equipped to solve. The analysis centers around three main tools that Arab regimes traditionally used to sustain their social contracts and sustain their rule: rents (from oil and strategic assistance), political ideology, and coercion. I argue that these three tools are all beginning to fail – they are either less available, less effective, or both.
The most important trend affecting Arab states, with far-reaching effects, is the so-called “youth bulge.” Hobbled by the legacies of a half-century of corporatist governance and state-dominance, Arab economies cannot grow fast enough to create enough jobs to absorb new entrants to the labor market – much less the already-unemployed. Oil rents may be high, but they are out of balance with the region’s demography, and they are not being well-used; new income is inefficiently and incompletely distributed through a network of ruling elites and regime supporters. At the macro-level, most of the region’s economies are growing – but income inequality is growing much faster. This is not China, where a rising tide is lifting all boats and bringing desperately poor people out of poverty – in the more populous states of the region, and the non-oil states, the tide hasn’t even lapped at most people’s hulls yet.
Governments know they need to restructure economies in line with the relentless demands of global investors, trade partners and lenders. They know that, given the demographics, they need to reform economically in order to stabilize politically, but – as today’s Egypt abundantly demonstrates – the political costs of these reforms are themselves too high and too destabilizing. So some governments are stuck, while others engage in half-hearted, start-stop cycles of reform that don’t achieve sustained growth. The state’s capacity to provide benefits to society, and to penetrate society in ways that suppress dissent and bind citizens to the state, is maxed out and beginning to decline.
If rents are no longer doing their job, neither is ideology binding Arab citizens to their governments. Arab nationalism’s decline is obvious; Palestine remains a highly salient issue for Arab citizens, but not one that motivates patriotic loyalty to the state – rather, allegiance to the Islamist opposition. With the decline of ideological legitimacy, government performance becomes a more important source of legitimacy and consent.
Coercion, of course, is still available to Arab states – but at a higher cost today, in an era of satellite TV, cell-phone cameras documenting police abuses and twittering bloggers reporting on their own arrest. The quick transfer of information exacerbates the impact of media and of international human rights monitors, putting more and faster pressure on Western governments to respond to abuses with protests and public criticism – a twenty-first century CNN effect.
The youth factor is also crucial in another way: young people define their aspirations in social and economic, as well as political terms – the ability to buy an apartment, to marry and have kids, all the other markers of normal adulthood. But there is a widening gap between young people’s aspirations for themselves and their real prospects. Arab youth are well aware of what opportunities their colleagues, even in other developing countries, have access to, and they know they are missing out. Plus, as some Brookings colleagues have pointed out, high marriage costs and high unemployment combine to raise the age at which young men can afford to marry and become full adults – Morocco’s average marriage age for young men has risen from 25 a generation ago to 32 today. This crop of unemployed, unmarried young men is an additional source of pressure on governments, and potentially a source of greater instability.
I don’t predict social revolutions in Arab states – their coercive resources are still significant, and many still have residual legitimacy. But I don’t believe that governments can formulate a coherent and lasting response to these pressures that does not involve either a wholesale revision of their power relations, or much-increased repression (perhaps ala Pinochet’s Chile – economic growth at a high societal cost). I think ramped-up repression is by far the likeliest outcome, and one that should be troubling to an American government concerned with the rise of regional extremism. Already, in the two years since the Lebanon War, Hassan Nasrallah has built up his lead as the most popular world leader in Egypt, according to my colleague Shibley Telhami’s polls. His narrative about the bankruptcy of Arab regimes – their humiliating deals with the United States and Israel and their deafness to their own citizens’ suffering – these are the tropes that America and its Arab allies must confront and seek to contain. We cannot do that without making liberalizing, democratizing reform a part of our agenda for US-Arab cooperation.
I recognize that this policy is easy to argue for, yet hard to do. The second half of the book discusses how Bush screwed it up; how the United States can try to make the case for democratic reform to recalcitrant Arab allies; how to prioritize; how to resolve conflicts between democracy promotion and other interests; and how to confront and resolve American worries about the prospect that Arab democracies necessarily mean Islamist victories. I hope you’ll give the book a look, and welcome your feedback at FreedomsUnsteadyMarch ... at .... gmail dotta com.