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A New Approach to Stalled State Transformations in Iraq and Yemen

A New Approach to Stalled State Transformations in Iraq and Yemen

Chatham House in this research paper titled Between Order and Chaos: A New Approach to Stalled State Transformations in Iraq and Yemen, Dr Renad Mansour, Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House (@renadmansour) and Peter Salisbury, Senior Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme (@peterjsalisbury) say that International policymakers have failed to stabilize states such as Iraq and Yemen, partially because of the assumed binary distinction between state failure and success. This paper advocates for a ‘middle–out’ approach that aims to strengthen the connectivity between the bureaucracy and de facto authorities.

The Summary of this paper dated 9 September 2019 is reproduced for all intents and purposes below and the paper can be read online or as a Download PDF (opens in new window)

  • In the Middle East and North Africa, a growing number of internationally recognized (de jure) states with formal borders and governments lack de facto statehood. Often, governance vacuums are filled by alternative actors that perform state-like functions in place of, or alongside, weakened official institutions. This results in hybrid orders where the distinction between formal and informal actors in the state is blurred, as too are the lines between the formal, informal and illicit economies.
  • International policymakers have struggled to establish political settlements in these contexts. Would-be state-builders have mistakenly assumed a binary distinction between state failure and success. They have sought to recreate an idealized archetype of the ‘orderly’ state, critically failing to recognize the more complex networks of de facto actors on the ground. At times, international policymakers pick or support leaders who lack local legitimacy, capability and power. This stalls and fragments ongoing organic state transformations, and produces hybrid orders as de facto actors adapt by both capturing state institutions and creating parallel ones.
  • We propose a new model for understanding the fragmentary transformations of the state underway in Iraq and Yemen. It involves the concept of a multi-layered state, consisting of the executive, the formal bureaucracy, the de facto authorities and society at large. The gap in legitimacy, capability and power between the middle two layers in this model – the formal bureaucracy and the de facto authorities – is a critical source of instability and an impediment to reform. Bridging that gap is thus the key to effective peacebuilding and/or state-building.
  •  This paper argues that all states lie along a chaos–order spectrum. No state is entirely chaotic or orderly. Even those that display many features of chaos – as in Iraq and Yemen – contain pockets of order that are all too often overlooked. The larger the gap between the formal bureaucracy and the de facto authorities, the more a state slides towards the chaos end of the spectrum. Effective state-building must find a way of institutionalizing improvised governance arrangements.
  •  To achieve this, we advocate a ‘middle–out’ approach that aims to strengthen the connective tissues between the bureaucracy and de facto authorities. Simplified, this more inclusive approach entails reframing international involvement as playing the role of a ‘referee’ to monitor the transformations of the state while enforcing accountability, as opposed to the practice of picking ‘winners’ and integrating unfavoured actors into unpopular political settlements.
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Conflict Economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen

Conflict Economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen

Chatham House Reports of one of its Middle East and North Africa Programme elaborates on the still on-going conflict economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The excerpts of the published Executive Summary reproduced here below do not include its Recommendations for Western policymakers, etc.

Conflict Economies in the Middle East and North Africa

By Tim EatonDr Renad Mansour, Peter SalisburyDr Lina Khatib, Dr Christine Cheng and Jihad Yazigi

Image source/description: Cover image: A petrol pump near Harf Sufyan, Amran governorate, Yemen, February 2014. Copyright © Peter Salisbury

The conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. In seeking to explain the violence that has struck the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) over the past two decades, analysis to date has focused predominantly on ideological and identity-based factors. This report expands this discourse by incorporating approaches adopted from the literature on the political economy of war to examine the conflict economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Economic motivations, at the individual and group level, are key to understanding the wars in these countries, yet have tended to be overlooked in the MENA context. (As the wars have progressed and evolved, the national and local economies in which conflict is embedded have also changed.) Such motivations can offer an alternative or complementary explanation for armed group membership and armed group behaviour. While some groups will fight to promote or defend a particular identity, others fight for economic survival or enrichment. For many more actors, these motivations are tied together, and separating out ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’ is a difficult, if not impossible, task. Even if economic motivations did not spark the wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen initially, it is clear that such factors now play a critical role in the persistence of open fighting, localized violence and coercion.

The objectives of this report are twofold. First, it seeks to develop a framework for comparative analysis of conflict economies at the local level in the MENA region. Traditionally, the idea of a conflict economy has been tightly linked to the funding for arms, ammunition and fighters. Further, most analyses of conflict economies are conducted at the national level. Even where research is conducted on a regional basis, discussion of the impact of conflict is brought back to the national level. In contrast, we see a broader political economy of war at work in the region. Our analysis illustrates how a conflict economy is embedded within a complex local socio-political system, in which many variables and agendas interact. We deliberately avoid characterizing conflict economies in terms of ‘black’ and ‘grey’ markets that somehow need to be ‘cleaned up’, as this erroneously implies that they can eventually be converted into licit markets like their peacetime counterparts.2 A more nuanced and multifaceted reading is essential. For the purposes of this report, we define a conflict economy as a system of producing, mobilizing and allocating resources to sustain competitive and embedded violence, both directly and indirectly.3

Second, we show that a ‘political economy of war’ framing offers new approaches for reducing competitive and embedded violence. ‘Competitive violence’ can be defined as violence ‘deployed by warring elites to contest or defend the existing distribution of power’.4 Fighting between rival armed groups for control over resources and rents, among other things, usually falls into this category. ‘Embedded violence’, in contrast, underpins ‘how a political settlement5 works, as the deals agreed between elites may revolve around who has the “right” to use violence’.6 In practice, this could mean that one group is ‘permitted’ to use violence against another group – and no punishment will be enforced. In the context of this study, the use of armed force to assert the status quo to limit the number of ruling elite members is one example of embedded violence.

Conflict sub-economies

Analysis of conflict economies has mostly focused on state-level dynamics.7 However, less attention has been paid to the development of conflict sub-economies that are specific to certain types of location. This study demonstrates three distinct types of conflict sub-economy: (1) capital cities; (2) transit areas and borderlands; and (3) oil-rich areas. Our analysis highlights how each sub-economy creates distinct location-based patterns of resource production, mobilization and allocation to sustain competitive and embedded violence. The rents available in these areas vary. In capital cities, rents focus on control of the distribution of revenues and assets from the state and private sector. In transit areas and borderlands, rents centre around taxation and arbitrage. In oil-rich areas, rents are related to control of the area itself (and therefore the ability to levy taxes upon the oil sector), bearing in mind that the level of achievable taxation depends on the extent to which a given actor controls the supply chain.

As this report will elaborate, factors specific to each sub-economy type play a role in conditioning the nature of economic activities in each locality, and in determining whether and by which means violence is dispensed. For this reason, national-level generalizations and in-country comparisons of conflict economies are inadequate: for example, the conflict sub-economy of Baghdad has more in common with that of Tripoli than that of al-Qaim, an Iraqi town on the border with Syria. In turn, the conflict economy observed in al-Qaim has more in common with that of al-Mahra in Yemen than al-Mahra does with Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.

Read more on the original document or download its PDF 873 KB.

Read more on Countering War Economies in MENA and on:

Solar Power bringing Fresh Water to Yemen

Solar Power bringing Fresh Water to Yemen

VAT and oil prices being amongst the main factors in any debates in most parts of the GCC countries with the number of job vacancies advertised for professionals increasing being the hottest. As Middle East stocks enjoyed a buoyant July with Qatar and the UAE making gains, and differing domestic catalysts enabled most regional bourses to advance. While Saudi stutters as put by local media, in the UAE property business, supply outpaced demand because there is plenty of with more retail space still planned even as rents fall, and vacancies are up. Furthermore, start-up funding in the UAE received more than in Saudi Arabia and Egypt that managed growth according to a local analyst. In the meantime, in Oman, the insurance sector is optimistic with its Capital Market Authority (CMA) that announced last month a decision to introduce a mandatory health insurance system for private sector employees. Banks help Kuwait stock market gain some optimism with profitability boosted by rising interest rates and increased economic activity from some relatively modest rise in oil prices.  

Solar Power bringing Fresh Water to Yemen

It is against this background that despite the on-going war, the United Nations Migration Agency, has made steps towards helping the supply of fresh water using solar power. It is elaborated on in this article posted on July 11, 2018 by the IOM in its well known theme of Community Stabilization.

Secretary of Amanat Al Asimah in Sana’a, Yemen officially inaugurates IOM’s Solar Water Initiatives. Photos: IOM/Saba Malme


Solar Power Delivers Water to Tens of Thousands of Yemenis

Sana’a – IOM, the UN Migration Agency, yesterday (10/07) handed over a large-scale solar power water project to the Government of Yemen that is helping to deliver approximately one million litres of water daily to 55,000 people in a country facing chronic water shortages.

Power generated by the 940 solar panels installed on three schools in Amanat Al Asimah and Sana’a Governorates began pumping water to residents of the neighbourhoods of Shu’aub, Al Madinah Al Syahya, and Sho’ob two weeks ago.

IOM’s solar power water project in Yemen, where 90 per cent of the population lacks access to sufficient water, aims to provide conflict-affected communities with alternative methods of accessing clean water. Many people are forced to use unsafe sources of water, which is a clear contributor to the recent cholera outbreak.

Solar energy, collected through photovoltaic (solar) panels, powers deep water pumps and water supply systems. This method cuts dependency and the high recurrent costs of fuel-based technology. An estimated 150,000 litres of diesel and 500 tonnes of carbon emissions will be saved annually due to the environmentally friendly water system in Sana’a.

The project provides essential water supply in places where supply and prices of fuel and other basic commodities are greatly affected by the ongoing conflict and are erratic at best.

Hamoud Obad, Governor of Sana’a, and Abdalah Al Hadi, the Deputy Minister of the Water and Sanitation Authority joined Stefano Pes, IOM Yemen’s Head of Emergency, Transition and Recovery at the official ceremony Tuesday in Sana’a.

This initiative is supported by the United States Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the Government of Germany. IOM plans to expand this project throughout Yemen to contribute to the sustainable solarization in the country.

For more information, please contact Saba Malme at IOM Yemen, Tel:+ 967 736 800 329; Email: smalme@iom.int

 

Iran’s army sets up hospital in capital as virus toll climbs

Iran’s army sets up hospital in capital as virus toll climbs

The recent pandemic is sparing no country around the world. It is confronted in a variety of ways that are fundamentally tied to each country’s specificities. Iran’s army sets up hospital in capital as virus toll climbs by Amir Vahdat and Joseph Krauss could be a solution that if generalised throughout could not only bring results. It could shorten the hardships of all current healthcare facilities efforts of the neighbouring countries.

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran announced another 144 deaths from the coronavirus on Friday and said thousands more were in critical condition as the military completed work on a 2,000-bed field hospital in an exhibition center in the capital.

Iran has reported nearly 2,400 deaths among more than 32,000 cases. Iranian officials have repeatedly insisted they have the outbreak under control despite concerns it could overwhelm the country’s health facilities.

Iran’s army sets up hospital in capital as virus toll climbs
People in protective clothing walk past rows of beds at a temporary 2,000-bed hospital for COVID-19 coronavirus patients set up by the Iranian army at the international exhibition center in northern Tehran, Iran, on Thursday, March 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

In Yemen, meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development began scaling back aid efforts in areas controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels over their resistance to allowing measures that ensure aid goes to those who most need it. Yemen has yet to record any coronavirus cases, but an outbreak in the war-torn country could be catastrophic.

Iran’s military said the new facility, which includes three units and several isolation wards, was set up in just 48 hours. It will be used for patients who are recovering from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.

State TV on Thursday quoted Gen. Ali Jahanshahi as saying the hospital has been handed over to medical staff and will begin receiving patients next week.

Most people infected by the virus only experience mild symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within a few weeks. But the virus can cause severe illness and death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems. It is highly contagious and can be spread by otherwise healthy people showing no visible symptoms.

The virus has infected more than half a million people worldwide and killed more than 24,000. More than 120,000 people have recovered, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the region. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour announced the latest deaths on Friday, bringing the total number of fatalities to 2,378 amid 32,332 confirmed cases.

He said nearly all of the approximately 2,900 newly confirmed cases are in critical condition. More than 11,000 people have been released from hospitals, according to the ministry.

Authorities have urged people to stay home but have not imposed the sweeping lockdowns seen elsewhere in the region.

Iran has been under severe U.S. sanctions since President Donald Trump withdrew his country from Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers. The U.S. has offered humanitarian aid to Iran but authorities have refused.

Earlier this week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, refused American aid and seized on a conspiracy theory that the United States created the virus, something for which there is no scientific evidence.

Hundreds of Iranians have meanwhile been sickened or died from drinking methanol in the mistaken belief that it offers protection from the virus. Word of fake remedies has spread across social media in Iran, where many are deeply suspicious of the government after it initially downplayed the crisis.

Lebanon, which has reported 391 infections and seven deaths, will impose a nighttime curfew starting Friday. The country of nearly 5 million has been under lockdown for two weeks, with only essential businesses allowed to remain open, a measure that will remain in place for at least another two weeks.

Israel, meanwhile, has seen a surge in infections in recent days. It has reported 3,035 cases and 10 fatalities, mainly older patients with pre-existing conditions. The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has reported 84 cases.

Authorities in the Gaza Strip, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Hamas militant group seized power there in 2007, have reported nine cases.

Gaza’s health care infrastructure has been severely eroded by years of conflict and isolation. A major outbreak in the territory, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians, could be extremely difficult to contain.

Another major areas of concern is Yemen, where the Houthis have been at war with a Saudi-led coalition for five years. The war has killed more than 100,000 people, displaced millions more and driven the Arab world’s poorest country to the brink of famine.

A USAID spokesperson said it was suspending nearly $73 million in aid “in the face of long-standing Houthi interference in humanitarian operations.” The Houthis control the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen, areas home to 70% of the country’s population.

The spokesperson said USAID will continue to provide life-saving assistance in areas at risk of famine. It will also support U.N. flights, water and sanitation programs which are essential to preventing the spread of the virus. It will also continue providing aid in southern Yemen.

The spokesperson spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in keeping with regulations.

The Houthis have long sought to divert aid to their fighters and supporters. Last year, the rebels blocked half of the U.N.’s aid programs and resisted efforts to expand biometric registration and other measures to ensure aid was delivered to civilians.

But Samah Hadid, director of advocacy for Oxfam Yemen, expressed concern that USAID’s pullback could leave the country even more vulnerable to the pandemic.

“With the start of the rainy season, we are projecting that Yemen could face over one million cases of cholera this year,” she said. “Coupled with coronavirus, this would spell a catastrophe for Yemen.”

___

Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem, Maggie Michael in Cairo and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

Read more on the above-linked APNews original document and all the following related topics.

Why do Arabs dream of leaving their homelands?

Why do Arabs dream of leaving their homelands?

A popular question these days more than ever before would be “Why do Arabs dream of leaving their homelands?“. The answer could be something to do with their environment, climate and internet networking.


High unemployment rates, oppressive regimes and a desire for better education are some of the reasons cited by Arabs who express a desire to leave their countries.

The Arab world has seen a lot of its youth move in search of better opportunities for employment, freedom of expression, in addition to escaping from social and cultural norms they find oppressive.

According to an August 2019 poll by the Arab Barometer company, titled “Youth in the Middle East and North Africa,” the daily living situation in the region is far from ideal.

Noting that youth between the ages of 15 to 29 comprise about 30 percent of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, the Arab Barometer finds a significant number of them dissatisfied with their economic prospects.

They are also not happy with the education system. Moreover, “less than half say the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed”. Then there’s the high unemployment rates and widespread corruption.

This is why, Arab Barometer suggests, youth in the MENA region are more likely to consider emigrating from their country than older residents. The preferred destinations are varied, including Europe, North America, or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Another survey by Arab Barometer, titled “Migration in the Middle East and North Africa,” published in June 2019, notes that across the region, “roughly one-in-three citizens are considering emigrating from their homeland.”

The surveys were conducted with more than 27,000 respondents in the MENA region between September 2018 and May 2019 in face-to-face interviews.

According to the Arab Barometer’s findings, there had been a decrease in people considering emigrating from 2006 to 2016. Yet since 2016, the trend is no longer in decline but has shown an increase “across the region as a whole.”

The Arab Barometer finds that citizens are “more likely to want to leave” if they are young, well educated and male. The survey has found more than half of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 in five of the 11 countries surveyed want to leave.

While older potential migrants are more likely to cite economic factors as the primary decision, the survey suggests, younger ones “are more likely to name corruption, for example.”

As for the desired destination countries, they vary according to the homeland of potential migrants. Among those living in the Maghreb countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, Europe is the favoured destination. 

Whereas migrants from Egypt, Yemen and Sudan point towards Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The survey has also found that those from Jordan or Lebanon prefer North America, notably the US or Canada.

The survey also notes that while most would only depart if they had the proper paperwork, young males with lower levels of education who may not see a positive future in their homeland have said they would be willing to migrate illegally, “including roughly four-in-ten in six of the 11 countries surveyed.”

In a blog post for Unesco’s Youth Employment in the Mediterranean (YEM) published in January 2020, Sabrina Ferraz Guarino observes that “Migration is a coping mechanism based on the assumption that moving to another country is the best and most efficient investment for their own and one’s family future” and that improving people’s lives in their home countries will likely result in less desire to migrate.

Guarino says the unemployment rates in the Mediterranean region affect youth the most: “Unemployed youth are the highest in Palestine (45%), Libya (42%), Jordan (36.6%) and Tunisia (34.8%), while Morocco (21.9%) and Lebanon (17.6%) fare relatively better.”

She adds: “Viewing this together with the share of the youth that is not in education, employment or training (NEET), reveals how the challenges of youth employment remain self-compounding. The youth NEET rates tally around 14% in Lebanon and 21% for Algeria, but progressively increase across Tunisia (25%), Jordan (28%), Morocco (28%), and Palestine (33%).”

In its MENA report published in October 2019, the World Bank says growth rates across the region are rising but are still below “what is needed to create more jobs for the region’s fast-growing working-age population.” 

The World Bank recommends reforms “to demonopolise domestic markets and open up regional trade to create more export-led growth.” Source: TRT World

Related:

Reactions to the Coronavirus Outbreak in the Middle East

Reactions to the Coronavirus Outbreak in the Middle East

What Have the Reactions to the Coronavirus Outbreak in the Middle East Shown? Wondered Michael Young citing four members of the middle Eastern elites on yet another challenge that the region is confronting.


Souha S. Kanj | Professor of medicine, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases, chair of the Infection Control and Prevention Program at the American University of Beirut Medical Center

The events related to the coronavirus outbreak are evolving quickly around the world. The situation in the Middle East is probably more complex than elsewhere. The countries of the region are a mix of rich and poor states, with variable GDPs and health infrastructures, and are frequently characterized by political instability and tension. War and violent conflicts have weakened health infrastructure in many countries. The influx of migrants through borders has contributed to healthcare related challenges. The region also has geopolitical and economic ties to both China and Iran, which recently appeared as the epicenters for the COVID-19 outbreak in the region.

There is a striking variation in the number of reported cases by country in the Middle East. Underreporting is thought to be prevalent, whether due to an unwillingness, and sometimes a lack of preparedness, to perform accurate testing. Syria, for example, has not reported any cases, despite its close ties to Iran. Its fragile health system is likely incapable of detecting and responding to the epidemic. The same applies to Yemen.

Some countries in the Middle East have raised the alert level during the past week by imposing school closures and other measures of social distancing. The Saudi authorities have cancelled the Umrah pilgrimage and access to Mecca to nonresidents until further notice. Some Gulf countries are requiring visa applicants to produce a negative test for COVID-19. Other countries are still reporting few cases. In Iran, the response was slow, suggesting an unwillingness to report cases before the country’s elections. Mortality among infected patients in Iran seems to be among the highest after China.

There is little to suggest that Middle Eastern countries have joined efforts to address this global viral threat. The Arab League has remained silent. No meetings have been announced to discuss the evolving situation. Arab countries in the Middle East have so far missed an opportunity to overcome political divisions and closely collaborate to contain the spread of the virus in the region. It might not be too late to engage in coordination, especially from the wealthier states, to provide technical, material, and financial assistance to their neighbors.

Amir A. Afkhami | Associate professor of psychiatry, global health, and history at George Washington University, author of A Modern Contagion: Imperialism and Public Health in Iran’s Age of Cholera.

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Nothing illustrates this more than the series of baffling policy decisions by Iran’s leadership that have resulted in the largest outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the region. Despite advances in the biomedical sciences and infectious disease control in the past century, the Iranian government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been hobbled by ideological, religious, and economic concerns.

Other countries in the Middle East have followed suit, often prioritizing their non-medical domestic and foreign policy interests in establishing travel bans, quarantines, and other forms of public health precautions. These religious, political, and economic determinants of infectious diseases hark back to the pre-World War I period in the region. Devotional visits to shrine cities and burials at holy sites played an important role in the dissemination of pandemic outbreaks in the Iranian and Ottoman Empires throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, political, economic, and religious interests often took precedence over public welfare in the way quarantines, travel bans, and disinfection policies were established within the empires and on their frontiers. This shows us that historic social and political forces continue to shape the impact of contagions on the peoples of the Middle East.

Basem al-Shabb | Former Lebanese parliamentarian, American Board in general and cardiothoracic surgery

The response to the COVID-19 epidemic in the Middle East has followed the usual script in the region for dealing with calamity. Whereas human suffering invites cooperation in other places, in the Middle East it seams to accentuate cultural and sectarian tensions. As reports of cases were trickling out of Iran, the authorities engaged in denial. Only recently did the Syrian Health Ministry confidently state that there were no known cases in Syria. In Lebanon, flights from Iran, the epicenter of the epidemic, continued unabated and screening at the airport was instituted rather late in the game. Throughout the region, there is an undercurrent of sectarianism. While Iran wrestles with a massive epidemic, Egypt has reported only a few cases and, interestingly, Turkey has reported none. There is hardly any cooperation or exchange of information on COVID-19 among the countries of the Levant.

The epidemic has also touched on religious sensitivities, with some churches in Lebanon insisting on pursuing communion using a single utensil. There is no doubt the coronavirus has brought out the usual regional reactions of denial, delayed responses, myth-mongering, sectarianism, as well as conspiracy theories.

Bader al-Saif | Nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his research focuses on the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula

The coronavirus outbreak is a potent reminder that the Middle East is no different than the rest of the world. The outbreak has reinforced preexisting tendencies in the region, where it is no secret that systems are largely broken. It has further exposed governmental weakness, evidenced in ambiguous, inconsistent policies. Crisis management and transparency are largely lacking, and so is the faith of citizens in governments’ ability to protect them. Political considerations have triumphed over necessary health directives in various states, putting citizens at further risk, whether by allowing the continuation of flights from high risk areas, such as Iranians traveling to Lebanon, or deferring necessary testing, as in Egyptians traveling to Kuwait. There are notable exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia, where the state has managed the outbreak of the coronavirus and peoples’ reactions to it.

Responses have ranged from denial to fear. Some assume the virus is a conspiracy theory, while others are misinformed about its nature. The virus has also justified racist slurs. With most of the Middle East contracting the virus via Iran, the anti-Iran camp has condemned Iran’s irresponsibility and poor services (ignoring the impact of U.S. sanctions), with some even suggesting that the virus is a Shi‘a phenomenon aimed at infecting the Sunni-majority Middle East.

There has been a third, more measured response among less ideological people. These include business owners, who are concerned about the economic impact of the outbreak; expatriates barred from returning to their homes due to travel bans; families who do not want their children’s education affected by prolonged breaks; and sensible policymakers who have sought to jointly coordinate responses. The outbreak has reminded Middle Easterners of their shortcomings. They patiently are awaiting a breakthrough that would end the coronavirus outbreak, so they can redirect their efforts to addressing other problems long plaguing the region.

Syrian refugee crisis jeopardises the future of millions

Syrian refugee crisis jeopardises the future of millions

Or how The fragmented politics of the Syrian refugee crisis jeopardises the future of millions by Juline Beaujouan, University of Edinburgh and Amjed Rasheed, Durham University.


The Syrian province of Idlib, the remaining holdout of rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has experienced fierce fighting in recent months as the Syrian army, supported by Russia, has pushed to reclaim the territory.

Meanwhile, the expansionist impulses of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in north-west Syria brought Turkey into direct confrontation with Assad’s forces in Idlib and exacerbated tensions with Russia. A ceasefire was agreed in early March, but tensions in the region remain high.

Even before the military escalation in Idlib, the Turkish attack on Kurds in north-eastern Syria in October 2019 had added a layer of complexity to the conflict. Now the recent assaults on Syrians in Idlib have led to the exodus of an estimated 1 million civilians. UN officials said it was “the fastest growing displacement” they had ever seen in Syria.

Many people fled to Turkey, already home to around 3.5 million Syrian refugees. On February 29, Turkey opened its border with Greece, apparently to put pressure on Europe to support its operations in Idlib.

Sadly, this wave of migration is only the latest flashpoint in the worst humanitarian crisis since the horrors of the second world war. But even this crisis, with thousands now stuck in no-man’s land on the Greek-Turkish border, hasn’t triggered a way through the regional and domestic blockages that have prevented an end to the bloodshed in Syria. This is something we’ve written about in a new book on the Syrian refugee crisis.


Read more: Tensions mount at Greek border with Turkey amid contested history of migration in the Aegean


Regional inertia

Since 2011, the humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis have spilled over several Middle Eastern countries. But there has been no collective, regional response – largely because of political fragmentation and competition for power.

One striking illustration of these dynamics is the inertia of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The two organisations have repeatedly failed to provide effective responses to regional issues such as the turmoil in Yemen and Libya or the rise of extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. The Syrian refugee crisis, and more recently the situation in north-west Syria, are no exceptions.

The Arab League has limited its intervention to support for efforts by the international community to mitigate the impact of the refugee crisis. As for the GCC, its actions were overshadowed by an internal rift and the involvement of Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the Syrian chaos. This means that the humanitarian burden has continued to be borne by countries that host Syrian refugees.

Some may have expected Arab solidarity in the face of a crisis that emerged in the context of wider Arab uprisings. Yet even in the Arab countries that have hosted the bulk of refugees from Syria, such as Jordan and Lebanon, the government and people distanced themselves from their Arab brothers as the crisis became protracted.

The national borders in the Middle East that were drawn up after the first world war still remain contested by pan-Arab, pan-Islamic and pan-Kurdish movements. Nevertheless, the Syrian refugee crisis showed how these borders and national identities are powerful drivers of everyday politics.

A crisis politicised

The stance of the governments in Jordan and Lebanon towards the Syrian conflict shaped the countries’ refugee policy. What started as a policy of open doors evolved from 2014 when restrictions were imposed on Syrians entering and staying in both countries. Jordan and Lebanon then began to cooperate with the international community to mitigate the refugee crisis in early 2016, and eventually began to actively encourage the return of refugees to Syria in 2018.

Syrian refugee crisis jeopardises the future of millions

Lebanon’s ruling elites capitalised on the humanitarian crisis by portraying the Syrian refugees as a security threat. Pro-Assad political parties Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement used this narrative to undermine anti-Assad political forces in Lebanon, namely a party called the Future Movement. This, in turn, created a sense of urgency which encouraged the flow of foreign aid into the country in an attempt to bring stability. But this foreign aid fed corruption.


Read more: Syrian refugees remain trapped and marginalised by Lebanon’s power-sharing politics


The media has also played an important role in shaping the perception of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon by circulating a twofold government-sponsored narrative about the crisis. On one hand, this narrative tried to reassure Lebanese people of a sense of normalcy and fostered patience and societal strength. On the other, the government framed the refugee crisis as an emergency to convince international donors to channel humanitarian aid to the country. But as we found in our research, it was the second narrative that dominated, causing confusion among Lebanese and Jordanians who have started to ask for their share of the foreign aid.

Stuck in the middle

Amid this fragmented regional landscape and the politicisation of the crisis at the regional and national levels, the fate of Syrian refugees remains unclear. Russia has offered to facilitate dialogue between host countries – mainly Lebanon – and the Assad regime regarding the return of Syrian populations. But the ongoing process of their return to their home country might now be hampered by diplomatic tensions between Syria and its neighbours, especially Lebanon and Turkey.

The safe return of Syrian refugees will also be restricted by the demographic changes initiated by the Turkish government in efforts to eliminate the Kurdish presence along its border. The fate of returnees is also jeopardised by the Assad regime’s policies against those who took part in the uprising, those who didn’t answer the conscription call during the war or those who own properties in former rebel-held areas.

The Syrian refugee crisis will remain a major card both in the hands of the countries involved militarily in the conflict, and those hosting refugees. As for the Syrian refugees themselves, their lives, rights and future are precarious. They remain the primary victims of the regional competition for power.

Juline Beaujouan, Research Associate, Political Settlements Research Programme, University of Edinburgh and Amjed Rasheed, Research Fellow, School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

The Middle East still looking for a growth model

The Middle East still looking for a growth model

Posted on March 8, 2020, in The Arab Weekly, Six decades after independence, Middle East still looking for growth model by Rashmee Roshan Lall is an accurate survey of the region that faces, as we speak, prospects of harshest times. How is the Middle East still looking for a growth model? Investing in the human capital of children and young people as well as enhancing their prospects for productive employment and economic growth is little more complicated than relying on Crude Oil exports related revenues. These are the main if not the only source of earnings of the region now plummeting perhaps for good before even peaking. In effect, all petrodollar inspired and financed development that, put simply, was transposed from certain parts of the world, using not only imported materials but also management and all human resources can not result in anything different from that described in this article.


Though a large youthful population would normally be regarded an economic blessing, it’s become the bane of the MENA region.


The Middle East still looking for a growth model
Dramatic changes. Employees of Aramco oil company at Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing plant. (AFP)

It’s been 75 years since World War II ended and the idea of decolonising the Middle East and North Africa began to gain ground but, while formal colonisation ended about six decades ago, the region seems unable to find a clear path to growth.

Rather than an “Arab spring,” what may be needed is a temperate autumn, a season of mellow fruitfulness to tackle the region’s biggest problems. These include finding a way to use the demographic bulge to advantage, reducing inequality of opportunity and outcome and boosting local opportunity.

Here are some of the region’s key issues:

Youth ‘explosion’

The MENA region’s population grew from around 100 million in 1950 to approximately 380 million in 2000, the Population Reference Bureau said. It is now about 420 million and half that population lives in four countries — Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Yemen.

The 2016 Arab Human Development Report, which focused on youth, said most of the region’s population is under the age of 25.

The youth bulge is the result of declining mortality rates in the past 40 years as well as an average annual population growth rate of 1.8%, compared with 1% globally. The absolute number of young people is predicted to increase from 46 million in 2010 to 58 million in 2025.

Though a large youthful population would normally be regarded an economic blessing, it’s become the bane of the MENA region. The demographic trend suggests the region needs to create more than 300 million jobs by 2050, the World Bank said.

Jihad Azour, International Monetary Fund (IMF) director for the Middle East and Central Asia, said MENA countries’ growth rate “is lower that what is required to tackle unemployment. Youth unemployment in the region exceeds 25%-30%.” The average unemployment rate across the region is 11%, compared to 7% in other emerging and developing economies.

Unsurprisingly, said Harvard economist Ishac Diwan, a senior fellow at the Middle East Initiative, young Arabs are unhappier than their elders as well as their peers in countries at similar stages of development.

Last year’s Arab Youth Survey stated that 45% of young Arab respondents said they regard joblessness as one of the region’s main challenges, well ahead of the Syrian war (28%) and the threat of terrorism (26%).

The region’s population is expected to nearly double by 2030 and the IMF estimated that 27 million young Arabs will enter the labour market the next five years.

Poverty and inequality

Most Arab people do not live in oil-rich countries. Data from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) stated that 116 million people across ten Arab countries (41% of the total population), are poor and another 25% were vulnerable to poverty. This translates to an estimated 250 million people who may be poor or vulnerable out of a population of 400 million.

The MENA region is also regarded as the most unequal in the world, with the top 10% of its people accounting for 64% of wealth, although the average masks enormous differences from one country to another.

The middle class in non-oil producing Arab countries has shrunk from 45% to 33% of the population, ESCWA economists said. In a report for the Carnegie Corporation last year, Palestinian-American author Rami G. Khouri described what he called “poverty’s new agony,” the fact that a poor family in the Middle East will remain poor for several generations.

Egypt is a case in point. In 2018, Cairo vowed to halve poverty by 2020 and eliminate it by 2030. However, Egypt’s national statistics agency released a report on household finances last year that said that 33% of Egypt’s 99 million people were classified as poor, up from 28% in 2015. The World Bank subsequently nearly doubled that figure, saying 60% of Egyptians were “either poor or vulnerable.”

Wealth gaps between countries are greater in the region than in others because it has some of the world’s richest economies as well as some of the poorest, such as Yemen.

Inequality is not the only problem in the region. Former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic said the uneven picture means that last year’s protests in Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan and Iraq cannot be explained by “a blanket story of inequality.”

Indeed, Algeria, a relatively egalitarian country, was roiled by protests, first against a long-serving president and then against the wider political system.

French economist Thomas Piketty, who wrote the bestselling book on income inequality, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” said Arab countries must come up with a way to share the region’s vast and unequally distrib­uted wealth.

Lost decades of growth

In the decade from 2009, the region’s average economic growth was one-third slower than in the previous decade. The IMF said per capita incomes have been “near stagnant” and youth unemployment has “worsened significantly.”

The state is the largest employer in many Arab countries and over-regulation of the private sector left it underdeveloped and unable to overcome the significant barriers to trade and economic cooperation across regional borders. Meanwhile, inflexible labour laws stifled job creation and cronyism allowed inefficiency to stay unchallenged. In 2018, the average rank of Arab countries on the World Bank’s Doing Business survey was 115th out of 190 countries.

Along with structural factors, conflict has had a debilitating effect on economic growth. Three years ago, the World Bank noted that the Syrian war had killed approximately 500,000 people, displaced half the population — more than 10 million people — and reduced more than two-thirds of Syrians to poverty.

By 2017, conflict in Yemen and Libya had displaced more than 15% and 10% of their respective populations of 4 million and 6 million. Taken together, the Syrian, Yemen and Libyan civil wars have affected more than 60 million people, about one-fifth of the MENA population.

Infrastructural damage runs into the billions of dollars but it is the loss — or outright collapse, as in Yemen — of economic activity that has affected real GDP growth.

Countries in the region affected by conflict lost $614 billion cumulatively in GDP from 2010-15 — 6% of the regional GDP, ESCWA’s 2018 report on institutional development in post-conflict settings stated.

New thinking needed

This is the year when, for the first time, an Arab country holds the chairmanship of the Group of 20 of the world’s largest economies. It could be an opportunity to consider existing trends within the region, what needs to be changed and how.

In the words of Oxford development macroeconomist Adeel Malik, “the Arab developmental model… seems to have passed its expiration date.” In a 2014 paper for the Journal of International Affairs, Malik said “failure of the Arab state to deliver social justice is ultimately rooted in the failure of a development model based on heavy state intervention in the economy and increasingly unsustainable buyouts of local populations through generous welfare entitlements.”

It’s a good point, for the region’s richest countries just as much as its poorest. Oil-rich states are affected by dramatic changes in oil prices and the increasingly urgent suggestion that the world is at “peak oil.” An IMF report warned that, by 2034, declining oil demand could erode the $2 trillion in financial wealth amassed by Gulf Cooperation Council members. The IMF said “faster progress with economic diversification and private sector development will be critical to ensure sustainable growth.”

Creativity and courage will be needed if the Arab world is to meet the expectations of its youthful population and the challenges posed by its increasing inequality.

MENA: Renewed wave of mass uprisings met with brutality and repression

MENA: Renewed wave of mass uprisings met with brutality and repression

GettyImages

Amnesty International published MENA: Renewed wave of mass uprisings met with brutality and repression during ‘year of defiance’ on 18 February 2020. A year has now passed since Masses of Algerians surged through the capital and all other towns and villages throughout the country. It is as though nothing has happened insofar as the ruling elites are concerned. The current situation not only in this particular but all countries of the MENA is however as follows:

  • Report reviews human rights in 19 MENA states during 2019
  • Wave of protests across Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon demonstrates reinvigorated faith in people power
  • 500+ killed in Iraq and over 300 in Iran in brutal crackdowns on protests
  • Relentless clampdown on peaceful critics and human rights defenders
  • At least 136 prisoners of conscience detained in 12 countries for online speech

Governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) displayed a chilling determination to crush protests with ruthless force and trample over the rights of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to call for social justice and political reform during 2019, said Amnesty International today, publishing its annual report on the human rights situation in the region.  

Human rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Review of 2019 describes how instead of listening to protesters’ grievances, governments have once again resorted to relentless repression to silence peaceful critics both on the streets and online. In Iraq and Iran alone, the authorities’ use of lethal force led to hundreds of deaths in protests; in Lebanon police used unlawful and excessive force to disperse protests; and in Algeria the authorities used mass arrests and prosecutions to crack down on protesters.  Across the region, governments have arrested and prosecuted activists for comments posted online, as activists turned to social media channels to express their dissent.2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived Heba Morayef

“In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Director for MENA.

“2019 was a year of defiance in MENA. It also was a year that showed that hope was still alive – and that despite the bloody aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the catastrophic human rights decline in Egypt – people’s faith in the collective power to mobilize for change was revived.”

The protests across MENA mirrored demonstrators taking to the streets to demand their rights from Hong Kong to Chile. In Sudan, mass protests were met with brutal crackdowns by security forces and eventually ended with a negotiated political agreement with associations who had led the protests.

Crackdown on protests on the streets

Across the MENA region authorities employed a range of tactics to repress the wave of protests – arbitrarily arresting thousands of protesters across the region and in some cases resorting to excessive or even lethal force. In Iraq and Iran alone hundreds were killed as security forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators and thousands more were injured.In an inspiring display of defiance and determination, crowds from Algeria, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon poured into the streets – in many cases risking their lives – to demand their human rights, dignity and social justice and an end to corruption. These protesters have proven that they will not be intimidated into silence by their governments Heba Morayef

In Iraq where at least 500 died in demonstrations in 2019, protesters showed tremendous resilience, defying live ammunition, deadly sniper attacks and military tear gas grenades deployed at short range causing gruesome injuries.

In Iran, credible reports indicated that security forces killed over 300 people and injured thousands within just four days between 15 and 18 November to quell protests initially sparked by a rise in fuel prices. Thousands were also arrested and many subjected to enforced disappearance and torture.

In September, Palestinian women in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories took to the streets to protest against gender-based violence and Israel’s military occupation. Israeli forces also killed dozens of Palestinians during demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank.

“The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for MENA. “Meanwhile, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel’s policy of using excessive, including lethal, force against demonstrators there continued unabated.” The shocking death tolls among protesters in Iraq and Iran illustrate the extreme lengths to which these governments were prepared to go in order to silence all forms of dissent Philip Luther

In Algeria, where mass protests led to the fall of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika after 20 years in power, authorities  sought to quash protests through mass arbitrary arrests and prosecutions of peaceful demonstrators.

While the mass protests in Lebanon since October, which led to the resignation of the government, began largely peacefully, on a number of occasions protests were met with unlawful and excessive force and security forces failed to intervene effectively to protect peaceful demonstrators from attacks by supporters of rival political groups.

In Egypt, a rare outbreak of protests in September which took the authorities by surprise was met with mass arbitrary arrests with more than 4,000 detained.

“Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully,” said Heba Morayef. 

“Instead of launching deadly crackdowns and resorting to measures such as excessive use of force, torture, or arbitrary mass arrests and prosecutions, authorities should listen to and address demands for social and economic justice as well as political rights.”

Repression of dissent online

As well as lashing out against peaceful protesters on the streets, throughout 2019 governments across the region continued to crack down on people exercising their rights to freedom of expression online. Journalists, bloggers and activists who posted statements or videos deemed critical of the authorities on social media faced arrest, interrogation and prosecutions. Governments in MENA have displayed a total disregard for the rights of people to protest and express themselves peacefully Heba Morayef

According to Amnesty International’s figures, individuals were detained as prisoners of conscience in 12 countries in the region and 136 people were arrested solely for their peaceful expression online. Authorities also abused their powers to stop people accessing or sharing information online. During protests in Iran, the authorities implemented a near-total internet shutdown to stop people sharing videos and photos of security forces unlawfully killing and injuring protesters. In Egypt, authorities disrupted online messaging applications in an attempt to thwart further protests. Egyptian and Palestinian authorities also resorted to censoring websites including news websites. In Iran social media apps including Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube remained blocked.

Some governments also use more sophisticated techniques of online surveillance to target human rights defenders. Amnesty’s research highlighted how two Moroccan human rights defenders were targeted using spyware developed by the Israeli company NSO Group. The same company’s spyware had previously been used to target activists in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as an Amnesty International staff member. 

More broadly, Amnesty International recorded 367 human rights defenders subjected to detention (240 arbitrarily detained in Iran alone) and 118 prosecuted in 2019 – the true numbers are likely to be higher.

“The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders,” said Philip Luther.

Signs of hope

Despite ongoing and widespread impunity across MENA, some small but historic steps were taken towards accountability for longstanding human rights violations. The announcement by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that war crimes had been committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and that an investigation should be opened as soon as the ICC’s territorial jurisdiction has been confirmed offered a crucial opportunity to end decades of impunity. The ICC indicated that the investigation could cover Israel’s killing of protesters in Gaza.  The fact that governments across MENA have a zero-tolerance approach to peaceful online expression shows how they fear the power of ideas that challenge official narratives. Authorities must release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally and stop harassing peaceful critics and human rights defenders Philip Luther

Similarly, in Tunisia the Truth and Dignity Commission published its final report and 78 trials started before criminal courts offering a rare chance for security forces to be held accountable for past abuses.

The limited advances in women’s rights, won after years of campaigning by local women’s rights movements, were outweighed by the continuing repression of women’s rights defenders, particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a broader failure to eliminate widespread discrimination against women. Saudi Arabia introduced long-overdue reforms to its male guardianship system, but these were overshadowed by the fact that five women human rights defenders remained unjustly detained for their activism throughout 2019.  Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights Heba Morayef

A number of Gulf states also announced reforms to improve protection for migrant workers including promises from Qatar to abolish its kafala (sponsorship system) and improve migrants’ access to justice. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates also signalled plans to reform the kafala system. However, migrant workers continue to face widespread exploitation and abuse across the region.

“Governments across the region must learn that their repression of protests and imprisonment of peaceful critics and human rights defenders will not silence people’s demands for fundamental economic, social and political rights. Instead of ordering serious violations and crimes to stay in power, governments should ensure the political rights needed to allow people to express their socio-economic demands and to hold their governments to account,” said Heba Morayef.

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Something is shifting in the MENA region

Something is shifting in the MENA region

In Equal Times (a trilingual news and opinion website) OPINIONS, an article by Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde titled Something is shifting in the MENA region – and it is happening from the ground up brings to light a near year-long movement of streets protests. These are affecting nearly all the so-called republics type of countries of the MENA. Fun fact, it was at the beginning generally thought of as being only a short trip by all leading elites. What they ignored then and/or overlooked was Mobile telecommunications and social media making quite a difference. Tomorrow will be the 50th Friday of streets pavement beating in Algiers as well as other town and villages of Algeria with yet again and as highlighted here by Nunez Villaverde, to no significant and noticeable effect.


Something is shifting in the MENA region – and it is happening from the ground up

With all the caution that any generalisation implies, the central feature of the mobilisations/revolutions now taking place, with varying intensity, in a growing number of countries – Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan being the most recent cases – is the huge public frustration with failed, corrupt, inefficient and totalitarian rulers who are incapable of guaranteeing decent levels of wellbeing and security for all. In this image from 11 January in Tehran (Iran), a woman chats with a policeman.(AP/Mona Hoobehfekr)

For too long, the Arab and wider Muslim world of the Maghreb, the Near East and the Middle East, has been perceived as synonymous with underdevelopment, instability and violence. Within the framework of imperfect systems – socially, politically and economically – the interests of dominant elites, determined to maintain their privileges at all costs, clash with those of increasingly critical citizens, driven by the inability to satisfy their basic needs, the violence they suffer in the flesh, the daily rights violations committed by their rulers and the denial of their right to a decent life.

Added to this is the traditional and pernicious interference of regional and global powers, much more attentive to the local elites than to the local populations, determined to meddle in the affairs of their neighbours and increase their global sway, with no regard for the malaise and insecurity generated for others.

A structural hotbed has thus been created, a breeding ground for the temptation to resort to violent repression, for some, and for social unrest and protest, for others. The result is a highly worrisome situation with no way out, or so it may appear at first sight.

For decades, violent repression has been by far the preferred option of the governments in the area, combined with variable doses of patronage and paternalism aimed at maintaining social peace. To maintain their grip on power whilst showing little sensitivity to the needs and demands of their respective populations, it has become commonplace for them to resort to punishment as the preferred method for preserving, in clear collusion with many foreign governments, a status quo of which they, and their allies, are the prime beneficiaries. Hardly willing to allow free speech, and even more so after the experience of the so-called Arab Spring, a real counter-revolution is now underway, the protagonists of which are the regimes of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and Egypt (not forgetting Iran on the Shia side).

With the passing of time and the impact of the successive crises that have seriously impaired the capacity of the aforementioned regimes and most others to continue ‘buying’ social peace, what they are left with, above all, is their repressive capability, and they are applying it with great resolve. This means that no substantial change can be expected in their behaviour, as they cling on to a strategy that primarily seeks to keep them in power without giving up anything substantial in return.

And the same can be said, unfortunately, of the external actors with interests in the region, given that they generally prefer to deal with the current rulers – no matter how uncomfortable it may make them feel and no matter how much their own civil societies may criticise them for their crude ‘realpolitik’ – rather than risk allowing grassroots mobilisations to bring new rulers to power and jeopardise a regional order that has long served their interests.

This powerful dynamic is countered by another, driven by a growing number of citizens who want to find a way out and see a substantial change in their situation.

It is they who are really trying to overcome the current challenges and to find solutions to the problems that define their lives and life in their countries. They have far less power than that accumulated by their rulers and those who support them from the outside. But they have lost their fear of repression and their resolve seems to be growing ever firmer, fed by the visible disgruntlement that has built up over the years.

With all the caution that any generalisation implies, the central feature of the mobilisations/revolutions now taking place, with varying intensity, in a growing number of countries – Lebanon, IraqAlgeria and Sudan being the most recent cases – is the huge public frustration with failed, corrupt, inefficient and totalitarian rulers who are incapable of guaranteeing decent levels of wellbeing and security for all. All it takes, on such potentially explosive ground, is a simple spark to ignite the flames of revolt – such as the young man who set himself on fire in front of a police station in Tunisia; the repression of children who painted political slogans against the government in Syria; the attempt to apply a monthly fee of almost €6 for WhatsApp calls in Lebanon; the increase in the price of fuel, in Iran; or less outstanding factors, in the case of Libya, Yemen, Syria or Algeria.

The substantial difference with previous episodes of grassroots mobilisation – when the application of structural adjustment programmes at the end of the last century triggered revolts that were limited to demanding the reinstatement of subsidies for basic necessities – what we have been witnessing since 2011 is a movement with a decidedly political profile, demanding not only the removal of the ruler of the day, but also the dismantling of a status quo that, at best, offers no more than the crumbs of paternalism and clientelism. The more recent protest movements have been, and continue to be crosscutting (going beyond the usual signs of ethnic or religious identity), young (in keeping with the demographic structure of these countries), spontaneous (in the sense that they emerge from society itself and not out of foreign manipulation) and peaceful (it is the powers that be, faithful to their repressive pattern, that resort to violence as the default option).

Support for legitimate and representative regimes without delay

What is also clear, however, is that these movements have yet to be structured and the only factor seemingly uniting them is the desire to rid themselves of the current establishment. In many cases, this means that they have even stopped identifying leaders and do not, as a rule, have coherent government programmes. And all this reduces their strength to overcome the resistance of actors who are better organised and experienced when it comes to seizing and maintaining power.

This is why simply wishing them luck, trusting that they will finally succeed in overcoming all the obstacles in their path, will not suffice. It is likely that in addition to the persistent repression and in keeping with the Lampedusa paradox [“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”], some of these governments will be willing to accept cosmetic reforms to ultimately prevent any substantial change.

It is essential that Western democratic governments actively support these movements, overcoming the traditionally short-sighted approach that is content with merely patching up the surface in the hope that time will eventually bring all the pieces of the puzzle together.

The current rulers are not going to relinquish power without a fight, and even less so if they feel that they are supported by Washington, Brussels, Moscow or so many other administrations with interests in the region. The current socio-political and economic management model is totally spent, and the millions of people living in these countries no longer expect anything from leaders who have amply demonstrated that the only thing that moves them is the desire to increase their privileges. The elites have squandered any political capital left in the eyes of citizens who, fully aware of their plight and the fact that there are other ways, in the 21st century, of ensuring that their basic needs are met and their security guaranteed, are calling for a thorough clean-up of a profoundly dysfunctional system.

Although many unknowns remain, there is already scope for concluding that, without public pressure, none of these imperfect regimes is ready to change course. The problem is that the foreign powers involved in the region seem no more ready to stop aligning with them. They do not yet appear to have realised that backing failed governments is not the best way to defend their real interests, not to mention the fact that such behaviour clashes head-on with their own values and principles. It can only be hoped they will eventually come to the realisation that the best course of action would be to contribute to the establishment and consolidation of legitimate and truly representative governments.

Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde 30 January 2020

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