The year of the Arab Spring has been perceived as political: the oppressed rising up against their oppressors. But in a few years, the tumult of 2011 will likely be remembered as economic: the have-nots protesting against the haves.
At first glance, the Arab Spring is all about civil liberties. “A new generation of political activists, aided by the modern social media, has come on the stage,” writes Sami Zubaida of OpenDemocracy. Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European Parliament, asserted that “2011 will go down in history as the year of the Arab Spring. The European Parliament recognizes the efforts of all those who struggle for dignity, basic freedoms and political change in the Arab world.” The West has warily lauded the Arab Spring as part of a broad movement that espouses ideals of democracy and personal liberty while shunning dictatorships and oppression.
This take on the movement is at least in part true. Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, and Yemenis have lived under dictatorships for as long as their countries have existed. Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who immolated himself in a symbolic protest widely credited as the spark that ignited the Arab Spring, was “voiceless, powerless, and evidently without hope.”
But that view is incomplete at best. Recall that Bouazizi was produce vendor who lived a life of poverty. Though on several occasions he sought to improve his income to better support his family, he never had much success. As his mother told Al Jazeera, "he didn't expect to study, because we didn't have the money.” When police harassed him and confiscated his scales and produce, basically crippling his income for that month, Bouazizi took to the streets with a can of paint fuel and set himself on fire in protest that would become epidemic around the world.
In 2004, a prescient report by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia claimed that in the Middle East, unemployment levels and income inequality imply that “there is little space for argument over the unavoidability of change.” That bold claim has proven alarmingly accurate. The change that the report predicted was a result of growing inequality in the region, even as oil-exports bolstered national GDP.
The report found a chronically weak labor market, despite vast government oil profits concentrated in the hands of a small elite: “For every person finding a job in the eighties, there were two new entrants into the labour market reaching working age. By the late nineties, there were nearly four new entrants to every person finding a job. For a good part of two decades, the Arab Mashreq’s real wages have either declined or stood still while labour supply continued to outgrow labour demand.”
Inequality and unemployment were rampant, but the last straw may have been a spike in food prices around the world. “In a year of protests in the Arab world, high food prices helped to make oppression, corruption and poverty under autocratic leaders even more intolerable,” writes Steve Baragona of Voice of America. Though many of these states were awash with oil profits, inequality left the vast majority of citizens unprotected from price shocks for commodities. The ‘development’ of these states was unsustainable in the sense that no safety net existed in the instance of economic hardship. And with a global recession, the frail social contract between the government and the governed was nullified, sparking protest.
As the IMF claims:
“The unfolding events make it clear that reforms, and even rapid economic growth as seen periodically in Tunisia and Egypt, cannot be sustained unless they create jobs for the rapidly growing labor force and are accompanied by social policies for the most vulnerable. For growth to be sustainable, it must be inclusive and broadly shared, and not just captured by a privileged few. Endemic corruption in the region is an unacceptable affront to the dignity of its citizens, and the absence of transparent and fair rules of the game will inevitably undermine inclusive growth.”
And for further proof that the Arab Spring is about economics, not politics, note that the response of most oil-rich countries has been a boost in social spending rather than relinquishing of power. These countries are essentially buying stability. Saudi Arabia has pledged to radically increase social welfare spending with the construction of housing and hospitals and major tax subsidies for citizens. The IMF estimates that this program will cost the government about $110 billion, or 19 per cent of Saudi GDP.
Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, sums it up wonderfully: “I mean, [Saudi Arabia] saved up about $500 billion in net cash assets, essentially. Like all human beings, I think the Saudis are no different. If [...] they can be couch potatoes and throw money at their problem rather than go and exercise, they would do that.”
Instead of the year of political empowerment, 2011 will likely be remembered as the year when income inequality became too much to bear. And the Arab Spring will be judged by how it relieves not political oppression, but economic inequality.
Ben Osborn is a 2011 graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Read his other contributions to Global Envision.