An update on the Arab Spring and its consequences

About 8 months ago, I had a look at what was then happening in the Arab world and made predictions about what was going to happen next. Time to see what really happened and update the forecast.

A minor prediction I was making was that Libya would again succumb to the resource course, making democracy impossible there, an article taken over by the Congressional Quarterly in the US (December edition). So far I am looking good for that prediction, with individual cities maintaining their own prisons and militias, as well as open fights about the division of the oil spoils.

The main prediction I was making concerned Egypt where I predicted the regime would re-constitute itself, coopting deal makers in agricultural and slum areas. I predicted that the urban youth which was driving the protests would lose out.

This is indeed exactly what has now happened: the army has put the torture chambers on full throttle in order to intimidate the urban youth. The elections have clearly shown that the largely uneducated and agricultural population has no appetite for supporting intellectuals in cities, and has gone for what they know, which is the muslim brotherhood, more radical muslims, the army, or some regional politician. The muslim brotherhood, which over the years has become so infiltrated by the regime that it was amongst the first to condemn the original protests against Mubarak, has about 40% of the preliminary vote and the reform parties have merely 15%. The radical Islamists get 25% and more regional parties make up the rest. Given that the army has already decided to simply give itself some seats in parliament if it needs them, as well as several more months of systematic torture of any opposition before parliament is even convened, one is already seeing a grand bargain between the Muslim brotherhood and the regime: a further move towards religious austerity in exchange for no challenge to the economic parasitism of the army. Egypt will become a very dull place indeed.

This uneasy alliance is quite visible on a day to day basis, with the Muslim Brotherhood refusing to condemn extreme brutality, or really pushing for a faster handover of power to parliament: after years of being in the torture chambers themselves, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership is showing it can be intimidated and quickly backtracks on any strong statement it now and then makes in response to grass-root pressures. They are easy pickings for the repression system of the army, excusing their cowardice by the unrealistic tale that things will be different once a parliament convenes and they will have a real say. The interim silence allows the army to take full advantage of this cowardice to get rid of the remaining true reformers and thereby have the full repression system aimed at the Brotherhood leadership should they regain their courage too late. Before the parliament convenes, decides together with the army council on a constitution, then again has elections for a president, the real power struggle is long done.

Because Egypt is the Arab country of greatest significance, i.e. the one with by far the highest number of Arabs as well as being the intellectual heartland of the Arab world, the unequal alliance between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood really means the Arab Spring is over. Its last embers are dying in the increasingly brutal repression of the few urban youth who are hanging onto a vision that the vast majority of Egyptians neither understand nor trust, choosing instead for the devil they know. It is tragic from an Enlightenment point of view but it is the classic story of what happens in societies that are still 60% rural and where even the 40% urban is dominated by slums: some form of clientelism wins the democratic game.

I would also say that the outcome is worse than might have been reasonably hoped for 8 months ago, when it was clear that things were never going to be as good as they are in the West but one could at least hope for something that might be livable. 8 months ago one could still hope for a degree of economic reform in the sense that the old elite would have been content to hang onto what it had and otherwise have a hands-off approach, like the army in Turkey. New businesses would then be able to escape the clutches of the regime and the economy could flourish. Alas, Egypt is not following the example of Turkey but more that of Pakistan: a repressive regime is sitting centre-stage and is extending its economic tentacles, meaning that any business not belonging to the regime is fair game to predatory taxation, which in turn means economic growth will be slow for many years to come and parliament will quickly establish the pattern of doing what the commercially-minded children of the generals say in return for a slice of the crumbs. Dictatorship by democratic proxy.

Then the post-script analysis: who could have made a difference? If the West had thrown a lot of money and support behind the urban reformers, the outcome would have still been the same and perhaps even worse: the urban reformers never had a chance to sway the uneducated masses on their own. They needed an alliance with one of the big religious parties and those parties had other agendas. Association with the West would have simply sped up their alienation with the rest of the population. By illustration, just today, the army outlawed 200 pro-reform organisations on the mere allegation of foreign funding, showing how easily any real intervention by the West would have fuelled the dictatorship.

Saudi Arabia could have made a difference but chose to support the regime and the radical islamists. If it had thrown its financial and religious muscle behind a grand deal between, say, the more welfarist oriented Islamists (elements within the Brotherhood) and the urban reformers, then there was a chance. Alas, the Saudis too have their own dreams and they do not include upstart urban youth and real democracy. If the West carries blame, it is via our failure to really put the screws on the Saudis.

Hence, as feared 8 months ago, real change in Egypt and thereby the gravity point of the Arab world will have to wait at least a few more decades until urbanisation and development levels are high enough to make an urban-inspired middle-class democratic uprising sustainable. Until then, it is torture as usual for any outspoken reformers, with the months ahead sure to become very bitter memories. I expect an exodus of smart young urban Egyptians before the end of next year.

Though Israel will no doubt let go a sigh of relief that things are back to normal in Egypt (you can almost hear the relief spitting off the pages of some of their newspapers, already reverting to the well-worn line about being afraid of islamification of Egypt), the failure of the Arab spring to provide a platform for real reform is also bad news for the West because it means that for quite some time, the radical Islamists will continue to be seen in their own countries as the only trustworthy and non-corrupt opposition to the parasitical regimes there. This will mean the regimes will continue to have to blame the West for every problem on earth (in order not to be too outflanked by the radical islamists) and the more fanatical part of their population will want to make true on the fantasies of Islamic world dominance. Egypt’s tragedy may well be our tragedy.

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28 Responses to An update on the Arab Spring and its consequences

  1. Paul Montgomery says:

    Was there ever any chance that the West could swoop in and neutralise the Egyptian military, since it appears they are the main issue?

    You say they are turning into Pakistan, but Pakistan is an American ally. From the sounds of it, Egypt won’t be. Is the army going to continue to be funded from oil profits, is that how they remain independent? Do they align with China or Russia instead? They have to sell the oil to someone.

  2. Paul Frijters says:

    Egypt is relatively poor in oil. The regime knows full well, as do all the other political parties, that it will have to abide by the Camp David accords and none of the players has dared go against that. This is why I say Israel is breathing a sigh of relief. The survival of the generals means the survival of the guarantee of not not upsetting US interests. Egypt will thus be a similar type of ally as Pakistan: a vast majority that doesnt want to be an enemy, but a parasitical elite that sees it in its own interest to play ball with the West to the degree they feel they have to. Hence the two faces within Pakistan.

    There was never any chance of going into Egypt. Its too populated and there was no reasonable excuse. What threat did or does it pose us? No short-run threats at all, and even the long-term one are dubious ones relying on lots of intermediary steps. Hence a long-run story won’t cut any mustard in political debates about costly short-term decisions.

  3. Paul Montgomery says:

    America generally doesn’t need rock solid excuses to unilaterally attack, even under Obama. You paint a very bleak picture, Paul. You are essentially saying things will be worse than under Mubarak, as the Brotherhood will implement more hardline Islamist policies as their part of the deal. This sets a dangerous precedent.

  4. Paul Frijters says:

    there are excuses to the population and there are excuses to the assembled thinking interest groups. The two are entirely different but in both cases, there is no story to go into Egypt. No business interests to protect in Egypt, no pressure group with a stake in going in, no poulatin story to sell.

    Yes, things are bleak in Egypt. I wish it were different. The silver lining is that population growth rates are going down and urbanisation is creeping up. The slow hand of history is going in the right direction there, but in the short run there will be screams in the torture chambers.

  5. Paul Montgomery says:

    I guess the old domino theory that was used to justify Vietnam doesn’t work with Islam. At least not under this president.

  6. Patrick says:

    I don’t think anyone wants another Vietnam Paul M. It would be really incredibly hard to do what you are suggesting.

  7. KB Keynes says:

    The Brotherhood would only go ‘hardline’ if elections are not fair dinkum.

    I would think the Military might want to ensure they are as hardline islamism(?) is not popular

  8. Paul Frijters says:

    Homer, Paul M,

    the key to understanding Egypt and countries like it is to realise that the army is first and foremost protecting its own economic self-interest. The army leadership should really be seen as a collection of captains of industry, whose families own the best bits of the country’s means of production. Any other consideration, religious or otherwise, is completely secondary to these people.

    They do not hesitate to kill or torture at will to protect their economic self-interest, and will go along with whatever posture they need to. If they need to introduce sharia law or start a civil war with the Koptic Christians in order to safeguard their interests, they will, even if their hearts there is little religious about: it is just a matter of political expediency for these regimes.

    Can you imagine what it must feel like to live in a country like that and see that kind of attitude win out? It breeds either a form of apathy or flight into purity. It is really the internal tensions that this economic parasitism creates within such societies that gave us the war on terror: a lot of the fanaticism is no more than the unintended by-product of the greed of these regimes. And these regimes couldn’t care less about this. Its simply another potential threat to their positions that they need to deal with.

  9. conrad says:

    “the key to understanding Egypt and countries like it is to realise that the army is first and foremost protecting its own economic self-interest.”

    Whilst I basically agree with this, perhaps you need a post on how some of these countries might actually go about breaking down this sort of a system.

  10. KB Keynes says:

    Paul,

    if the Army does not want the Brotherhood to become ‘islamist’ and more ‘Turkish’ in their approach then it would encourage free and fair elections thus the Brotherhood would then become ‘turkish’ rather than ‘islamist’.

    If the Army do as you theorise then they will create the very organisation they fear.

  11. Paul Frijters says:

    conrad,

    see above: there is no ‘outside agent’ to break these systems. They have to be broken down internally and its an evolutionary process. What you effectively need is a large group of people good at organising (i.e. lots of contacts) with some independent economic clout who can dream about how to move forward. Those dreams give you the motivation and the intellectual baggage to change the regimes, either in a revolution (like France) or more step-wise (like England).

    At present, the group of merchants, civil servants, doctors, teachers, etc. who are not part of the regime and who would be able to organise opposition to it is simply not big enough. The number of uneducated with low contacts and little to obviously gain from any change is simply too high and too easily swayed by the economic and military muscle of the regime. They are not on facebook and they have no idea what these protesters want as an alternative, and they go for what their local leaders tell them.

    Give it another 30 years or so and the group who can carry out a real change should be big enough. Compared to 12 months ago, there has been some progress: the ideas of nationhood and civil rights are now more visible and more clearly carried by 15% of the population. The parliaments might be somewhat toothless, but it will get more Egyptians more into the habit of thinking in terms of democratic processes, so perhaps 30 years might prove to be pessimistic. Lets hope so.

  12. Paul Frijters says:

    Homer,

    the key difference with Turkey is the degree to which the army wants to control the economy. The army in Turkey too has large economic interests (which it has vigorously protected over the decades), but seems content with what they have and the generals have in recent years allowed themselves to lose the ability to reverse the increased economic muscle of others. Turkey I would say is almost at that level where its democracy is not just real but also safe.

    The Egyptian regime probably calculated that it could not go the Turkey route because it would be subject to criminal investigations and revenge for what they have been doing the last 30 years. They probably calculated that only near total control would safeguard them, i.e. that it was do or die. Indeed, in many ways this whole saga has merely concentrated power in their hands and has allowed them to reduce the number of people they have to share the wealth with. In a roundabout way many demonstrators died so that some part of the former regime could increase their wealth and power at the expense of other parts. The irony is bitter.

  13. Paul Montgomery says:

    Paul F:

    I get the underlying premise you’re explaining here, that removal of a parasitic overclass can best be done via organic change as the population shifts to the cities and an urban middle class can demand more democracy.

    There are stark examples of how the parasites can prevent this, though. There’s North Korea or many of the poor African countries, where the dictator never allows a middle class to develop. There’s Iran, where there is a burgeoning middle class but… well, maybe you can explain why they enable Ahmedinejad to make truth stranger than Team America or The Dictator.

    Then there’s Iraq, which before Bush I engaged would have been another case as you describe, with extra flavours of religion and tribalism as framed in the Sunni vs Shia dichotomy where one was parasiting off the other. In some ways that can be seen as a victory for liberating a majority from parasitism of the minority, thus proving (arguably) that there’s another way that it can be done.

    The problem, of course, is that America can’t afford another Iraq right now. Vietnam has been used as an analogy so often for Iraq, but maybe this is an underappreciated aspect: that the massive amounts of energy used in the attempted bolstering of the first domino prevents anything much being done about the other dominoes. Which, arguably, presents a case against ever again mounting an Iraq-level occupation. America might have given freedom to Iraqis, but one consequence is that little can be done about other countries in the region as they slide into further oppression.

  14. Paul Frijters says:

    Paul M,

    yes, the Iranian middle-class is burgeoning and it was indeed their sons and daughters that have been protesting in the last few years. Getting rid of a regime is not done overnight though. Unless you go bloody revolution it is more a case of outgrowing the regime than removing them. Just reflect that it took the English the best part of 2 centuries to subdue the old powers, and even now, lots of the country is owned by the remnants of the old regime (church, nobility, royal family). The House of Lords only under Blair got rid of the dominance of hereditary titles!

    I do expect the Iranians to go democratic in the decades to come though. In many ways, it is the most promising place in that region. Its almost ready: lots of things are in place (education, nationalism, contact classes, notions of citizenship). And you shouldnt get overly distracted by the pronouncements of the Ayatollahs: the lure of power and wealth has done its work there after the 1979 revolution. Ayatollahs have sons and they run businesses that their dads protect. This corruption is slowly eroding their standing within Iranian society.

    Iraq is looking less good. Even though it is relatively well-educated and urbanised (somewhat courtesy of the Soviets), it is cursed by vast oil resources. Whomever is in power can dominate those oil resources and will find they are so vast that they dont need a taxable middle class to have a comfortable life: they can repress any middle-class if they grow troublesome and dominate the oil revenues. In turn, those oil revenues increase the currency, making other business internationally uncompetitive, and the system to steal the oil revenues will invariably also be used to steal the businesses of others.

    Add to the resource curse a whole array of clans, ethnicities, and regional rivalries and you should realise that democracy Western-style has no place in Iraq. Dead as a duck served at X-mas. The Iraqi invasion really has just strengthened Iran’s position in that Saddam II will be a shiite and not a sunni. What 7 years of brutal war could not accomplished for Iran was handed to them on a platter by American idealism. Another one of those ironies.

  15. KB Keynes says:

    Paul,

    Firstly I was saying if Egypt has fair and free elections then the brotherhood will end up like turkey’s current government.

    I doubt if the Egyptian military have done more to the population than turkey’s so why wouldn’t they copy them or simply implement the Pinochet clause.

    There are few voting people around who want a fiercely islamist party in power. they want competence in government and a better future for their children.

    Iran’s problem is simply their elections are not fair or free. Add to that the last time they got a government they actually wanted the government had no power.

  16. Paul Frijters says:

    Homer,

    I dont think you have quite engaged with the intricacies of human psychology involved here. Sure, we all want competent government and a better future for our children. More immediately, we want something to eat and not be tortured, so in Egyptian situations we humans keep our heads down and scrape a living whilst seeing the regime in opulence. Our self-respect makes it impossible to endure such a lowly position consciously. We need to believe in goodness and in our self-worth, whatever our true station in life. Repression therefore creates these fierce islamists.

  17. KB Keynes says:

    Paul,

    with respect you are saying the Generals have a deathwish.

    They maybe some like bond markets but I hope not

  18. Paul Frijters says:

    the generals don’t have a death wish at all. They just dont care if their actions are creating fanatics because they calculate, quite rightly, that they are able to suppress those fanatics for a long time. Certainly long enough to die rich in their sleep surrounded by a thriving dynasty of off-spring who can emigrate with a bagful of cash should there actually be a fanatical coup. Why then should they care? Its the rest of the world that picks up the tab, not them.

  19. KB Keynes says:

    Paul,

    Can you give us an example of that. Generals do not thrive when fanatics are in charge, quite the opposite in fact.

    It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realise why.

  20. Paul Frijters says:

    the fanatics wont be in charge because the generals wont let them. Partially, the generals simply allow\encourage them to go abroad where they can create trouble for others.

  21. KB Keynes says:

    wow this is beyond me.

    the fanatics win ( by the way the Brotherhood is vastly different to the Salafists)and the Military allow them to form Government but at some stage they allow/encourage them to go abroad to allow the Generals carte blanche.

    Yeah I can just see the populous agreeing to that.

  22. Paul Frijters says:

    wow this is beyond me.

    Clearly.

  23. KB Keynes says:

    Well Paul ,
    you have a ‘unique’ theory.

  24. Paul Frijters says:

    :-) it is the season of goodwill so lets leave it at this. Merry x-mas.

  25. KB Keynes says:

    I am happy too but I didn’t through any abuse or anything like that your way at all.

    I merely tried to understand where you were coming from etc.

  26. Paul Frijters says:

    I know and only wish to be polite too.

    If you wish to read more: the story above of the origin of fanaticism is basically the same as that of the economists Iannacone and Bergman (save some nuances); the reconstitution of the elite story that makes up the bulk of the post is in large parts the same as that of an interview I just read yesterday on the BBC with the historian Eric Hobsbawm (I only read it a day after writing my post) who has written extensively on the aftermaths of other revolutions. I dont know who the real country experts in this field are that make it their business to follow this stuff every day, but they are bound to have hit upon the same conclusions months ago (probably writing in Arabic: the people with real incentives to know this are not native English speakers).

    Again, merry x-mas.

  27. perplexed says:

    Paul. Any hope in a popularly elected, savvy president come next March? I gather that there is no one currently with the stature to challenge your military model as depressing as it is. El Baradei has a certain western stature as a former head of the Atomic Energy Agency but probably falls into your urban elite category.
    Also I assume your reference to the Saudi influence is reflected in the strong fundamentalist salafist vote in the recent parliamentary elections.
    Also and perhaps a bit unfairly to you, how do you read the coordinated bombings in Damascus? Is this possible evidence of El Qaeda taking advantage of civil unrest in a vulnerable arab state?

  28. Paul Frijters says:

    perplexed,

    hard to know. The new egyptian president will surely try to make some room for himself and therefore the army will be very keen to helpmake sure the president is either one of them or a conservative. A cleric or someone else with a mainly cultural focus who is not interested in the distribution of money or power. Baradei will surely give it go, but its hard to see where he would get the support from.

    Syria is very hard to read. Brutal repression by a regime whose core support is no more than 10%, faced by a brittle coalition of hardline islamists and particular ethnicities. Such situations breeds religious fanaticism, but whether that fanaticism is enough to break the regime and what would happen if the regime does crubmble, its just too hard to call. The islamists cant win on their own and they are probably not savvy enough to form an alliance with the groups they need to link up with in order to win, so perhaps the place will resemble the civil war in Lebanon for a while.

    The one thing that is clear is that human right will be violated on a massive scale and the world will simply stand by and see who wins.

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