A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Bread, Freedom, Justice


In several countries, the Arab Spring of 2011 has led to war and repression. Yet the struggle for democracy will continue. With living conditions worsening, the next Arab uprising is just a matter of time.

© REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

After its brief spring, the Arab world has had to endure a long and bitter winter. In the seven years since mass demonstrations broke out across the region, around half a million people in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon have become casualties of war. Islamic State militants gained a foothold in the region, then lost it. Some elections were free and fair (Tunisia, Egypt in 2013), others less so (Syria 2014, Egypt 2015), and some were marred by low turnout (Libya 2014, Egypt 2018).

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has been plagued by mass demonstrations that have resulted in protester deaths. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi was recently re-elected with 97 percent of the vote; the war in Syria seems likely to end with victory for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad; Libya seems to be perpetually on the brink of a military coup. The citizens who hoped to bring about democracy through protests have not seen their lives improve. It seems as though freedom might never reach these shores.

And yet, despondency is unjustified―because it’s only a matter of time until the next Arab Spring. None of the conditions that seemed deplorable in 2011 have improved. In fact, the opposite is true: things have deteriorated further. Seven years ago, youth unemployment stood at 26 and 30 percent in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively. Those figures have increased to 35 and 33 percent. In both countries, there is a statistical correlation between unemployment among 19-to 25-year-olds and political instability.

Youth unemployment is particularly disconcerting – and contributes more to political unrest―when it is accompanied by corruption and social inequality. And both indicators have increased dramatically in the region in recent years. With the exception of Tunisia, where corruption has subsided slightly, all Arab countries over the past seven years are doing worse on global corruption rankings. Of the 10 countries deemed the most corrupt in the world, almost half are located in the Arab world: Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq. Since the Arab Spring called for “bread, freedom, and social justice,” the wealth gap has only widened, with the richest tenth percentile in Arab countries accounting for 67 percent of the region’s income. For comparison, that percentage stands at 36 percent in Europe and 47 percent in the United States. The Arab region has the largest wealth gap in the world, as it did in 2011.

Meanwhile, the price of bread has risen. In Jordan, for example, the price of a loaf nearly doubled in January after the government canceled subsidies. Just weeks earlier, tax increases caused price hikes for staples such as vegetables, salt, oil, and milk.

Political freedoms have also suffered. A repressive central government in Libya that jailed citizens and muzzled journalists has been replaced by a series of uncontrollable militant groups, but the reality for citizens is the same. The country currently ranks 163rd – two places behind Egypt―on a press freedom index that includes 180 countries. It has fallen two ranks since 2011, while Egypt has dropped 37 ranks over the same period. Once again, Tunisia has bucked the trend: the country has worked its way up from 164th to 97th place, meaning it is now roughly equivalent to countries like Liberia, Panama, and Nepal.

A Herculean Task

When a nation becomes prone to unrest, its government has two options: It can choose to engage with its people’s demands, but that route is not a viable one in most countries in the Arab world. To create jobs and keep prices low, these countries would require liquidity and the ability to pass economic reforms. Non oil-producing Arab countries have long painted themselves into a corner in that regard.

In the past, huge infrastructure projects such as the Suez Canal development project enabled the creation of a sufficient number of jobs to keep the political situation stable. Today, that is no longer possible, and unemployment figures have sky-rocketed. Over the past three decades, the number of young people without work has nearly doubled from 13 to 22 million. That number continues to grow both in Egypt and further afield. In order to keep the youth unemployment figure stable, Arab countries would have to create 10 million jobs over the next decade―and if the goal is to push the figure below the socially-acceptable threshold of 25 percent, the countries would have to create roughly four times as many. This Herculean task would be difficult to achieve even under more amenable economic conditions.

This leaves Arab countries with a second option: stifling protest. In order to do so, repressive states employ authoritarian mechanisms, including legislative changes that silence dissent and the deployment of a security apparatus that enforces the rules, allowing autocrats like Egypt’s al-Sissi to confidently claim that his country has no political prisoners and that all inmates have been convicted in accordance with the law.

Nineteen new prisons have been erected in Egypt since the Arab Spring. Every form of interaction is subject to government surveillance, and even industry groups such as the country’s pharmacist association are viewed as suspect. In Jordan, citizens protesting the rising price of bread are immediately brought before a court that handles terrorism and treason cases. Tunisia’s prisons have been operating at 138 percent capacity since a state of emergency enabled mass incarceration, with half of the inmates still waiting for their day in court.

The war in Syria is by far the most extreme manifestation of these methods. But even Assad’s brutality does nothing to solve the underlying problem.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Egypt has made it strikingly clear that old methods will no longer work. Since the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi by the Egyptian military, the number of terrorist attacks has increased almost tenfold, from 44 attacks in 2012 to the current count of around 390 each year. Some 100,000 Egyptians, most of them young men, are in jail. The government has declared a state of emergency, and is mounting its fourth military offensive in the restive region of Sinai (Operation Eagle in 2011; Operation Sinai in 2012; Operation Martyr’s Right in 2015). The tougher the military offensive and the more young Egyptians are locked away in prison, the stronger the resistance. Cairo must acknowledge what the United States learned the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq: it is impossible to quell an opposition movement with force.

This fact is one that Damascus must also confront sooner or later. Those who think the war will be won by government forces would do well to remember that the destruction caused by the conflict has set Syria’s economy and infrastructure back three decades. Between $100 and 300 billion will be required to rebuild the country. That is money that neither Syria, nor its main backers Russia and Iran, have access to.

The Syrian army has lost around half of its soldiers to desertion or death. It has been decimated, and its remaining rank-and-file are tired and in no way capable of ensuring security during the post-war period. It is one thing to annihilate the opposition, but another entirely to create the conditions that would prevent a relapse into war. Even if a ceasefire can be maintained, the conditions for the next rebellion have already been created by the fact that none of the public’s demands from 2011 have been met.

Decision-makers in other Arab countries will also be forced to make painful concessions in order to maintain stability. While Tunisia has managed to keep elections free and fair, the country’s economy is still run by oligarchs with ties to the regime of ousted dictator Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali. Large parts of the economy are subject to state regulation, which has laid the groundwork for monopolies, inhibited competitiveness, stifled job creation, and fueled corruption. A lack of competitors for companies such as Tunesie Telecom and TunisAir means that an international phone call costs roughly 20 times as much as in Europe, and flight prices are twice as high as elsewhere.

An air traffic liberalization deal with the European Union will open Tunisia up for European charter flights, but budget air travel is still a long way off. Young Tunisians cannot start businesses thanks to a system in which loans are only available to large companies. Tunisia’s monopolies are standing between young Tunisians and employment opportunities, meaning that there will come a time when they will have to decide between their status and political stability. One thing is certain: where there is no willingness for compromise, violent unrest is sure to follow.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Readers discouraged by the facts listed above should not lose hope, however; political change is never linear, and often violent. Whether in Germany or in Latin America, democracy was always achieved in small increments and after countless setbacks. In France, the path to universal suffrage between the French Revolution in 1789 and the country’s Fourth Republic was marked by phases in which the right to vote depended on class, income, and gender. Every concession was brought about by protests and crises. The elite never gave up power willingly.

So why is violence always a feature of progress, and why the setbacks? It would be preferable if democracies were born peacefully, as in Eastern Europe. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution were historical anomalies, far removed from the tumultuous conditions that marked the emergence of most other democracies. Instead, it usually occurs as follows: a small elite controls resources and power until the majority of the population comes to the conclusion that they do not have enough resources to survive (this is relative, and cannot be measured – with an average income of $22,000, a citizen of Bahrain is wealthier than his or her Jordanian counterpart, but still earns a fraction of the incomes common among Bahraini elites). The dissatisfied majority then employs mass demonstrations and other methods of civil disobedience to air its grievances.

If the ruling class can employ neither of the aforementioned strategies, and can resort to neither economic nor repressive measures, it is forced to cede power. This is usually done in a piecemeal manner, and because it has no other choice.

This democratic game of ping pong is reflected in data. Of the 90 countries that have embarked on the road to democracy over the past five decades, 39 percent relapsed into authoritarianism, 46 percent became democracies, and 15 percent became democracies after following a tumultuous path. To a certain degree, this pattern can also be seen in the Arab world, with a third of the six countries that saw mass demonstrations in 2011 returning to autocracy. One of the countries is on the path to democracy (17 percent), and half of them could still go either way. Though Syria, Yemen, and Libya do not currently seem to be on the path to democracy, autocratic systems have not yet stabilized in these countries either.

Demonstrations and violence are not always a precondition for concessions by the elite, however. If they recognize the potential for unrest, reforms can sometimes prevent unrest before it begins. Such an attempt is currently underway in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is implementing reforms in an effort to circumvent unrest within his own population. Half of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 25. Youth unemployment stands at 33.5 percent and is set to increase, according to estimates, to 42 percent by 2030. The Saudi population has grown significantly in recent years, the absolute number of people out of work is set to double by 2030, and the number of people who use oil instead of selling it will also double.

Though the proverbial iceberg is years in the future, the Saudi crown prince is already anticipating it by attempting to change course. And while some may deride his eagerness to pass reforms, the prince’s strategy is sure to bear fruit. Decision-makers in other Arab countries are likely to come to the same conclusions, but under greater duress.

A Second Spring?

It remains to be seen when the next wave of mass demonstrations in the Arab world will begin. If reforms are passed in time, perhaps it can be avoided altogether.

If there is a second Arab Spring, there are two areas in which leaders should try to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2011. One is a country’s electoral system. In Egypt, the introduction of a presidential system meant that 51 percent of the vote granted the victor 100 percent of the power. While this is democratic, it sows further seeds of division in already-polarized societies. A political system that promotes coalition-building (such as Germany or Lebanon) is preferable in countries undergoing transition.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary system with a weak executive, like in Libya, can paralyze decision-making. The choice of system should depend on the political context – it is, after all, a reflection of the society in which it operates. After the Arab Spring, political systems were simply imposed on countries without a consideration of the potential consequences.

Second, there should be a focus on reforms that make a tangible difference to the lives of citizens–and quickly. The International Monetary Fund’s focus on the budget deficit and debt reduction may be well-intentioned, but citizens of the Arab world are interested primarily in three things: bread, freedom, and social justice. If these are not granted, the game will begin anew and spring will once again be followed by winter.