EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Arab political turmoil: what's cooking?
, March 5, 2011
The protests which began with the suicide of a street seller in a country town in Tunisia last December, and brought down the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, show no signs of abating. The latest reports of street violence inspired by events in North Africa come from Yemen, Iran, Bahrain, Libya and Algeria.
The catalyst for these events is the rising cost of living, particularly soaring food and oil prices which impact on poor people who spend a large proportion of their incomes on food and transport.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) food price index has risen about 50 per cent since the middle of 2010, reflecting the impact of drought in Eastern Europe and Russia (the third largest wheat exporter), and wet weather in Canada (another major wheat exporter).
The spike in food prices has also been driven by growing affluence in Asia, particularly China and India, which is pushing up demand.
Unfortunately, the countries of the Middle East most affected by the street protests have little prospect of significantly increasing food production, at least in the short-term.
In Egypt, for example, most people live in rural areas and almost half are illiterate. Despite the widespread belief that Arab countries are awash with oil, countries most affected by the present crisis have few natural resources and import most of their wheat and oil.
Another important factor in the unrest has been the role of two Arab-language TV networks, al Jazeera
based in Qatar, and al Arabiya
, owned by the Saudi Arabian government. In contrast to the state-controlled media throughout the region, these networks have published extensive reports on the political unrest, inadvertently fanning the protests.
The Mubarek regime shut down al Jazeera
inside Egypt, but it continued to be shown on satellite TV, to which much of the Egyptian population had access.
A less well understood influence is the high level of unemployment, particularly among young people in the Arab world. Many of these are well-educated, but have no prospect of getting employment, creating a reservoir of angry, alienated people desperate for change.
This factor was discussed in a book published well before the present crisis, Arab Economies in the Twenty-First Century
, written by Paul Rivlin (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
One reviewer commented, "Much has been written about the youth bulge in the Middle East and North Africa and its impact on economic and political development in the region. Despite the high rate of growth in population and the even more important skewed age distribution towards the young, Arab governments appeared content to ignore the warnings and the implications of this development or to turn it to their advantage....
"This 'demographic transition' was a plus for other countries but is on course to be a major economic, social and political burden with serious consequences for the stability of the region.... Arab labour markets are unable to produce the jobs needed to satisfy a growing and young population."
A commentator in Asia Times Online
, observing the young people in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo, noted that their knowledge of the internet and social networking, which brought them to the square, was absolutely useless in addressing the country's underlying problems.
He said, "Egypt churns out 700,000 university graduates a year qualified to stamp each other's papers and not much else, and employs perhaps 200,000 of them, mostly in government bureaucracy.
"As Egypt's new Finance Minister Samir Radwan said of the young people who put him in power (to the Financial Times
on February 13), 'I'm generalising, but a large number of the Egyptian labour force is unemployable. The products of the education system are unemployable'.
"Two years' output of the country's higher education system will fill Tahrir Square with young people who have nothing else to do. They know the internet, to be sure; the internet café is the ubiquitous peep-hole on the great world available to anyone in the global South with a couple of dinars or pesos to spend." (Asia Times Online
, February 16, 2011).
What all this means is that there is no short-term prospect of addressing the underlying socio-economic challenges facing the Arab states: rising prices of staple foods, and chronic unemployment, including among those who have university degrees.
The idea that the election of a new democratic government will automatically solve these problems is a cruel delusion: the best that could emerge is an open society which could at least discuss what has gone wrong.
The demand for immediate political reform and early elections will play into the hands of long suppressed, but well-organised Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood which are perfectly capable of playing the democratic game - until they get power, as happened in Iran after the Shah's overthrow.
If this happens, latter-day Kerenskys such as Mohamed elBaradei will be swept aside, to become footnotes in history.Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.