End of the Arab Spring?
It has been a little more than a week since the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Amid protests, a few anti-U.S. extremists launched the attacks, which resulted in Benghazi in the tragic death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. Unsurprisingly, al Qaeda has wasted no time exploiting the situation, calling for more assaults on American embassies in Muslim countries.
What these extremists have really capitalized on is the existing frustrations of the Arab Spring protesters, who continue to wait for the benefits of the democratic transition to trickle down to them. Yes, citizens won the political freedom they demanded in 2011, ousting Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah. It will take time for these new democratic systems to be consolidated, but at the very least the newly elected officials know citizens are fully prepared to hold them accountable as part of the new social contract. The kind of economic freedom the Arab Spring protesters crave, however, is still lacking.
Economically, it is highly questionable whether the situation is better now than it was pre-Arab Spring—something that has surely crossed the minds of protesters and will lead to further unrest at some point. Youth unemployment, for instance, remains shamefully high at 26.4 percent and 27.5 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). In Egypt, a 41-year old man who had been unemployed for four years, Arafa Kamel Khalifa, traveled more than 300 kilometers from Asyut to Cairo and set himself on fire on Aug. 26 outside Mohamed Morsi’s presidential palace. The ILO suggests Libya’s unemployment rate is as high as 30 percent, mostly affecting women and youth. In Yemen, it is as high as 50 percent. It will take time for jobs to be created, especially for frustrated youth who make up more than 50 percent of the region.
Job creation requires economic growth, and that is heavily dependent on foreign aid. While Libya’s growth is expected to double post-civil war with the resumption of oil production, Yemen is looking for $11 billion to rebuild its economy, and Egypt has requested a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. We all know the difficulties of implementing such growth programs even with aid, especially when governments are still trying to find their footing. The World Bank has predicted that growth in the region will drop by almost half this year, to 0.6 percent, down from 1 percent last year. There is unquestionable potential for further frustration and unrest.
Food price inflation was another driver of the original Arab Spring protests. With limited local data, it’s difficult to determine if this has been tackled at this stage. A Sept. 6 statement from the U.N.’s Food & Agriculture Organization suggests global food prices stabilized last month at levels close to the 2008 crisis, but drought means global grain stocks will likely shrink in the remaining months of 2012. An Aug. 30 World Bank report has already warned that, with soaring grain prices, the Middle East and North Africa may be at significant risk—their governments are, after all, heavily dependent on such imports to feed their growing populations. This could create unrest in Egypt, for instance, which is the world’s primary wheat importer.
Many will continue to describe this latest wave of protests as rooted in extremism, anti-Americanism, or as a failure of the Arab Spring movement and U.S. policy. But in fact, we are simply witnessing the evolution of the original struggle of the Arab Spring that began back in December 2010. We should expect more bursts of frustration as citizens continue to search for the economic legitimacy of their new democratically elected leaders. It will take time, but eventually we will see the Arab Spring in full bloom.