$20 IS GREATER THAN $2 TRILLION: What the Arab Spring Can Teach the West about Democracy


$20 is greater than $2 trillion. This may sound like I’m on the wrong side of the divide between ludicrous and insane. However, if you scratch beneath the surface and look at it in the context of the Arab spring, it may make more sense than meets the eye. I have not lost my marbles…not yet.

Perhaps the least publicized fact about the recent string of events that have scalped the heads of two (three, if you include Gaddafi) former formidable Arab dynastic autocracies and threaten to spark a sea of revolution across the wider Middle Eastern region, unprecedented in its history, is the role of Mohammed Bouazizi. Mohammed Bouazizi was the 25 year old Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself ablaze in protest against a tone-death dictatorial regime whose officials humiliated, harassed him and confiscated his wares for the untold time. This brazen act of self immolation resonated across the sub region where the potent mix of crony capitalism, elite capture and indifference on the part of unaccountable political class have rendered its youthful population underemployed, dissatisfied and angry.

So why did $20 (a back of the envelope estimate of the cost of materials used by Mohammed to set himself on fire) make more progress in bringing democracy to the Middle East  than the nearly $2 trillion, and counting (the inflation-adjusted cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) War on Terror which the Bush administration, indicated will unleash democratic reforms across the region, after they failed in their quest to find WMDs.

The answer lies in home grown solutions. Democracy, like other socio-political developments are best attained organically and not by imposition. This is a trend that has manifested itself from its inception in ancient Greece, through the Americas, Europe and most recently in the Eastern Asia. In East Asia for example, rent-seeking practices of ‘political entrepreneurs’ (not very different to what we have in the Middle East today) created the first generation of capitalist – and an expanded middle class, on whose largesse the ruling elite became dependent on, as observed by heterodox economist, Mushtaq Khan. With newly found economic heft and political capital, this group(s) began to make demands on the political elites and forced the extension of democratic rights through popular movements.

It comes as no surprise that the countries where democratic pretentions have gained the most currency in the Arab spring are the ones that implemented the most reforms and began to show signs of decent growth. With this came an expanded middle class (the facebook and youtube crowd) who became the change agents and forced the hands of their dictators to relinquish their thrones. In its 2010 country report, the IMF makes the following observation about Tunisia, “over the past two decades, the North African nation has undertaken wide-ranging structural reforms aimed at enhancing its business environment and improving the competitiveness of its economy… accompanied by prudent macroeconomic management, have reduced the Tunisian economy’s vulnerability to shocks—including the global financial crisis—and provided more options for the authorities to respond to them.”

So why did Egypt and Tunisia, star pupils of IMF-style reforms crumble so spectacularly? The answer is that economic reforms, rather than placate a restive population, have the ironic effect of increasing expectations further.

Unfortunately, for African leaders and others of the developing world, the diplomatic equivalence of guns were held to their heads when they went to the international financial institutions, cap-in-hands, for Greek-style bail-out  funds, when their economies run into geopolitical headwinds in the seventies and eighties. The so-called Structural Adjustment Program (SAPs) offered them a false choice between democratizing in order to be eligible for bail-out funds or perishing. The end results were dreadful as have previous western interventions (see chart 1).

In worst cases, the mad rush to embrace western-style democratic institutions, unsuited to local environs often lead to populist, short term economic measures designed to win votes rather than address structural deficits. New regimes are often as incompetent as old ones while winning by any means necessary deepen fault lines along ethnicity and religion, usually escalating in conflicts.

In less benign cases, this leads to the “Museveni-paradox” where dictatorial governments often acquiesce to hold elections on condition that they would win, under the auspices of international “observes” who were often too quick to pass them as “free” and “fair”, to forestall any humanitarian crisis that, on more occasions than not, accompany such electoral sideshows.

Ill-advised and ill-timed kangaroo elections are promoted at the expense of more pressing demands such as bread and butter issues, often forgetting that democracy in the absence of enablers such as well-run bureaucracies, functioning civil society organizations, competent police force, broad tax base, etc (all products of economic growth) are doomed to have a hard time of succeeding.

In the mean time, there has been a less than laser-like focus on economic management (a la China-style) while election-time rhetorical flourishes do nothing to assuage the restive nerves of already scared-thin international investors.

The unpalatable truth is crony capitalism, benevolent dictators and their ilk, as reprehensible as they sound may be necessary evils in the onward progress towards modernity, insofar as they enhance the well-being of the masses.  Fact is economic reforms often leads to democratic movements and not the other way around. Europe, Asia and even the United States of America bear witness to this truism. Better yet, foreign imposition of democratic freedoms, however noble they may be, often create unintended consequences. The streets of Cairo and Tunis have once again proven the answers are often from within.

Those who do not learn the lessons of history are bound to repeat them.

Copyright 2011 (September) Neo-African Consensus

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1 Response to $20 IS GREATER THAN $2 TRILLION: What the Arab Spring Can Teach the West about Democracy

  1. Amma A says:

    Very interesting perspective. Nothing could be more closer to the truth. The movement needs to be born from the people at the grass roots, from their own journey and quest for reform, whether it be economic or political (democracy). There is no other way, South Africa too bears witness to this truism.

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