Fri, 01/31/2014 - 10:30
The End of Paternalism: Assessing the “Arab Spring” Three Years On
The Arab Spring was the result of long-term structural transformations affecting the Middle East and North Africa. The nation-state system that took root in the region in the aftermath of World War I enabled the consolidation of paternalistic centralized states, but failed to provide for societal checks and balances. By 2011, popular social, political, and economic demands by the region’s citizens could no longer be contained by various autocratic governments. All that was required was the catalyst of the Tunisian uprising, which began in December 2010.
The subsequent unraveling of that brief moment of enthusiasm can also be simply stated. To ensure their own survival, the institutions created by autocratic regimes demonstrated resilience, adaptability, and ruthlessness. Meanwhile, the immature and heterogeneous character of the revolutionary movements made them susceptible to opportunistic radicalism. As a result, the permanence of the current configuration of borders and governments in the Middle East and North Africa is now in serious question: from Syria and Iraq (where the central governments are central only in theory) and Yemen (where secessionist forces have declared their intent) to Libya (where the state remains on life-support) and Egypt (where the Sinai is out of control). But, at the same time, one can be fairly certain that there will be no permanent return to the paternalistic model of governance that enabled dictators to flourish, and tempted the international community to accommodate them.
It is evident that the military is hoping to restore a paternalistic state in Egypt, with support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s expected election as president may create such a temporary illusion. However, such developments are likely only to postpone the inevitable. The injection and adoption of ideas is important, but so is the untenable balance sheet of the region’s governments. The tacit social contract — that of providing a growing population with the false promise of education, employment, and retirement in exchange for its acquiescence to the state’s paternalism — may still be a viable option, but only for a while and only in wealthy Gulf countries. Saudi largesse, driven by shifting geo-strategic considerations, may shield Egypt for now from the drop in international aid and support that will accompany the changing global economic landscape. Not only are citizens largely on their own now, but so are governments. States in which fast-growing populations are placing greater stress on public resources have been forced to scale back their promises and increase their repression, which only perpetuates regional volatility.
Behind the empowerment of the Arab Spring and its novel focus on citizen sovereignty lies a deeper realization: the realization that the state can no longer provide. The implications of this sober fact are yet to be properly understood. In cultures geared toward a dependence on the state that borders on subservience, a transition towards a meaningful independence is not automatic. The act of raising pictures of deposed despots by farmers in rural Tunisia, tribesmen in Libya, and the rural poor in Cairo is not an expression of affection or nostalgia, but a desire to revert back to the impossible promise of the paternalistic state.
The transatlantic community realized at the outset of the Arab Spring that it had inadvertently contributed to the longevity of a bankrupt system of governance. It ought not be tempted, because of the lack of immediate alternatives, to rationalize the return to autocracy. In Tunisia, modest steps are being made toward a new social contract, with citizen sovereignty and responsibility. Helping to replicate that across the region is the necessary path forward, and one that is more compatible with Western values and interests.
Hassan Mneimneh is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed here are the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the stance of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Tags for all blogs :
Comments or opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of FRANCE 24. The content on this blog is provided on an "as-is" basis. FRANCE 24 is not liable for any damages whatsoever arising out of the content or use of this blog.