Tag Archives: arab spring

Arab Spring Grievances Still Not Being Addressed in Yemen

A street vendor in Sana'a, Yemen. (Photo: Rick McCharles)

A street vendor in Sana’a, Yemen. (Photo: Rick McCharles)

More than two years ago, the suicide of a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Tarek Bouazizi set off a string of protests that eventually led to regime change and promises of reform throughout the Arab world. Unfortunately, the root causes of Bouazizi’s frustrations have still not been addressed in countries like Yemen.

In 2011, after having his wares confiscated for failing to pay a bribe, Bouazizi succumbed to the pressures of poverty and desperation, committing suicide by self-immolation. This tragic act led to what later became known as the Arab Spring, arguably the greatest geopolitical realignment since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the millions of street vendors and others who work in the informal sector have not yet realized the promise of democracy. They remain vulnerable to extortion, harassment, and other forms of abuse. By not addressing the root causes of the Arab Spring, emerging democracies such as Yemen risk losing the popular support and legitimacy that are essential to a thriving democracy.

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Economic Inclusion, Democracy, and the Arab Spring

Examples of some of the informal legal documents used by "extralegal" businesses in the Arab world. (Source: ILD)

Examples of some of the informal legal documents used by “extralegal” businesses in the Arab world. (Source: ILD)

On December 17, 2010, police expropriated the equipment and goods of a fruit seller in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Because of his informal status, the fruit seller had no option of appeal or avenue for official protest. He also had no collateral to secure a loan to buy new equipment, let alone grow his business. With no means of supporting his family of seven, the man now world famous for lighting the first spark of the Arab Spring, Mohammed Bouazizi, committed suicide by self immolation.

Bouazizi’s tragedy stemmed from an affront to his dignity, an absence of justice, and economic disenfranchisement. He was not alone. As the following months unfolded, it became clear just how many businesspersons and citizens across the region shared these same grievances when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand political and economic freedom.

Since then over two years have passed and Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans have experienced the unprecedented democratic elections and the chance to choose their own leaders. But free and fair elections, even at their best, are only half the battle.

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Index Puts a Spotlight on Corruption

Since 1995, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index has been putting corruption on the map by scoring the level of public sector corruption in countries around the world. What can we learn from this report — aside from the fact that corruption remains a widespread problem requiring urgent attention?

The top and bottom countries in this year’s index are no surprise: once again, Denmark, New Zealand, and Finland are tied at the top of the list of cleanest countries, while Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia share the bottom spot as most corrupt. It is interesting to note the geographic, cultural, and economic diversity of the world’s least corrupt countries. They include some of the wealthiest nations, such as Switzerland and Luxembourg; middle-income countries like Uruguay and Chile; small countries like Iceland and Barbados; and large, diverse societies like the United States.

One thing the least corrupt countries have in common: all but one of the countries in the top 20 is a democracy and is currently rated “Free” by Freedom House; Singapore and the territory of Hong Kong, also in the top 20, are rated “Partly Free.” Thirteen of the top 20 also sit in the top 20 on the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking. The bottom-ranked countries on the transparency index are also considered by Freedom House to be the world’s most undemocratic, and, not coincidentally, are difficult places to do business.

Of course, few observers expected Denmark or North Korea to switch positions this year. But the failure of countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen to improve may be more more worrying. In 2011, popular revolts sparked by high levels of corruption (among other factors) led to a change of leadership in each these countries. The mandate for their new, post-Arab Spring regimes was clear: fighting corruption should be a top priority.

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Liberation Technology

(Photo: the New Middle East blog)

We live in a connected world: social media platforms that did not exist a decade ago now boast hundreds of millions of users and mobile phones are commonplace in even the poorest and most remote regions. Are these technologies, which have reshaped daily life for millions, a catalyst for democratic reform, or part of a new digital panopticon through which governments can spy on and control their citizens?

In 2007, when Larry Diamond coined the term “liberation technology,” these questions were largely academic – and were discussed at length in a collection of articles in the Journal of Democracy, recently updated and re-released in a book of the same name. But when democratic revolutions swept the Arab world four years later, spurred on by Facebook and watched around the world in real time on Twitter and YouTube, it seemed that the Internet had finally emerged as a force for positive political change in even the most repressive regimes.

At the same time, authoritarian governments are learning how to fight back, with some of the same tools. In many countries, the Internet has itself become an electronic battleground where repressive regimes are employing increasingly sophisticated strategies for repression and manipulation.

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Sudan’s Arab spring is really hot

Social media provided a continuous flow of updates about the government’s crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators, news about detainees, and maps of the location of the scattered protests. Just as in Egypt, Tunisia, and now Syria, activists in Sudan are using these online tools not only to coordinate their own activities, but also in hopes of drawing the attention of the wider world.

Interestingly, despite the fact that Sudan is a very poor country with nearly half the population under the poverty line, 10 percent still had access to the Internet as of 2008. It is estimated that this proportion has doubled in the last four years, and the country may now have as many as 8 million regular Internet users.

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Delivering Dignity in the Arab World through Political and Economic Reform

Moderator Steve Clemons and panelists Larry Diamond, Michele Dunne, and John D. Sullivan. (Left to right; Photo: Staff)

In the past year since the uprisings in the Arab world, there has been no shortage of debate on the political future of Arab countries. Yet we are all still grappling — in Washington as in the affected countries — with the economic dimensions of this upheaval and their implications for political transition. While the region may be in the early stages of a long transition marked by considerable opportunity, the opportunity can only be sustained if key economic challenges are soon addressed.

On May 15, CIPE had the pleasure to host two experts who possess a strong grasp of the political economy issues at stake: Larry Diamond, Director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), and Michele Dunne, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Steve Clemons from The Atlantic moderated an insightful discussion, which also featured John Sullivan, CIPE’s Executive Director.

While the uprisings can be interpreted through different lenses, Dunne stated that without the underpinnings of economic reform, the political transitions will face trouble. Former regimes that had been producing economic results ran out of time as they became discredited by human rights abuses and political repression. So in order to win public support for economic reform, honest government is an imperative. Diamond spelled out at least three things the public requires to accept reform: governments must be legitimate (beginning with counter-corruption efforts); they must present a road map for reform; and they must engage people in the reform process.

Although Egypt is widely understood to be a pivotal country, Diamond observed that Tunisia has disproportionate significance as a symbol of democratic transition and a test case for the region, in the way that Portugal once was in 1974. Another interesting comparison raised by Dunne was between Libya and the United Arab Emirates. The contrast between these countries, once at a similar level of development, illustrates the importance of governance to economic prosperity and human development.

Clemons keyed in on the issue of economic informality, especially Hernando De Soto’s study of informal merchants’ concerns in North Africa. Clemons suggested that finding solutions to small and medium entrepreneurs’ specific grievances could provide an entry point to broader reforms. Sullivan cited the barriers that informal businesses continue to face, including the costs of registering a business (equivalent to a poor merchant’s annual income) and the lack of a framework to accommodate bankruptcy, which results in many poor business people being sent to prison.

To address these concerns, Sullivan recommended mobilizing small and medium business owners through associations, as CIPE does by helping the Federation of Economic Development Associations (FEDA) in Egypt. The CDDRL recently published a case study on CIPE’s work with the FEDA, “Economic Reform and Democracy in the MENA Region: A Case Study of CIPE’s Projects in Egypt and Lebanon.”

The bottom line, as I believe all panelists would agree with Diamond, is that “political freedom must be accompanied by economic freedom and sustainability,” and much more must be done to advance dialogue on identifying economic reform solutions. Where should one begin, given the need for far-reaching reform in both economic and political spheres? Begin by listening, as Sullivan advised. Engage citizens in dialogue through associations and other fora, and learn how they themselves conceive of dignity, their interests, and their future.

The Arab League and the New Middle East

Baghdad hosts its first Arab League summit since 1990. (Photo: Carnegie Endowment)

Last month, leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa were invited to Baghdad for a glitzy three-day Arab League summit meeting, their first in two years. Many of the changes of the Arab Spring were unforeseen, however, and it is becoming very clear what the aspirations of the people are – and that governments across the region can no longer afford to ignore them.

What was most interesting, given the magnitude of what has happened and with the political wrangling that went on behind the scenes, was a missed opportunity to put together an economic plan to help stabilize their respective governments. Instead they produced the “Declaration of Baghdad,” a list of 49 declarations covering everything from adopting a comprehensive vision for political reform for all member states to expressing solidarity and support for the governments of Sudan, Somalia, and the Comoros Islands. However, while some reports suggested that the summit was a failure, there were also positive signs of an agreement as to where these economic reforms should be made.

In the declaration, the Arab League highlighted the role that reforms targeted at small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) can play in improving the business environment, making Arab industries more desirable for foreign direct investment:

  • Declaration 27. Evaluation of actions taken by the Arab League to review the Unified Agreement for the investment of capital in the Arab countries to modify the form, which is consistent with international economic developments, and to emphasize the importance of holding an Arab conference to study the investment climate in Arab countries, and the importance of taking steps that would be given more attention SMEs because of their importance in reducing unemployment in Arab countries. And to provide facilities for Arab businessmen to engage in investment projects in order to achieve common interests and promote intraregional trade among Arab countries.

It also noted the importance of more deeply integrating Arab economies into an Arab Customs Union and an Arab Common Market:

  • Declaration 29. Emphasize the importance of integration of Arab economies through free trade and investment and activating the role of the private sector and civil society to contribute actively in the process of comprehensive development in the framework of the Greater Arab Free Trade and move towards the establishment of the Arab Customs Union and leading the Arab Common Market in 2020.

With millions of unemployed youth across the region, real reforms to outdated trade barriers, crumbling infrastructure, and a weak private sector are a few places where governments can start if politicians hope to remain legitimate. Including the private sector in these reforms will also help to incentivize foreign direct investment. This will provide jobs and economic security in the short term, and more efficient and market-friendly trade networks with fellow Arab League members in the long term.

Lowering barriers to entry, reducing tariffs, and creating favorable conditions for entrepreneurship are some reforms to the business environment that all member states can make. According to a recent report, The Economics of the Arab Spring, published by Oxford University, “the private sector in the MENA region is notable for its limited export presence. Overall, the region holds less than one percent of the world market share in non-fuel exports — compared to 10 percent in East Asia, and 4 percent in Latin America.”

Recently, the Tunisian government released its “Jasmine Plan” to rebuild the country’s economy. The plan, which focuses on three central themes: 1) political reform, 2) carrying out the democratic transition, 3) setting conditions for sustained social and economic development in the medium term, could form a model for other members of the Arab League. Highlighting the role that the private sector can play in reforms, the economic plan cites the importance of making much-needed reforms to improve the business environment and support SMEs.

Using the Tunisian “Jasmine Plan” as an example, and the “Declaration of Baghdad” as a framework, the Arab League can help guide and coordinate the economic reforms that the region so desperately needs. With the third summit session already scheduled to be held in Riyadh in 2013, the Arab League now has a place where it can submit draft reforms to integrate the Arab economies, and activate the role that the private sector can play in economic development across the region.