The turmoil engulfing Egypt’s presidential election has been a stark reminder of the difficulties the Arab Spring countries face with challenging political transitions. In countries where democracy has little precedent and where popular will was long suppressed, the new political opening has brought much anticipated civil liberties but also juxtaposed competing forces and diverging interests. Yet, among all the attention that headlines give to the political process, the story of another equally crucial transition – economic one – is often lost.
It is important to keep in mind that the roots of MENA revolts were both political and economic in nature, including demographic pressures, inefficient public sector, and constrained private sector. In other words, the lack of political freedoms was compounded by the profound lack of economic freedoms. That in turn fueled unsustainable levels of government employment and swelled the ranks of young people like Tunisia’s Mohammed Bouazizi who, without other viable options, strive to earn a meager living in the informal sector. A year and a half after Tunisia ousted its long-time authoritarian ruler, political transformation is underway but the economy struggles.
Many Tunisians who rose in protest against Ben Ali are disappointed with slow progress of reforms. Protestor Beshar Messaoud recently interviewed by NPR says that, economically speaking, things are exactly the same and the government has brought no solutions to the problems that led to the revolution in the first place. Unemployment is officially at 18 percent but it may actually be twice as high. Another interviewee, 35-year-old Laila Turki adds that if Tunisia doesn’t get its act together and improve its economy quickly, it will undermine its chances to build a functioning democracy.
But there are many misconceptions about what is needed for the economy to improve. For one, demands for economic change often focus on populist calls for more entitlements with little consideration given to how a sound economy capable of delivering sustained prosperity to its citizens can be built. What is more, the very understanding of what a true market economy entails has been tainted by decades of crony capitalism in the region. As a recent post on the Institute of Economic Affairs‘ (IEA) blog points out, the meaning of “pro-business” in MENA has been warped: the “pro-business” policies of authoritarian leaders were limited to only one type of businesses – the ones connected to the government. That’s not the same as being pro-market, which requires allowing economic freedom for all segments of the society and building institutions that enable competition on a level playing field.
Instead, MENA ruling elites built systems that monopolized economic rents and jealously guarded their own economic privileges. That, in turn, necessitated the suppression of not just freedom of political expression but economic freedom as well. The legacy of that system is clearly visible in Egypt today. During the rule of post-independence leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak – all military men – the military has amassed a huge business empire in sectors from agriculture to electronics. Current estimates show that military-connected enterprises account for 10 to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy; meanwhile, more than 40 percent of Egyptians continue to live on $2 a day or less. Therefore, the real question of Egypt’s political transition is whether the formal return to civilian rule will translate into meaningful boost to pluralism on the economic front (pun intended).
The same goes for transitions in other MENA countries as well. Their success will depend on the degree to which the economic undercurrents of political turmoil are better understood and more effectively addressed, and the degree to which the misconceptions about the nature of market-oriented reforms are overcome. As the IEA blog emphasizes, a deeper reflection on the central place of the entrepreneur in economic development is needed, since “the future of the Arab Spring depends on the capacity of the new democratically elected governments to implement measures to prevent crony capitalism, restore the rule of law and promote economic freedom, in order to ensure general prosperity.”