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The Actual Arab Winter

Forget about radical Islam; the real regional challenge is economic stagnation

By Eric T. Justin

The “actual” cause of the Arab civil uprisings became the pet debate of Middle East analysts almost immediately after protests seized the Arab world last January—most likely because that conversation conveniently avoided discussion of why the great majority of academics and pundits denied the possibility of a region-wide revolution in the first place. Now, the rise of political Islam has replaced that subject as analysts’ pet debate. Unfortunately, the character of both debates reflects a myopic, politics-based perspective that overlooks the region’s most prominent threat: an economic winter.

Since 1949, American journalism on the Middle East has tended to concern itself with Israel’s security and, since 1979, political Islam. But these concerns encourage a shortsighted focus on surface-level political developments in the Arab world. With the exception of the Gulf oil market, the region’s economy remains a subject of neglect.

This is not, in fact, a uniquely American or Western phenomenon. In Egypt I discovered that, with the obvious exception of economists, very few Egyptians—including top journalists, academics, activists, and politicians—considered Egypt’s economic struggles outside of a social or political lens. I raised this observation to Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian presidential candidate and former Secretary General of the Arab League, during an interview at his office in Cairo this July. He argued, “This kind of dichotomy [between the elite’s focus on political issues and the economic concerns of most people] certainly exists because the so-called elite are just talking to each other and staying in the same place and reading the same stuff.”

With all due respect to Mr. Moussa, the generation of Arab youth that stormed capitals across the region should not be satisfied with that answer. In a dangerous paradox, Arab leaders are avoiding the subject of economic challenges because of their immensity. The Muslim Brotherhood, of which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is a member, promised an economic “nahda,” or renaissance, within his first hundred days in office. Those hundred days passed, and besides some fairly trivial changes in government retirement pensions, the president and his executive cabinet have done little to address Egypt’s prodigious economic shortcomings.

In an interview with Ayman Nour, founder of Egypt’s Ghad party and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s major challenger in the 2005 presidential election, Dr. Nour suggested to me that the absence of discussion of economic issues may result from fear of discussing a more underlying issue. “The conversation between the military and the civil sphere about the future and the present is a very important issue that should have been clearly discussed in the presidential debates or candidate platforms...My opinion is that this subject was never discussed in an honest way.” In a country where the military has control of “40 percent of the Egyptian economy,” according to one former Egyptian diplomat, Abdullah al-Ashaal, the failure to address the military’s economic stranglehold indicates that political divisions are preventing necessary economic advances.

To illustrate the risks of overlooking these economic issues, let me present two economic challenges the Arab world faces that overshadow the rise of political Islam.

The first great obstacle to the Arab world’s economic growth is simple demography. According to a recent report by the International Labour Organisation, youth unemployment in North Africa will only decline from its present level of 27.5 percent to 26.7 percent by 2017. The ILO also forecasts that youth unemployment rates in the Middle East will increase from 26.4 percent this year to 28.4 percent by 2017. These rates greatly exceed the levels of the rest of the world. A newly unemployed youth in a town in Tunisia set off the Arab Spring with his self-immolation, and the region will stay lit until it can find a path to employing its youth.

A less discussed but equally dangerous challenge faced by the region is bloated public sectors that inhibit innovation and growth. According to a recent International Monetary Fund report, the Middle East and North Africa region holds the highest central government wage bill in the world, and public sector employment as a percentage of nonagricultural employment is a staggering seventy percent in Egypt. As Masood Ahmed, Director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, wrote in that report, “The dominant role of the public sector as employer throughout MENA has distorted labour market outcomes and diverted resources from a potentially more dynamic private sector.”

Considering these challenges and many others, perhaps the most important question facing the region is: Will economic stagnation reinforce the region’s turn toward political Islam, or will it expose the Islamist statesmen for the amateurs they are?

Stay tuned.

Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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