Globe WorldWatch

The Middle East


The Middle East is in turmoil. First Tunisia, then Egypt: the west is losing its friends in the region rather fast, and markets are beginning to get rattled.  What comes next? 

The potential for anarchy in the Middle East to inflict wider damage cannot be doubted. It is not just a question of oil and commodities, or the fact that the world economy is in any case vulnerable. The security of the world depends on managing the security of the Middle East. A systemic breakdown of the old order in the region has implications that run from bad to nothing short of apocalyptic.

The key phrase here is ‘old order’: this is a generational protest. Almost without exception the states in the region are controlled by autocrats who are either old themselves or who head up geriatric political systems. Yet the population of the Middle East is young, and has been getting younger. Nowhere is the median age older than 29. In Egypt for example it is 24. In Jordan it is 22, and in Yemen it is less than 18.

But why protest today, and not yesterday? Two things have changed. One is the growth of personal communications and the internet. According to the International Telecommunications Union the number of mobile telephone subscriptions in the Arab world has grown 300% in the last five years, and the region now has over 79 subscriptions per hundred inhabitants – more than Asia. This has put an organizing power into the hands of the young.

The other new factor is the growth of unemployment. The Arab world has done well out of high oil prices, but growth has not brought employment. Egypt has around 10 percent unemployment, as does Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Jordan has over 13 percent. But oil-rich Libya has almost a third of the population out of work, and Yemen has 35 percent unemployed. The ranks of the disaffected are being swelled by returnees from the contracting economies of southern Europe. These unemployed are young, many of them are graduates, and all of them are angry.

Anger is directed at leaders as much as at systems. Many of the Arab world’s regimes are in the midst of succession crisis: that includes Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, and perhaps Libya too. Populations that have put up with a dictator for decades are saying they are not prepared to put up with the dictator’s son as well.

Let’s look at the chief suspects still standing. In Algeria there is President Bouteflika, in power since 1999, and having recently changed the constitution to allow him to remain president for life. In Libya there is Colonel Gaddafi, a quixotic enigma who is the Arab world’s longest serving head of state, having grabbed power when the Beatles were still in business. In Egypt there is embattled Hosni Mubarrak, in office long before many of today’s protestors were born. And in the Yemen President Ali Abdullah Salih has held office for a third of a century. Syria too has been in the control of the al-Assad family since 1970, while running Morocco has been a one-family affair since 1956.

This parade of mainly old men running old and unresponsive systems seems to the protestors on the streets of Cairo and Tunis ripe for removal. But in the Middle East, the key problem is that the old order is the only order. Opposition is weak and disorganized. Extremist Islamists have been ruthlessly suppressed and in the process moderate Islamism has been stifled, while liberal democratic opposition based on rights and votes barely exists.

But the Arab world, so often described as unstable, is actually deeply fearful of instability. For many in the region, the lesson of Iraq is a powerful reminder of what happens when a strong and repressive regime is suddenly toppled. The fear of change is strong.

Egypt is the critical case. Egypt is by far the most populous Arab country, and it exerts a unique cultural and intellectual influence. Whatever the outcome of the Egyptian popular uprising, it will determine the fate of the Middle East. If the Egyptian state collapses, to be followed by a more populist form of government, then the fire in the Middle East will burn on. But will the Egyptian state system collapse? That is unlikely. Apart from anything else the Egyptian army, which is so large and well equipped as to be almost a parallel state, supports the status quo – as it is bound to do in what is essentially a military dictatorship. President Mubarrak may have to leave the stage, but the stage is likely to remain the same. Crucially there is no opposition figure who commands widespread support.

Therefore, the new Egypt is likely to look remarkably like the old Egypt, with existing structures and treaties – including the peace treaty with Israel – intact. And the new Middle East will look very much like the old Middle East. Governments will be reshuffled. One or two long-serving leaders will no longer be visible.

There will be change. Governments will find it less easy to pretend that they are reforming; more attention will be paid to the demands of citizens, and more attention to energizing domestic economies. There may even be a surge of growth.

But the fundamental malaise will remain.  The final day of reckoning will be postponed – but when the reckoning comes it may be much more violent than anything yet seen on the streets of Cairo. 

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