A Few Observations on Current Events in North Africa and Middle East

Articles and Analysis

A Few Observations on Current Events in North Africa and Middle East


March 13, 2011


Despite the growing oil wealth and commercial relationships with industrialized economies, Arab societies in general have mostly remained closed societies. For one thing, Arab governments have remained authoritarian and the leaders less willing to introduce political reforms and legislations that protect and promote social, economic and civic rights. Although Kuwait, Dubai, Jordan and others have done limited reforms, overall power and wealth have remained concentrated in the hands of social and political elites. Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and other resource poor countries remained dependent on aid and remittances, some of which was allegedly siphoned off by corrupt government officials. The urban uprisings that started in Tunisia and Egypt have now spread to the whole of region of North Africa and Middle East.

Furthermore, there were and still are Islamist and nationalist (pan-Arab) scholars who have been contending that, in Islamic societies, the social, cultural, religious, political, historical, moral and other aspects of life are one and the same - an Islamic way of life. These scholars thus warned that Western commandeered global political liberalization initiatives would antagonize relations between the West and Arab world. Indeed, the late Samuel Huntington (who introduced the provocative idea of “clash of civilizations”) had shared this view. In Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993), Huntington wrote, “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations... The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future”. In short, then, intellectually Arab societies were viewed as being unique and unprepared to accommodate changes. Social, economic and civic and rights and political reforms were unrealistic and less important.

Clearly, such approaches or sentiments could have served the interest of Arab ruling elites who instituted authoritarian rules (read = democracy is non-Islamic) and in recent years openly suggesting to groom their offsprings as their future successors. Meanwhile, ruling elites collided with social elites to amass the countries’ wealth and lead exceedingly luxurious (non-Islamic) ways of life while the Arab masses languished in poverty. The masses rose up embracing Western ideals of equality, democracy and accountability. They sought Western governments’ moral, if not political, support. We can speculate what the late Samuel Huntington would have said if he were alive today, or the dismay of Muslim Brothers in Egypt and other anti-West groups in the region as they witness Arab masses turning to the West for assistance. But, we can agree that North African and Middle Eastern societies are ready to embrace democracy and that there are no serious “clash of civilizations” between societies of the West and this region.

There are however formidable challenges ahead. Democracy generates competing demands for resources, influence, identity, social justice and state power. Unless there are institutions to mediate these processes, competing interests could degenerate into political crises. Remember Ethiopia in 1974! The rotten feudal system came crumbling when the reactionary monarch was unseated from power by a popular uprising aided by a military coup. Different political groups vying for state power fought and destroyed each other with Derge emerging as victorious. Similarly, in Arab societies that have been ruled by political oligarchies for decades, it may be difficult to fill the political vacuum. Unmet expectations could create political opportunities for extremist groups that divide society and can abort the democratization processes. Rich nations, including those in the Middle East, must provide finances to revive the economies and build institutions of governance that ensure the equal distribution of opportunities in societies.

The folks at Washington-based Endowment for Democracy were in recent years feeling some sort of uncertainty about the global state of democracy after witnessing what they call ”democracy pushback” situations in many part of the world, especially the resurgence of the political left in Latin America. I suspect that these days they are in a good mood as they witness a “wind of change” blowing across North Africa and Middle East. We wait to read their analysis in the next issue of Journal of Democracy (which they publish). This said, in my view, the majority of analysts still debate to determine different outcome scenarios, such as successful political democratization or societies’ descent into anarchy and chaos. Ethiopian government foreign policy and intelligence analysts should also be concerned with the implications, such as the possibility of a radical Islamic group taking power in Cairo and going to war with Ethiopia over the Nile waters.

Finally, of course, we have our own Diaspora groups that have in recent weeks spent their precious time arguing that what are happening in North Africa and Middle East could happen in Ethiopia. Even the way they talk makes one wonder whether they suffer from hallucination (a psychiatric problem associated with distorted perception of reality). Ethiopia is a country that has successfully implemented radical land reforms and designed a federal system that guarantees equal political, social, economic and cultural rights. The dramatic display of Ethiopia’s cultural diversity during the recent Forum of Federations conference in Addis Ababa stunned delegates including Canadians who always pride themselves for having a global model state that pursues official policies and programs of multiculturalism. Certainly there are problems (inequality, corruption, marginalization, abuses, etc), but these are attributable to lack of strong governance capacities, not because of state sanctioned policies. All this is to conclude by saying that, instead of trying to replicate experiences in foreign lands, we can think of helping Ethiopians to develop the capacity for seeking and developing home-grown solutions.

Getachew Mequanent
Ottawa, Canada
March 2011


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