What is the Arab Spring? The successive wave of protests and demonstrations, which since Saturday, December 18, 2011, have seen governments in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region fall like ninepins? The democratisation, albeit bloody, of the state in that region? A qualified “Yes” to the former question, and a “Surely not” to the latter. At least not yet. If nothing else, the ethnic and religious composition of the Arab states, and the divisions long exploited by the region’s long-lived leaders will guarantee against this for a while. A de-tyrannisation of previously closed political spaces? Again, a “May be”. Incidentally, “chaos theory” and its focus on understanding “non-linear feedback systems” might just have a place in dimensioning these events. Especially, how the demise of an obscure fruit vendor could lead to the death of some of the world’s longest lived regimes.
A further explanation goes back a full decade ago. The first in what was to become a useful series of studies on conditions in the Arab world was published in 2002. Written by some of the leading minds in the MENA region, the scope and eventual import of the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) 2002 was as wide reaching, as it was profound. True, the report conceded, in the thirty years leading up to 2002, Arab countries had made “significant strides in more than one area of human development”. Of course, measured against progress (or the crying absence of it) in Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries, this was a self-evident claim. Indeed, there is a sense in which the category “Sub-Saharan Africa” may have been invented to help development experts compare like with like. Although a great many Arab countries are in Africa, including them in any general measure of performance on the continent would have been (and unfortunately, still is) distorting.
But this is to digress a bit. Despite the progress it had noted, ADHR 2002 concluded that the “predominant characteristic” of the Arab reality 10 years ago “seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings in the Arab institutional structure”. In order to address these shortcomings the report required Arab countries to rebuild their societies based on “full respect for human rights and freedoms as the cornerstone of good governance, leading to human development; the complete empowerment of Arab women, taking advantage of all opportunities to build their capabilities and to enable them to exercise those capabilities to the full; and the consolidation of knowledge acquisition and its effective utilisation”.
If good governance is to have any meaning, it must be in the extent to which a society that pays more than lip service to these precepts begins to strengthen personal freedoms, and widen citizen participation in political and economic affairs. Despite belated attempts at giving their citizens “voice”, the demonstrations that led to regime change in the Arab world only pointed out the limits of tinkering at the margins when the representation deficits faced by a polity are of a systemic character.
However, the more interesting questions from the Arab Spring are the ones to do with how these events resonate with us? Why, for instance, if the Arab States were further along the development ladder than most SSA economies, did the spring not happen here first? As television footage of the crisis in the Arab economies showed, a “middle class” and the consciousness that it brings with it were so important in the spontaneous protests. Lenin had a very interesting definition of social “classes”, one that today’s sociology clearly disagrees with, but whose insistence that “consciousness of itself” as a “class” is important if the latter must organise itself is often hard to disagree with.
Part of our problem in this parts is that this “class” is obviously too small, and insufficiently aware of itself to play the role of “change agent” that “history” has entrusted to it. This is both a governance and economic progress challenge. It is rarely about democracy. At least, this is the first lesson that the Chinese “miracle” teaches. The demand for voice and relative well-being are closely co-related. If nothing else, good governance removes the cost of maintaining client support for the regime in power. In our case, this indicates the possibility of clearer rules, and more transparent tax and tariff regimes.
Unfortunately, rule by civilians, along with regular elections do not a democracy make. The “voice” we seek, is as much about a free press, as it is about a functioning criminal justice system.