Nascent Hopes Finance & Development, December 2017, Vol. 54, No. 4
The Arab uprisings may have set in motion a long-term transformation in the region
The antigovernment uprisings that began in Tunisia in late 2010 and quickly spread across most of the Arab world clearly did not lead to rapid establishment of democratic countries as many had hoped. Nearly all nations have returned to the bad governance that prevailed nearly seven years ago and fed the regionwide revolt.
In Libya, Syria, and Yemen, street protests were not effective tools for state building—and the countries are still struggling with civil strife and war. In Egypt, counterrevolutionary forces have prevailed in a temporary and often deceptive state of stability that has failed to address the difficult socioeconomic conditions of regular Egyptians. Gulf states resisted the wave of change initially through financial means—although their resources are now dwindling—without offering any meaningful voice for citizens eager to participate in their countries’ decision-making process.
In Jordan and Morocco, governments have quieted their citizens through a combination of ad hoc reforms not intended to affect the power structure and stoking public fear that protests might lead to the fate of neighboring countries—Egypt and Libya for Moroccans, and Egypt and Syria for Jordanians. They have reverted to business as usual without fundamentally addressing the pressing challenges facing their countries.
Only in Tunisia did the protests trigger a new phase of state building by moving through a consensual, society-led process of agreement on a new social contract.
A transformation long overdueBut if the so-called Arab Spring failed to quickly change the status quo, it may have set in motion, as in Tunisia, a transformational process that was long overdue. It will undoubtedly take decades to unfold, but if it is managed properly, the process can lead to more open and meritocratic societies across the region.
This is because demands for better governance have not waned. Even as the old regimes continue to hold sway, the social contracts that governed most of the Arab world for generations are fracturing. These contracts—most often imposed by governing authorities rather than a result of consensual agreement among societal groups—were based on the two main pillars of the so-called rentier system. The first pillar stipulated that governments are responsible mainly for providing adequate health and education services, jobs, and subsidies for basic...