All Writings
November 1, 2011

The Arab Spring: Political Reforms Must Be Accompanied by Economic Developments

Whereas political reforms are needed and necessary, no Arab country is ready for rapid and comprehensive democratic reforms without an orderly and purposeful transitional period that would be accompanied (if not preceded) by economic development programs. Indeed, instead of producing the desired outcome of a free and vibrant new social and political order, rapid political reforms without economic development could usher in a period of continued instability. Potentially, this would pave the way for the re-emergence of totalitarian regimes that will assume power under the pretext of maintaining order and stability.

Opposition political parties in Egypt, Tunisia, and now Libya have not been given enough time or a sufficient opportunity to organize or campaign freely in an effective way. They possess no culture of political development and have limited experience in country-wide political campaigns, stifling the growth of civic participation. For this reason, a minimum transitional period of two years is needed to allow for the development of secular political parties, not only to establish their political agendas, but to be in a position to promulgate their political platforms in a free atmosphere.

For all intents and purposes, the only political party that can quickly surface as a major political force in Egypt, for example, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has quietly but effectively been organizing for many years. If a truly free and fair election is to be held as planned in November 2011, the Brotherhood will emerge as a powerful political party with the ability to influence government policies, regardless of whether it becomes part of the ruling government or remains in the opposition. The electoral victory of the Islamist party, Ennahda, in the first elections in post-Ben-Ali Tunisia in October (after only ten months of ousting the old regime) is an indication of what would happen in Egypt.

The same can be said of Libya. There, planned general elections should be postponed at least two years. Indeed, holding elections in the near term, as the US and EU countries are prone to push for, would be a catastrophic mistake for Libya, which Qaddafi deliberately left in shambles. Political parties must be given time and resources to organize, develop political platforms and familiarize the public with their stands on various issues affecting the country's future security and economic development. Opting for elections too soon would give much credence and undue power to isolated tribal factions and Islamists, especially the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which is the only group likely to be able to garner loyalty in the immature Libyan political landscape.

That said, Islam, both as a religion and culture, is and will always remain an integral part of any emerging political order. In fact, Islamic parties could be a natural ally of economic development, since the majority of their activities have historically been in providing social services at the grassroots level. The main concern here is that the Arab youth are wary of allowing the boundaries of politics and religion to blur. They do not want to substitute current ruthless leaders with what Islamist rule has brought to Iran-oppression, deprivation and disdain.

The dangers inherent in quick political reforms do not stop, however, at the advent of Islamic parties to power. First, any government that would follow a truncated timeframe for elections will most likely lack broad public support and the required legitimacy to govern, especially in the aftermath of a revolutionary upheaval. In an immature political culture, the challenges to such a government would range from endless legal disputes in administrative and constitutional courts (if they exist at all) to organized violence by groups who feel they are unjustifiably unrepresented. Second, and more importantly, such a government cannot possibly expect to deliver the public's requirements of advances in salaries, services, and economic development which are in and of themselves the major cause of the uprising.

An essential part of the transition period in each Arab country, therefore, is a new economic development program driven by a participatory planning approach to help immediately meet critical human needs and to introduce and instill democratic practices at the local level. If implemented effectively, the program will inform how the political parties and their members operate. In the case of Egypt, and in many other Arab states, it is important to have this transitional period from authoritarian rule to democracy and to have a more inclusive market economy to enable a peaceful political process to unfold. In fact, it was deprivation and economic inequality even more than political freedom that led to the uprising, and that is why revolutionaries and labor in Egypt alike continued in demonstration and strikes because the fall of the regime did not bring what they need – food, jobs, health care and education.

A root cause of the Arab uprising is economic underdevelopment. The governments of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia favored state-run development projects and cut off economies from international trade and finance. It is no wonder that unemployment rates in these countries have always been in the high double-digits. When these countries have attempted to engage in liberalization and privatization of their economies, the liberalization processes did not lead to the creation of a sustainable development that could serve as the new source of legitimacy for the regime or that could enhance its stability. Instead, because of state corruption, mismanagement, or both, these steps only led to exacerbating socioeconomic inequality, including creating a new class of super-wealthy entrepreneurs – many of them affiliated with the government leaders' families – who themselves became targets of public discontent.

Morocco, may serve as a good start (perhaps even a model) for reform. In Morocco's post-protest approach, for example, it is trying to wed democracy and development together so that each is advanced by way of the other. Sustainable development is to occur through democratic exchanges and consensus-building, and democracy is to be built during the process of creating sustainable development. Decentralization, which transfers managerial authority, skills, and capacities to sub-national levels, is Morocco's chosen framework to synergistically advance democracy and development from the bottom-up.

Considering the stated goal of decentralization, it follows that its organizational arrangement emphasizes the "participatory method." This democratic approach is to be applied by local communities together assessing their development challenges and opportunities, and creating and implementing action plans that reflect their shared priorities, such as job creation, education, health, and the environment. This is done through a bottom-up process driven by developmentally empowered and self-reliant local communities. These communities are integrated in a decentralized national system whose elected leaders are chosen based on their ability to help forge and respond to the consensus decisions of their constituents.

Where they exist, an integral part of the sustainable development model is the Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). Generally, NGOs have a greater commitment toward democratic processes and enlisting people's ideas and material contributions for development interventions. Due to the urgency for development projects in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and others and given the governments' ability to provide flexibility to respond to the particular socio-economic circumstances of their ever increasing population, the participatory sustainable development approach is not only immediately needed but becomes central to sustainable political reforms. What adds tremendous credence to this approach is the fact that participatory development projects are economically feasible, especially in poorer countries, because they generally entail limited capital, do not require advanced technologies and can be done on a large scale.

To be sure, political reform and economic reforms are intertwined. In developing and under-developed countries, in particular, the relationship is ever more so. Accordingly, for either to succeed, it is essential to move on both tracks simultaneously.