Follow the money

Published on Le MondeDiplo, by Samir Aita, April 2011.

Those Arab states that have erupted this year – and others that may follow – want freedom and democracy, but also to end the way their countries have been run for the financial benefit of rulers and their friends.

The reasons for the Arab spring go deeper than immediate demands for freedom and democracy. The protesters want to end the political economy and the authoritarian regimes in place since the 1970s … //

… Erosion of public services:  

But the state weakened and public services eroded. Where there was a need to send representatives abroad or to tap expertise at home, government members were co-opted; the good ones were technocrats from major international institutions such as the World Bank, but they lacked electoral legitimacy or programmes for which they would be accountable. The state ceased to be seen as a bureaucracy. Even the army weakened as well-equipped praetorian guards guaranteed the continuity of power (2).

Arab governments bore no resemblance to those after independence, which had electrified the countryside and established universal public education. Public services deteriorated, as reports by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) observed, because of privatisations entirely for revenue raising. Even Jeddah in oil-rich Saudi Arabia only has running water one day a week; and a Saudi prince authorised construction work in a valley without planning drainage, resulting in lethal floods.

After every scandal there was an anti-corruption campaign, to little effect. The campaigns implied that corruption was a moral or religious issue rather than a systemic predation by leaders in alliance with business. Human dignity and work values were flouted. About a third of the working population in Arab countries is in the unofficial economy, in small jobs not included in unemployment statistics, which have been in double digits for a decade. Another third are self-employed, or employees without work contracts, social security, retirement or union rights. The concept of the employee is disappearing, outside the public sector and government. There, social rights have been maintained and so jobs are coveted, especially by women, but openings are rare, because of the “structural adjustment” policies required by government spending cuts. The labour market is also fragmented by massive migration, both permanent (Palestinians, Iraqis or Somalis fleeing war) and temporary (mainly Asian), where migrants’ economic and social rights are eroded, because the exploitation of migrant labour is now a source of revenue.

When the generation of the Arab demographic boom reached working age in the 2000s, connected by the new internet culture, the base toppled the summit in Tunisia and Egypt, and the entire social structure was shaken. People have been surprised by the many demands, social and otherwise, released by the revolution. Arab countries now have to rebuild the constitutional state, where power is finite and subject to institutions, instead of levitating above them. Government-dependent sources of revenue will have to be dismantled, as will monopolies, to release entrepreneurial energy. There will have to be states that guarantee public and social freedoms for all, so that workers have rights, and the states will have to be accountable, based on social consensus. It isn’t going to be easy, because the world, including Europe, isn’t going that way. (full text).

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