The roots of despair
By 2011, Leviathan governments in the Middle East and North Africa were being outgrown by their societies. In Egypt, Tunisia and other places in the Arab region, long-time authoritarian rulers were no longer able to deliver the goods. Young people wanted the opportunities that they had been told come with modern education. They wanted different lives than those of their parents.
Many of the rulers in the places of turmoil seemed in a time warp. Until 2011, they had a conditional lease on power. They were supposed to guarantee education, employment and the chance of a decent life but they acted as if they had a permanent, unconditional mandate.
Then impatient protesters started clamouring for outright cancellation of the lease. They hoped for a new contract that would guarantee real opportunities for them. Challenging discredited authority allowed for a break with the past but also caused the fraying of the state. At times, the new unfettered reality looked more like chaos than anything else.
The uprisings were mostly leaderless and without long-term vision. Young people wanted the government off their backs. They wanted to be left alone. They got just that.
To improve their social and economic condition, though, the discontented crowds ironically also wanted more government, not less. They got that, too.
Since 2011, the Egyptian government raised public service salaries from $4.2 billion to $18.4 billion. In Tunisia, wages in the public sector increased from $2.6 billion to $13 billion, which is more than 14% of the country’s gross domestic product. About 80% of Tunisia’s revenue went to public sector wages.
In many places in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, populations that are unhappy with their socio-economic prospects want more interventionist governments, contrary to the promises of neoliberal globalisation that have been articles of faith for local elites since the 1970s. Whether to protect them against terrorists or to preserve their jobs, the discontented want the state to come to their rescue.
Hardly the vindication of neoliberal values.
The problem with the MENA region is that in most cases the state can now only disappoint.
It is too often a state with shrinking means. There is no sufficient budget available to the state to allow it to buy time (or acquiescence).
Big spending is out. Austerity is in. The state is shedding old habits even as it is buttressed by a newly gained legitimacy or by the conviction that there is no other way out.
Alternatives are difficult to come by. There was a time when the political opposition and ideological elites could offer solutions. Or at least go through the motions of offering what looked like solutions.
Today, governments are unable to deliver or even to convince the public of their ability to deliver. Worse, opposition groups are part of the discredited body politic. With both government and the opposition discredited, there is the risk of further hopelessness and despair.
The problem is that when traditional elites find themselves unable to fashion an attractive narrative, non-traditional ones emerge. Too often these are likely to be destructive and opportunistic but they are also among the most alluring. As deradicalisation centres mushroom everywhere, nobody has figured out on what this monster feeds.
Can a globalised communication culture save the day? Not really. Social media connectedness is often misleading. It is not a connectedness of ideas or political debate. It is not a connectedness of dialogue, domestic, regional or international. For the millions who are tethered by social media at home, it is more a daily spectacle of raw emotion and variegated scandals. Worse still, social media in the region have proven to be a means of amplifying collective despair and spreading indiscriminate cynicism.
When young people of the Arab world look outside for solace, what do they see? Too many far-right populists in pursuit of other Brexit-Trump-like surprises and far too many Western voters nostalgic for less difficult times. Simpler times that have no bearing on reality.
In recent days, newly elected German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier denounced the temptation by “all those who think that in a world which is becoming more difficult, the solutions must become simpler”.
He said: “The answers will remain difficult and I think the best answers can be found in democracy.”
In the Arab world, the problems of the region’s ambitious young people are complicated by war, terrorism, economics and the abuse of religion. They do not know anymore where to look for answers or if there are any answers at all to be found. The answers, though, must be found.