Day By Day

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

History and the Arab Spring

Many Western analysts have made the argument that the autocratic nature of West Asian regimes is rooted in ancient cultures and therefore immutable. This assumption underlies the frequently asserted belief that democratic reform cannot succeed in these societies. Frequently the assertion is raised in opposition to "nation building" efforts or as a justification of isolationism.

This is a lazy, ahistorical position that ignores real changes that have taken place throughout the region. Fouad Ajami reminds us that there are more recent, and more plausible, forces at work. He writes:
What Hayek would call the Arab world's "road to serfdom" began when the old order of merchants and landholders was upended in the 1950s and '60s by a political and military class that assumed supreme power. The officers and ideologues who came to rule Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Yemen were men contemptuous of the marketplace and of economic freedom. As a rule, they hailed from the underclass and had no regard for the sanctity of wealth and property. They had come to level the economic order, and they put the merchant classes, and those who were the mainstay of the free market, to flight.
The great wave of enthusiasm for socialism that swept through the developing world [and much of the Western intelligentsia] at the beginning of the Cold War had devastating effects on economies everywhere. When finally the Soviet empire crumbled the debilitating effects of socialism were apparent to all, and what mattered then was how regimes responded to the revelation. In East Asia widespread adoption of free market principles led to rapid regional development, but in the Middle East [and much of Latin America], cronyism produced kleptocracies.
[I]n the arc of the Arab economies, the public sector of one regime became the private sector of the next. Sons, sons-in-law and nephews of the rulers made a seamless transition into the rigged marketplace when "privatization" was forced onto stagnant enterprises. Of course, this bore no resemblance to market-driven economics in a transparent system. This was crony capitalism of the worst kind, and it was recognized as such by Arab populations. Indeed, this economic plunder was what finally severed the bond between Hosni Mubarak and an Egyptian population known for its timeless patience and stoicism.
It is these recent historical developments, rather than timeless and irresistable cultural imperatives, that explain the current state of affairs in the Middle East. Ajami's analysis, based in historical rather than cultural analysis, suggests that the possibilities for real and significant improvement are at hand. Let us hope that he is right.

Read the whole thing here.

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