Many in the Middle East have labeled the Arab Spring a vast Western conspiracy. In his new book “Inevitable Democracy in the Arab World: New Realities In An Ancient Land,” Lebanese author and technologist Wissam Yafi deconstructs the accusation by defining four major factors—political, social, economic and technological—that lie behind the widespread pro-democracy movements taking place in the region.
Many in the Arab world attribute the current wave of pro-democracy movements to the work of American strategists. What do you say to such an accusation, and what are the limits of third-party strategizing?
Yafi: If these movements were the result of staged coups, they would be taking place closer to capital cities, like those witnessed during Cold War times—one leader removed and replaced with another, with Western interests held intact. However, these movements started mostly in backwater areas, such as Daraa, Sidi Bouzid, Benghazi, Suez or in poor villages around the Bahraini capital Manama. And they shattered the status quo, removing long-time allies of the West such as [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak and [Yemen’s Ali] Saleh. This shows that this phenomenon is the result of a new geopolitical reality based on several regional dynamics beyond the control of any single power, and rather based on the real social and economic needs of regular Arabs trying to improve their livelihood.
You have listed increases on the Human Development Index, a drop in illiteracy rates, as well as massive unemployment and a stagnating economy as the main elements in a new geo-economic reality leading to regional political changes. How will these elements play out in Egypt and affect a possibly Islamist government whose policies do not bode well for the country’s economy?
Yafi: No one really knows if Islamist policies are going to be good or bad for the economy. One only has to look at Turkey to see that the AKP has done some very good things, and Turkey is witnessing unprecedented growth and prosperity. So good things could come out of the new Egyptian political leadership led by Islamists, such as a reduction in corruption levels and more attention to people’s daily needs. On the negative side, some Islamist parties in the Arab world may decide to repress society for some ideological reason or another. If so, then the people should be allowed to decide what they want, or we may face more revolutionary reverberations until society finds a sustainable balance, as they did in Europe a mere handful of decades ago.
In the meantime, whichever parties take over in Egypt, one thing is for sure: They will have their hands full with reform. There are millions of people in Egypt who will need to be “retooled” to become productive. This could take a decade or two. Egyptians, particularly the youth, will have to be patient and persevere. But I believe history will be on their side.
How is the urbanization of the Arab world factored into the new geo-social reality contributing to political change?
Yafi: Urbanization has been an inevitable element in Arab development. If we take the example of Saudi Arabia, at the beginning of the last century, King Ibn Saud understood that he could not build a nation with a population of roaming Bedouins. Hence followed decades of policies of urbanization and social development, healthcare and education. Unfortunately, during this time Saudi’s economy has remained heavily reliant on oil exports and lacking economic competitiveness and sustainability. Rulers in KSA are trying to liberalize but will have to speed up the pace to keep up with the needs of a growing population. If not, there is no reason to believe the Saudis would not begin to ask their government for more freedom in order to sustain themselves—as other Arabs are doing across the region.
Do you believe technological changes acted as a facilitator of the Arab Spring by bringing social, strategic and economic realities together?
Yafi: Technology has indeed enabled a large portion of society by giving it a voice. In Egypt, people protesting belonged to different classes who did not have much of a voice—elections have been rigged for a long time in Egypt, and many opposition party members have been jailed. Technology allowed them to voice their opinions widely. But technology alone is insufficient. For such a movement to happen, a population needs to have economic, social and political motivations. For example, if hundreds of thousands of people moved, it is not just because of advances in telecom technologies or texting (which have actually been available for two decades), but because they were now unemployed and faced bleak futures. Satellite TV, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter; they were all enabling technologies that all but eliminated censorship and helped large Arab populations express their frustrations and organize themselves to protest.
How do you see these new realities coming into play in a country like Iran?
Yafi: Iran is an interesting case, with many parallels to countries like Venezuela. Both are democracies in their own way, and both have oil riches, which play an important role giving the incumbent regimes the resources to counter any revolutionary impulse. But these countries’ economies are also hurting. If this leads eventually to society feeling the pinch, then there is no reason to believe they would not demand change. If, on the other hand, Iran’s regime can overcome sanctions and move forward with economic and social policies that sustain the people, a massive revolt could be circumvented. In the long term, however, I find it difficult to see any regime, including the Iranian one, impeding its people from their livelihood.
Do you believe the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon was the result of the convergence of these four factors? And do you think the revolution has ended for Lebanon, or is there a chance people will take to the streets to denounce the current political system?
Yafi: The Cedar Revolution inspired the whole Arab world by showing that change could occur through a massive peaceful movement. Lebanon’s democracy, however, has some shortcomings, which means systematic change is not easy. Actually it’s harder than taking down a dictator. For instance, a recent study on women’s rights surprisingly showed that many Lebanese women did not support it because they felt it affected their religious community, even though the issue was really of giving them more gender equality. The Lebanese system, therefore, continues to filter policies through the prism of sectarianism. The Cedar Revolution, while positive, did not overturn this. Real change in Lebanon is therefore difficult, but not impossible. My hope remains with the youth calling for and making real change.
Do you believe democracy is inevitable in Syria?
Yafi: The Syrian regime has been trying to counter the revolution through geo-politics and force, when the underlying problems are really geo-economic and social. Unfortunately, one does not eradicate cancer by shooting the patient. The regime could have begun a sincere liberalization scheme like Chili’s Pinochet did back in the 1980s, bringing in a highly-educated team to transform the nation. It didn’t happen, and economic calamity now looms.
From a social perspective, it will be extremely difficult for the Assad regime to reverse the demographic trends of population growth and its resulting needs. As in other Arab nations, there are huge discrepancies that in the long-term can only be resolved by a redesigned social contract of self-sufficiency for democratic self-determination. My only hope is that it happens sooner rather than later and as peacefully as possible.