Friday, May 20, 2011

Disconnections in the Arab Spring

In the New Left Review, Perry Anderson observes the disconnection between the stated goals of the rebellious Arab crowds and the social forces that seem to be behind the revolt. The goal of the protesters has been, in every case, democracy:
In place of the local despotism, what the huge crowds in squares and streets across the region are seeking is essentially political freedom. Democracy, no novelty as a term—virtually every regime made ample use of it—but unknown as a reality, has become a common denominator of the consciousness of the various national movements. Seldom articulated as a definite set of institutional forms, its attractive force has come more from its power as a negation of the status quo—as everything dictatorship is not—than from positive delineations of it. Punishment of corruption in the top ranks of the old regime figures more prominently than particulars of the constitution to come after it. The dynamic of the uprisings has been no less clear-cut for that. Their objective is, in the most classical of senses, purely political: liberty.
And yet, Anderson observes, Arabs have had the same political problem for decades. Why is the revolt happening now?-
The single spark that started the prairie fire suggests the answer. Everything began with the death in despair of a pauperized vegetable vendor, in a small provincial town in the hinterland of Tunisia. Beneath the commotion now shaking the Arab world have been volcanic social pressures: polarization of incomes, rising food prices, lack of dwellings, massive unemployment of educated—and uneducated—youth, amid a demographic pyramid without parallel in the world. In few other regions is the underlying crisis of society so acute, nor the lack of any credible model of development, capable of integrating new generations, so plain.

Yet to date, between the deeper social springs and the political aims of the Arab revolt there has been an all but complete disjuncture.
I see the same disconnection, and it worries me. It worries me because democracy will not lead in any simple or quick way to better jobs. Even if, as many of the protesters believe, their nations are being held back economically by entrenched corruption, the short-term impact of dismantling state enterprises and breaking up monopolies will be disruption and lost jobs. Will ordinary Egyptians lose faith in democracy if it takes (as is likely) a decade or more for the new regime to deliver better lives? Will political freedom compensate for economic turmoil?

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