Why the “Arab Spring?”

Aug 6th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

As is so often the case, history gives us increased understanding about events of our day.  For that reason, I think it helpful to explore how the generation of Arab dictators came to power into the Middle East.  To have that background brings an understanding to the current “Arab Spring” unfolding before our eyes in 2011.

  • First, since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the old order of landholders and merchants that dominated the region after the British and French mandates ended after World War II.  That order was replaced in the 1950s and 1960s with a political and military class that assumed power in most of the Arab nations of the region.  Fouad Ajami, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, writes that “the officers and ideologues who came to rule in 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 class, and those who were the mainstay of the free market, to flight.”  This was especially true in Egypt where the military class and their socialist advisers distrusted free trade and the marketplace and were determined to rule without these forces.  Other Arab nations followed.  In Iraq, for example, Jews, who had lived there for over 2,000 years, were dispossessed and banished in 1950-51.  Ajami writes that “they had mastered the retail trade and were the most active community in the commerce of Baghdad.”  Hence, the Baath Party began to rule Iraq and the oil wealth.  The members of this Party, like Egypt, were believers in central planning, and, one of their key leaders, Saddam Hussein, saw the wealth of Iraq as his own wealth!  In Libya, a deranged Moammar Gadhafi, after his coup in 1969, demolished the private sector in 1973 and established what he called “Islamic Socialism,” thereby nationalizing the entire economy.  The unbelievably brutal dictatorship in Syria of Hafez al-Hassad and now his son, Bashar, followed a similar path as Egypt, Iraq and Libya.  Totalitarian power, mixed with subsidies and economic redistribution, explain the horrific grip on Syria by the Alawites, the religious sect to which  the Assad clan belongs.
  • Second, a few years ago, the grand bargain I summarized above in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya, began to unravel.  As Ajami demonstrates, the populations of these Arab lands began to swell and it was now impossible for these dictatorships to guarantee jobs for the young and poorly educated.  These nations began to experience the highest unemployment levels among the developing nations of the world, the highest jobless rates among the young and the lowest rate of participation among women.  As these regimes tried to reform, the public sector gave way to a private sector of crony capitalism, where the children of the dictators ran the economy.  Economic plunder and massive corruption followed.  This plunder and corruption is what broke Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt.  Ajami concludes that “the sad truth of Arab social and economic development is that the free-market reforms and economic liberalization that remade East Asia and Latin America bypassed the Arab world.  This is the great challenge of the Arab Spring and of the forces that brought it about.  The marketplace has had few, if any, Arab defenders.”  Will the  Arab Spring leaders make the connection between political and economic liberty that has remade Asia and Latin America?  As of this writing, that connection is not being made.  Further, when one adds the rigidness and authoritarian tendencies of Islam, it is difficult to be optimistic about the Arab lands.  The centrality of worldview and a proper understanding of human freedom are once again being demonstrated in the Middle Eastern nations of 2011.

See Ajami’s brilliant essay in the Wall Street Journal (8 July 2011). PRINT PDF

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