The impact of systemic factors

Placing the Arab uprisings in an economic and environmental context.

In their contribution to a new study on the Arab Uprisings and climate change that has recently received a great deal of attention, David Michel and Mona Yacoubian of the Stimson Center note that much of the early enthusiasm for the changes wrought by the region’s revolutions has “yielded to more sober assessments of the deep and complex challenges embedded in these ongoing transformations.” Understanding the systemic challenges that countries in the region face is important to assessing these states’ chances of transforming into stable and relatively prosperous democracies. These factors should also be of keen interest to analysts outside the region who are attempting to understand future security challenges that may emerge.

One overarching factor that will influence the region’s future prospects is the economic situation, which served as a driving force behind the uprisings in the first place. Other factors that will heavily influence stability are related to environmental constraints, including the availability of fresh water, food prices, and the manner in which climate change may serve as an additional ‘stressor’ in the words of Anne-Marie Slaughter. Further, some political scientists see the demographics in these countries as an additional challenge. Thus, even if countries like Libya weren’t beset by internal violence and central governments unable to extend their writ throughout their own territory, they would still face daunting challenges.


Let’s start with the economic situation, which has been grave for some time. As Michel and Yacoubian note, Middle East and North African (MENA) countries’ GDP per capita only grew a total of 6.4 percent from 1980 through 2004, about 0.5 percent per year for the entire period. During the same period, GDP per capita rose 4.5 percent per year in Asia. Similarly, unemployment had been steadily rising in MENA, hammering younger people in particular. It is unsurprising that so many Arab youth pointed to unemployment as a primary cause of why they took to the streets during the uprisings.

The question to ask is: are economic conditions likely to improve with new governments? Of the countries that have seen a change of regime, Libya obviously has the best economic potential, given its oil wealth. At present, though, the benefits derived from its petroleum exports are highly localised, and are not reaching the central government. While Tripoli sits in the western part of Libya, the oil is concentrated in the east, where Cyrenaica has declared its semi-autonomy. But not everyone thinks the localisation of oil revenue is problematic: Jack Goldstone, the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, told me that he thinks if the central government is forced to negotiate over oil revenues, it “is going to require people to make the bargains that are needed to create a multipolar, pluralist government for Libya.”

For Tunisia, the outlook is darker. Though the Tunisian economy may have been turning a corner at the beginning of 2013, the February 6th assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid seems to have thrust it back into turmoil. Belaid’s killing raised the ugly spectre of major unrest and almost immediately bookings for French tourists plummeted by 80 percent compared to the previous year. Mustafa Kamal Nabil, the former governor of Tunisia’s central bank, told a local newspaper that “the restoration of political stability and security is a priority because there will be no investment, and no tourism or exports, without stability.”

Egypt’s outlook is considerably worse than Tunisia’s. One German newspaper described the Egyptian economy as “a time bomb” due to such factors as a weakening currency, dwindling foreign currency reserves, and an unreliable power grid that saps businesses’ productivity. The confluence of these factors may result in the government slashing its price subsidies for everyday essentials such as gas and bread, which could be destabilising in a country where forty percent of the population “lives below the poverty line, subsisting on two dollars a day.”

Economic challenges are exacerbated by concerns related to the environment, and indeed the two are significantly connected. Michel and Yacoubian write that MENA, as a region, is “the most water stressed in the world,” a claim borne out by available data. The World Bank’s data of internal freshwater resources per capita shows that Morocco has 899 cubic meters, while Tunisia has 393 and Algeria has 313. Libya has only 109 cubic meters of freshwater resources per capita, while Egypt has twenty-two. In contrast, India’s per capita freshwater resources stand at 1,165, and in the United States the number is 9,044.

This scarcity of freshwater resources intersects with agricultural issues, since the vast majority (85 percent) of water withdrawals in MENA are for agriculture. As a result, Michel and Yacoubian note that countries in the region have become major food importers—a strategy that reduces domestic water usage but makes the importers “vulnerable to global price fluctuations of staple crops and export restrictions imposed by other countries.”

This vulnerability intersects with concerns about climate change. The thesis of the report on the Arab Uprisings and climate change, which was co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress, the Stimson Center, and the Center for Climate and Security, is not that climate change was the cause of the Uprisings. Rather, it holds that climate change functioned as a ‘stressor’. Illustrating this, Troy Sternberg, a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Geography at Oxford University, outlines in his contribution to the volume how China’s “once-in-a-century winter drought” in the winter of 2010-11 caused a spike in global wheat prices, which more than doubled as China was forced to import more wheat. These higher wheat prices in turn influenced the protests in Egypt, where “bread provides one-third of the caloric intake.”

The population in MENA is continuing to grow, as is the world’s population. This will place an additional strain on resources. In this context, climate change isn’t going away as a stressor: over time it will make extreme weather events like the Chinese drought more likely, which in turn will have an impact on food markets that will be felt in MENA and beyond.

A final question relates to the demographics of the countries in transition. A growing body of political science research focuses on demographics and political transition. When I spoke with Jack Goldstone, one of the prominent scholars to study this issue, he discussed research findings that countries with a population of 35 and older are most likely to be stable. “When the median age is 25-35,” he said, “about half the countries are stable, and when the median age is 25 or below, about 10-15 percent are stable.” Using this framework, Goldstone noted that Tunisia has moved to a median age of over 25, and thus “has at least a decent shot of moving to a stable democracy.” Egypt is on the border of having a median age of 25, as is Libya. But Syria and Yemen, which are currently embroiled in the chaos that could produce a change in government, have very young demographics that this research considers less conducive to stability.

Not all political scientists are convinced by the connection between demographics and instability. American political scientist Jay Ulfelder told me that he is not convinced by the causal argument that has been advanced in this regard. But demographic factors may pose an additional challenge in the context of an already difficult situation.

It is fitting that some of the early overoptimistic analyses of a region in transition have given way. Three dictators are now gone, which must be regarded as a good thing. But neither democracy nor prosperity will automatically replace them, and the entire region seems destined for a bumpy road.

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