The Arab world needs a new social contract

Is the Arab world back to square one after all the sacrifices it has made since 2011?

Egypt revolution 2011
Marginalised and oppressed groups began to see the connection between their poor economic standing and corruption [Getty]

Long before the pro-democracy protests in Syria descended into massacres at the hands of the regime, and before Egypt moved away from its democratic movement and reinstated a rule by the military-security complex following the coup of 2013, a shockwave echoed throughout the Arab World.

The pro-democracy uprisings that swept across the region pushed forward debates about the relationship between citizens, societies, and states. They also made clear the need to forge a new social contract between ruled and rulers that promises to transcend the persistent crises of development, good governance, and the rule of law.

Back in 2011 and 2012, there was no denying the root causes of these crises. The high rates of poverty and unemployment were responsible for turning attention towards the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi that sparked the anger in the streets of Tunisia and ended the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

These same sentiments gradually galvanised sections of the Egyptian poor and unemployed youth, leading them to participate in what came to be known as the January25 revolution and to address – for themselves – their economic and social demands; bread and social justice. 

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A chasm that separated the poor, low-income, marginalised majorities from the political, economic and financial elite was built up due to widespread corruption and the absence of the rule of law.

In countries such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria, systematic crimes and human rights violations against losing majorities produced republics of fear and corruption.

Balanced development plans failed to bridge the two, in large part due to the exclusion of the masses from the public-policymaking process, the absence of good governance and the use of oppressive state tactics against the people.

In the few years preceding 2011 and 2012, the rate of protests based on economic and social grievances escalated in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen.

Marginalised and oppressed groups began to see the connection between their poor economic standing and corruption, between their suffering and the lack of economic opportunities available to them and the policy decisions of an unrepresentative, undemocratic government.

The collapse in the level of healthcare and education and the absence of the procedures of good governance that allow for citizens’ oversight, accountability and responsibility among government institutions and public authorities were among the key factors.

Also, the negative repercussions of the rentier system were felt across the Arab world and made citizens aware of the need to transcend rent-based economies – be the rent of natural resources or the rent of regional and international alliances.

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It was not only that state institutions have given up their developmental mandate and confined themselves to rent distribution and to policing citizens and societies. It was also the direct correlation between rentierism (and for that matter its patriarchal ideology) and the persistence of undemocratic governments across the Arab world.

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These facts were recognised by the protesting masses in 2011 and 2012. Their identity as “losers” of Arab rentierism – the poor, the needy, the have-nots, the unrepresented – could not be denied. Their quest for a new and just social contract was given a remarkably loud voice in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa and Hama.

Indeed, significant differences did exist between Arab countries in the lead up to the pro-democracy uprisings. In countries such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria, systematic crimes and human rights violations against losing majorities produced republics of fear and corruption.

Governments lost their political legitimacy, public institutions could not maintain popular trust, and decision and public policymaking processes were increasingly dominated by military, security, and intelligence institutions.

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In the oil-rich Gulf countries, governments have benefited from the oil revenues to alleviate poverty and grant majorities access to humane living conditions. In return, Gulf governments invented the inverse of a democratic social contract based on a “no taxation, no representation” principle and did not have to resort to severe state violence to keep societies and citizens under control.

In countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, where tribal and sectarian structures prevented the severity of state violence, societies maintained some of the fervour derived from the participation of tribes and sectarian actors in public policymaking processes.

Governments, military institutions as well as security and intelligence services – strong here and weak there – were either incapable or unwilling to perform mass repression. In regional comparison, the Gulf inversion of the democratic equation and the tribal-sectarian protection of society against the threat of despotic governments provided citizens with better living conditions as opposed to the republics of fear.

Deficits with regard to sustainable development and governance remained, and the tutelage of the ruling elite, tribes and sectarian actors was not challenged. Yet, unlike in the republics of fear, majorities in the Gulf countries as well as in Jordan and Lebanon were not made to absolute losers.

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Back in 2011 and 2012, the root causes and drivers were clear. The notion of a “new social contract” came to symbolise the popular quest to move beyond despotism and rentierism in the Arab world.

Activists and intellectuals across the regional public space were searching for ways to empower citizens, protect societies, and subject state institutions to the principles of oversight and accountability.

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Inspiring discussions about civil liberties and freedoms, the launching of individual and private initiatives, the modernisation of economic structures to ascertain the values of production and innovation and open competition, the establishing of legal and political frameworks to impose checks and balances on government and public officials were reported in all Arab countries.

For the first time in modern times as well, controversial debates on how to democratise civil-military relations, on how to safeguard personal freedoms and liberties in the face of tribal and sectarian tutelage, and on how to initiate mechanisms of transitional justice to come to terms with the past of human rights violations, were garnering popular attention.

However, following the dramatic turns of events in most Arab Spring countries, the quest for a new social contract fell rapidly to almost complete reclusion.

This happened either because of the bloodshed that has been spread by dictators, who do not hesitate to commit crimes against humanity to remain in power, and by terrorist, extremist, and violent groups not shying away from mass killing and destruction (the Syrian tragedy); or because of the faltering efforts to overcome despotism and rentierism and the return to power of autocratic military-security complexes (the Egyptian tragedy); or a mix of both reasons (as in Yemen and Libya).

It also happened because of the successful defence of rentierism, tribalism, and sectarianism by their proponents in the benign monarchies of the Arab world.

Have we, then, returned to square one, after all the human and material sacrifice the Arab people have endured since 2011?

The answer is a clear no. The memory of the developmental crises and governance deficits is not completely lost. The sense of popular empowerment that the democratic uprisings instilled among wide segments of Arab populations continue to radiate into 2016.

*The writer is an Egyptian political scientist.

Source: Al Jazeera