The mathematics of the Arab Spring

Since ousting their leaders, Egypt and Tunisia are facing difficult choices on balancing the influences of foreign aid.

At the recent G8 summit in France, options for how aid should be distributed to the Arab Spring countries were discussed [GALLO/GETTY]

Egypt and Tunisia are now officially on the international donor community’s radar.

The World Bank and the G8 are already planning different ways to sponsor the so-called Arab Spring. Many Arabs are speaking out against a possible Euro-US “hijacking” or “containment” of the regional movement through this type of “cheque book diplomacy”.

I will argue here that this position is not intellectually robust, and that the Arab Spring demands dialogue, not political and cultural protectionism. There is a moment of confidence across the Arab geography: Arabs can hold their own.

This bodes well for recasting Arab-West relations, as it veers away from a return to hollow views of cultural and socio-political autarchy.

Simply crying “US hands off the Arab Spring” is not the answer.

From Zoelick to Cameron

The British prime minister seems to be right on track for lending support aimed at democratic reconstruction in Egypt and Tunisia.

Cameron has earmarked £110m ($180m) for development over the next four years, echoing the G8 outlook on the Arab uprisings.

How exactly the money will be distributed and whether it will be spent on projects that support the rule of law, freedom of press and pluralism is missing from Cameron’s transcript.

This new-found enthusiasm for spending generously on the Arab Spring – whether by Obama, Cameron or the “International Misery’ Fund” – echoes the World Bank’s April message in support of the Arab Spring.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick set the tone in favour of a participatory citizenry which will develop good governance – shorthand for the rhetoric of accountability, transparency and efficiency in the political economy of developing areas.

The sub-text: Funds for what?

There are opportunities, but also perils, in Western aid aimed at supporting the Arab uprisings. It depends on how you read between the lines – especially when the text articulates that aid donation is a function of realpolitik: the goal of which is to limit immigration and extremism.

The EU has recently been called upon to “humanise” its immigration laws; addressing this as an area of non-monetary aid so that Arabs are able to access opportunities that Europeans may be willing to offer.

As for fighting extremism, no-one is naive enough to believe that democracy alone will stamp out extremism. Likewise, aid aimed at fighting extremism can actually imperil institution-building and risk a return to mukhabarat [“secret police”] regimes that kill, imprison, torture and ignore the rule of law. This is a declarative objective of the Western financial charm offensive; such an attack was recently revealed by the G8 in Normandy.

A confused agenda whose facade is “democracy promotion” – and its substance “fighting terrorism and immigration” – will fail to achieve attention as a recipient or a donor. It will obfuscate, rather than clarify, the role played by Western governments in the “Arab Spring”.

The mathematics of Arab democracy

Aside from the British support pledged, there are additional billions that have had a Pavlovian effect on the Egyptian and Tunisian prime ministers, respectively, Essam Sharaf and Beji Caid el Sebsi.

The aim is “good governance” without causing basket-case economies. Sharaf is seeking to offset the immense damage to the country’s tourism industry caused by the uprising, while el Ssebsi has built a case based on refugee influx.

Both are also scrambling for a cut of the four billion in aid and loans to be contributed by the US.

Freer access to EU markets is another aim of both men. There is no shortage of EU cash, but the question is whether this will be as “charitable” as the aid that was invested into eastern and central Asian democratic transitions via the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

In any case, there is still much to be revealed about the reins attached to these packages when they finally see the light of day.

Zoellick’s cheque book is also on offer – and there are hints of billions in World Bank funds for the Arab Spring countries. More to the point, Zoellick’s rhetoric hints at creative methods that aim to fund community empowerment which would bypass the state and target the people directly through their communities instead.

Whether the shareholders in the Bretton Woods financial system – US, China, Japan, and the EU – sharpen or blunt Zoellick’s creativity remains to be seen. Money, unfortunately, is not given to further only values (note the stress on values by Obama in his speech to the British parliament), but also to further the donors’ interests.

Autonomy vs autarchy

Two fundamental principles must be understood in order to grasp the mathematics of the Arab Spring.

On the Arab side, return to autarchy is self-defeating. Pride and greatness have been returned to Arabness, and there is no longer any need to engage in autarchic brands of discourse. Autarchy has been the fundamental currency of dictators keen on secluding the Arab masses from the flow of ideas hostile to their own selfish rule. This has been done in the name of all kinds of ideologies.

This is the moment for spreading cosmopolitanism of good governance, moral protest, anti-authoritarian resistance, and social justice. This is a shared space – in which Arab narratives and struggles engage with like-minded currents transcending geography and time.

“Hands off our Arab Spring”-type narratives ignore the global voices and ethical forces who are joining in this emancipatory moment being ushered in. So to recoil via autarchic propositions goes against the spirit of this movement.

It is as if they are claiming that the Arab Spring has not recharged the batteries of self-confidence enough for Arab nations to engage the outside world with confidence, self-assertion and a greater capacity for self-representation.

Autarchy only reinforces Orientalist narratives that have misrepresented Arabs for so long through images of invisibility, inferiority, and an incapacity to speak back.

Conditionality in reverse

Similarly, no patronage from the Western powers is needed.

Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt have reclaimed – and in Libya, Syria and Yemen are in the process of reclaiming – the right to self-govern.

Hence the current moment demands a transition from the idea of conditionality imposed by the donors to a new conditionality, in reverse, imposed by the recipients of the funds. That is, good governance must be thought of as a two-way street: where there are equal obligations on the donor and the recipient.

The donor community has generally flouted its own rules of good governance by plugging authoritarian rule into the global financial system by way of handouts, grants, and funds. 

These have typically had much to answer for in terms of reproduction of autocracy, corrupt regimes – the likes of which WikiLeaks has revealed Western governments’ intimate knowledge of – and the procurement of technology of oppression that prolong dictatorship; Mubarak and Ali are but two examples of this.

The injustice and irony in all of this is that debt incurred by non-representative regimes is still counted as legally binding, which shackles the oppressed citizenry to billions that are owed from morally questionable transactions organised by the very institutions that have preaching “good governance” since the early 1990s.

Democratisation: from mathematics to morality

A return to ethical basics and conditionality is necessary, and can acheived by these means:

  • Funds and grants are to be dispensed only to governments “of the people” – which means democratically elected governments, complete with a system of legitimate checks and balances. Right now, this excludes the transitional governments of Egypt and Tunisia. Both have presented cases for billions of dollars from the funds on offer by the West, however, neither is representative of the people.
  • Technical aid, materials or training for the military, police or intelligence must be in accordance with the rules of upholding democratic rule and the principles of good governance – meaning that they are subject to transparency, and with full knowledge and approval of elected parliaments and other civic bodies and institutions.
  • Aid, including that given to non-governmental organisations, must not limit the choice of recipients when it comes to choosing a developmental path. It must not be subject to the values and interests of the donors whose free market economies, in this instance, are very difficult to replicate in an Arab world – the goals of which include robust sustainable development solutions and distributive mechanisms aimed at equal opportunity, social justice, and poverty eradication.
  • The bulk of aid must be geared towards addressing “the two Ds”: i) democratic consolidation, with the root problem of youth disaffection, loss and disenfranchisement, and ii) distribution to deal with the acute problems of marginalisation – which is the root problem of youth disenfranchisement.
  • Civic-capacity building must be factored into the process of aiding Arab democracy-building. And it must include the re-training of police forces and the dismantling of the apparata of oppression one by one. Police and intelligence forces have traditionally been the enemies of the Arab populace. This must change. 

Through conditionality in reverse, good governance becomes a mutually binding contract. It will ensure that Arab-Western political and economic engagement is underpinned by ethics of shared obligations and responsibility. By doing it this way, external finances will bring relief, goodwill, dialogue and friendship instead of burdening the Arab and Western worlds with fear, distrust and acrimony.

The currency of freedom

It still remains to be seen how, and even if, the masters of world finance put their money where their mouth is. In particular, for now, no dispensing of aid must proceed until elected representatives of the people – and independent civil society groups – are in a position to deliberate and reflect freely on the terms and plans of the aid to be given.

The only given in this discussion is that the organisers of Tahrir Square and Habib Bourguiba Avenue have spoken in favour of dignity and freedom, which is the currency of the Arab Spring. There is no need to fear for these masses and their epic resistance against tyranny.

It is a resource they can, if need be, also direct towards resisting financial hegemony.

What is reassuring about the new-found morality of resistance is that it rejects autarchy. It speaks the lingua franca of freedom – which transcends geography, religion, nationality and ethnicity. It uses Western technological innovations for the purpose of self-empowerment.

On both accounts, the protesters have resisted and continue to refuse living under tyranny or on disconnected islands.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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