By Jon McGinty
Beth Dougherty, manger professor of international relations at Beloit College, spoke to members of the Rockford League of Women Voters at a luncheon Saturday, Oct. 29. Her topic was “The Arab Spring.”
Using Egypt as a prime example, Dougherty outlined some of the trends scholars have been observing in the Middle East that have led to the overthrow of long-standing regimes during the past year.
“The region has experienced intense political, economic and social stagnation for decades,” Dougherty said. “These brutally repressive, authoritarian regimes were completely unrepresentative, and stayed in power for a very long time.”
Such unlimited authority allowed citizens to be harassed, arrested, detained without charge, beaten and tortured with impunity. Whole populations were cowed into silence, for fear of repercussions. Heavy government restrictions and state-controlled media stifled civil society to the point where political parties and labor unions were very weak or non-existent.
“In such an environment, self-censorship becomes routine,” Dougherty said. “Everyone knows where the red lines are — the things you can and cannot say in public.”
State-controlled economies with weak private sectors, and a dependence on “rents” — unearned income streams — also characterize the region. Egypt, for example, depends on exports of oil and natural gas, the remittance of workers abroad, and massive U.S. foreign aid ($3 billion a year), for much of its national income, none of which produces products or employment at home to any great extent.
All of this is exacerbated by a huge demographic “bulge” of younger citizens who face their futures with fear and uncertainty. According to Dougherty, 60 percent of the Middle East is younger than 25, and the largest population cohort (30 percent) is between 15 and 29.
“This puts enormous pressure on the governments for education and employment,” she said, “which largely goes unmet. There is a widespread sense of hopelessness for economic or social advancement among the youth. The unemployment rate among those under 30 is four times higher than those above 30.”
Dougherty said at least four elements combined last spring to bring about the current revolution in Egypt, as follows:
1. The rise of digital activism: People used the social media and cell phones to coordinate protests and spread the news.
2. Labor unrest: Increasing demonstrations among frustrated workers and unemployed made such activities seem more common.
3. Emergence of independent media: A change in press laws in 2004 encouraged investigative reporting of widespread corruption.
4. Tunisia’s example: When Tunisia’s uprising was not crushed by the military, it lifted the “curtain of fear” surrounding such events.
Dougherty warns that, with little or no experience with self-government or open economies, there are going to be long-term difficulties for all of these states as they throw off their repressive regimes. Because of the invasion of Iraq, U.S. intentions are suspect throughout the region.
“If the U.S. wants to be on the ‘right side’ of these revolutions,” Dougherty said, “then it needs to be willing to accept that there may be some challenges to its interests in the short term, at least. I would suggest caution and patience on our part, something we are not very good at.”
Syrian speaker at Beloit
Leading Syrian opposition leader Radwan Ziadeh will speak at a public event at 4 p.m., Monday, Nov. 7, at Beloit College. For more details, call (608) 363-2084.
From the Nov. 2-8, 2011, issue