Mideast change is coming, and may not be pretty

Mideast change is coming, and may not be pretty

The convergence of six trends in the Middle East – the changing realities of food, energy, water, population, urbanization and security-dominated politics – is likely to create conditions that will be politically challenging, if not destabilizing, in many countries in the years ahead. The confluence of these trends is very similar to what happened in the region in the mid to late 1970s, when the current Islamist wave of social identity and confrontational politics was initiated.

Things will be much more difficult this time around, and the consequences could be much worse, especially in view of the ripple effect of the war in Iraq, Iran”s growing influence, the continued stalemate in Palestine and the weakening of some Arab governments. It is difficult to predict exactly what will happen in the years ahead, but the stressful factors propelling change are already clear and we would be foolish to ignore them.

Two critical basic needs – food and energy – are simultaneously becoming more costly, and a third – water – is likely to follow, given the high population growth rate and finite available water resources in the Middle East. Arab governments are scrambling to find stop-gap solutions to the problem of rising food and energy prices, which touch every household.

Most Middle Eastern countries cannot subsidize energy and food prices forever, given the divergence between rising prices and limited government finances. With the price of oil now around $120 a barrel, most countries are being forced to allow domestic energy prices to reflect actual market costs. This means that household energy and fuel costs will probably double for most families in comparison with what they were paying five years ago.

Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and other countries have announced wage increases for public-sector employees, partly in response to political pressures from restless populations. But the increases will not keep pace with rising costs, and governments will not be able to keep increasing wages in parallel with commodity price increases.

The demographics of the Middle East also increase economic and political stresses. The population of the region is now mostly urban, young, educated, and defined by rising expectations, while at the same time it is politically frustrated. Socio-economic and political trends are on a collision course. At the family and grassroots level, most Arabs are finding their lives increasingly difficult due to rising costs of basic needs, while their political systems in most cases are increasingly autocratic and security-focused.

The post-9/11 period in the region has seen governments emphasize security measures, to the detriment of political liberalization and democratization. Existing “democratic” or participatory institutions, such as the Egyptian, Moroccan, Jordanian, Iranian and most other regional Parliaments, continue to lose credibility, thus shutting down an important outlet for people to peacefully express their frustrations and concerns.

This is a certain recipe for tension and confrontation, which is likely to be exacerbated by continuing popular anger against, and humiliation from, developments in Iraq and Palestine, where most Arab governments are widely seen by their own citizens to be fully subservient to American and Israeli dictates. As food and energy price increases work their way through all aspects of daily life, and access to clean water and decent jobs becomes more precarious for many people living in burgeoning cities, citizen concerns will have to find a credible outlet. Ordinary citizens will at least want to be sure that shortages or price increases are distributed equitably, and that available state subsidies are targeted at those most in need.

A huge difference between the 1970s and today is that angry or frightened citizens seem now to have many more outlets for their political activism, not all of them orderly. The Islamist political movements that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s were not successful in changing government policies or equitably redistributing limited state financial assets. Political liberalization and democratic reform have proved illusory in most countries in the region, leading to recent situations (for example, Morocco and Egypt) in which most citizens ignored local and parliamentary elections.

Not surprisingly, growing frustration and weakening central government authority in some cases has prompted new forms of political organization and expression throughout the Arab world. These have included local gangs, militias, criminal networks, tribal groups, family associations, terrorist organizations, and highly efficient Islamist political parties. In contrast, democracy and human rights groups have floundered.

A fresh round of economic and social pressures, combined with even more limited outlets for political expression and orderly policy change, portend a new stage of political action in many Arab countries. This time, however, greater urgency and even some existential desperation – families that cannot feed themselves or heat their homes in winter – will lead to more extreme forms of action. We should not be surprised when this happens – the biggest test that Arab governance systems will have faced in a generation.