On September 30, the Middle East Institute hosted Dr. Adel Abdellatif, chief of the Regional Programme Division of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Project, to discuss causes and effects of the popular uprisings in the Middle East. Kate Seelye, vice president of MEI, welcomed 85 guests in the Institute’s Boardman Room with an outline of Dr. Abdellatif’s work, particularly as overseer of the UNDP’s Arab Human Development Reports, which aim to paint a comprehensive picture of the “political and social malaise” in the region leading up to the Arab Spring.
Dr. Abdellatif opened his presentation with a brief background on his contributions to the Arab Human Development Reports, explaining that the report series—which was released starting in 2002—came at a critical transitional period after September 11, 2001. During that time, countries in the Middle East—despite their relative wealth—were still not able to compete globally, which added to a sense of growing public frustration among Arabs. Dr. Abdellatif was instrumental in approaching development in the Arab world through the lens of “human security” at a time when many of the traditional fault lines seemed to be shifting.
Many of the concerns contained in the Arab Human Development Reports are addressed at a macro level and Dr. Abdellatif adopted a similar, systems-based approach to his discussion of the factors contributing to this year’s unrest. According to Dr. Abdellatif, the largest underlying factor that catalyzed popular revolt in the region was the anachronous political model of the modern Arab state. Dr. Abdellatif claimed that the model of the Arab state was outdated “in its thinking and its relationship with the citizens,” operating on a social contract model from the 1950s in which citizenry relinquished certain political rights to the state in exchange for education, food, and security.
Dr. Abdellatif stated that the state’s urgency to cling closely to this social contract model served to weaken the bonds between the citizen and the state. The rise of urbanization and population increases, coupled with a rise in state deficits, meant that governments could no longer supplement basic goods for their populations at the preexisting levels, which led to bread riots in places like Egypt and Jordan.
Still, an influx of new leaders in the region were able to extend the existing social contract by accepting aid from Gulf countries and entering into aid agreements with the IMF and World Bank that called for privatization of the economy. This move, Dr. Abdellatif argued, was not one made by choice but rather imposition; leaders were still devising ways to control the market economy despite international agreements. This led to a shift in the political landscape,, where the center of state power pulled away from military power and toward coalitions between government leaders and the private sector. Military exclusion from this “equation of power” was indicative of internal division amongst government elites. Dr. Abdellatif acknowledged that poor socioeconomic conditions and resulting street protests had been prevalent in the region for a long time. However, it was this simultaneous fracturing of state power that accelerated the process of revolution.
But, Dr. Abdellatif was wary of unequivocally labeling this restructuring of power as good news. “It threatens the whole system,” he said, which was not all bad to begin with. Previous regimes did make tremendous gains in areas such as health and education, but simply were not allowing their political system to evolve in sync with these social gains.
Instead, Dr. Abdellatif called for a hybrid approach of revolution and reform. He admitted to only discussing Tunisia and Egypt as countries under transition; there are too many uncertainties in Yemen, Syria, and even Libya to begin discussing reform. “The case of Tunisia,” Dr. Abdellatif said, “may be the easiest to manage. It is a country that has already achieved a lot in regards to human development, particularly on the socioeconomic level.” The relative lack of demographic challenges in the country and Tunisia’s large middle class will help maintain a system structure within which reform can take place. As for other countries, Dr. Abdellatif did not hesitate to say that “there are many doubts about the next two to five years.”
Toward the end of his discussion, Dr. Abdellatif addressed some of these major causes for pause. When asked, “what is the efficacy of tying aid to reform?,” Dr. Abdellatif remained consistent in his macro-level analysis. He called for development agencies such as UNDP to shift from a focus of reacting to individual cases of corruption to one of building systems that inherently reduce the possibility of corruption—which means elected leaders who are accountable to their publics as well as a system of judicial checks and balances to keep leaders in line. If this is the end goal, international actors should instead seek to reduce the length of transition periods themselves, with the hope of ushering in new governments after free and fair elections. At this point, leaders will have legitimacy and will have to be accountable to the public, and aid agreements can and should be negotiated.
Additionally, on the role of political Islam in these transitions, Dr. Abdellatif said that regardless of the percentage of votes these parties receive, “the question of the relationship between religion and the state will come again” and will condition the way reforms are enacted and the new state is developed. With this will come a rethinking of state and historical narratives, and it remains to be seen just how public figures like Hassan al Banna will be recognized in the public consciousness. It is certain though that “it [will not be] the state that came with Bourguiba or Nasser. History will be written again.”