Monday, June 6, 2011

The Arab Fall

It looks like the famous Arab Spring is bypassing the Arab Summer and quickly becoming the Arab Fall. Could the Arab Winter be far behind?

We all recall the whiff of freedom that seemed to be wafting across the Arab world. Having begun in Tunisia, it quickly spread to Egypt. With the sometimes tacit, sometimes overt support of the Obama administration it succeeded in overthrowing long time American allies who had become rebranded as tyrants.

Now, there is an open war in Libya, a civil war in Yemen, an ongoing violent uprising in Syria, and skirmishes in Bahrain.

At the time of Tahrir Square no small number of great thinkers and columnists were proclaiming the new wave of freedom. Today, their idealism looks more like adolescent enthusiasm than sober adult judgment.

It’s useful to recognize how wrong so many of them were, and to note that others saw the reality far more clearly.

For yet another reality check, today we read a report by Harvard professor and Hoover Institute fellow, Niall Ferguson. Link here.

For my part I find it enormously encouraging to see his articles published in Newsweek.

How does the Egyptian Revolution look today? The situation is getting worse and worse. A revolution that was supposedly designed to create jobs, prosperity, and democratic institutions is fast producing none of the above.

Ferguson explains: “In a report published last month, the Institute of International Finance predicted that growth in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia will fall from 4.4 percent in 2010 to -0.5 percent this year. Egypt’s economy will contract by 2.5 percent, Yemen’s by 4 percent.

“This is partly because revolutions themselves cause damage and disrupt work. Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics estimates that the economic losses incurred when the crowds thronged Tahrir Square were about $1.7 billion. Add to that the subsequent losses in export earnings and revenue from tourism (journalists rush in where holidaymakers fear to tread). Then comes the cost of the ongoing disruption due to strikes and the enforced return of more than a million migrant workers fleeing war-torn Libya.

“The big story, however, is capital flight. Egyptian businessmen complain of soaring crime in the cities, the difficulty of carrying out normal transactions, and, above all, nerve--racking political uncertainty. Rich Arabs do not trust this revolution. Since January they have been rushing to get their cash into safe havens, some arriving in London or Zurich with suitcases full of cash. According to Reuters, the country’s foreign--exchange reserves fell by as much as a third in the first three months of the year. Al-Hayat newspaper estimates that $30 billion has left Egypt since the onset of the Arab Spring.”

The mix of violent revolution, grandiose aspirations, and non-stop protests is not the best way to generate economic growth and new jobs. No one should be surprised.

Ferguson puts it in historical perspective: “Such is the life cycle of revolutions. What begins with euphoric crowds soon slides into a second phase of economic paralysis. The same happened in France after the initial “bliss” of 1789 and in Russia after 1917. In each case, exuberance at the overthrow of the old regime was swiftly succeeded by exasperation at the decline in living standards. And that was what gave the political extremists their opportunity to peddle their radical ideology of war against internal and external foes. Yesterday, the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. Tomorrow, I fear, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda.”

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