Posted by: Nicholas Davis | February 22, 2011

Three important questions related to the MENA unrest

Clearly when it rains, it pours, in terms of both change in the political atmosphere in the MENA region and my need to blog.

Accordingly, here are three broad (sets of) questions concerning the implications of what is currently happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco and Libya that need to be considered:

1. What happens the day after tomorrow? The critical questions related to revolutions are not around how they happen, but what kind of system they ultimately usher in. Could the combination of social media with a politically- and socially-engaged youth movement in the MENA region provide new forms of productive participation in both governance and economic activity? Or will state capture occur by groups that fail to deliver on the promise of change? Rule by the military, a new form of old elites or other groups whose incentives are more likely to revolve around building power bases than creating “shared value” would not be a positive outcome for any of the countries currently experiencing a surge of civic expression. However, equally problematic would be a new system that, despite good intentions, fundamentally lacks the capacity to deliver sustainable growth and constructive political and social engagement. We’re still too focused on the short-term and on “transition” – see this Al Jazeera article for instance. How do the people with the most to gain and lose ensure that the next system is fundamentally better equipped and designed to create prosperity than the previous one?

2. Who is next outside the MENA region? It seems now inevitable that there will be fundamental change in Libya. Algeria arguably shares some of the structural elements of Tunisa, Egypt and Libya that have brought things to a head in these countries. Bahrain, with its majority Shia population and majority Sunni government, will likely continue to feel pressure from those that feel politically and socially disenfranchised. Even Morocco looks shakier than general approval for the King might otherwise suggest, with Google searches for words related to social and political protest rising rapidly in recent weeks (see previous post here). But change outside the region could have even larger geopolitical impact on the world. North Korea is already extremely fragile, for example,  and widespread protests in China could be even more economically and politically destabilizing for many more nations than rising oil prices due to uncertainty in the MENA region.

3. What does the MENA unrest mean for Europe? Timothy Garton-Ash asked this in his Guardian article “If this is young Arabs’ 1989, Europe must be ready with a bold response“. But, in what has become a disappointing trend of Europe downplaying (or failing to appreciate) the importance of the Mediterranean in terms of economic and social impacts, few other commentators or analysts are picking up on this issue. As my colleague Sofiane Khatib pointed out this morning, it is not just that the current shifts in political and social climate in MENA important for the future of migration, trade, investment and security in Europe. There are a range of feedback loops, including but not limited to  links created by the extensive North African diaspora who are European citizens, that have the power to create significant change in the Mediterranean region as a whole in the next few years.

We have a few projects at the Forum running that are looking at these questions, in particular our Scenarios for the Mediterranean initiative. So if you come across interesting commentary on these issues please let me know!

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