Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 20, 2011

A truly scary scenario for post-revolutionary MENA

This morning I seized some early-morning jet-lag energy and used it to continue reading Foreign Policy’s new e-book Revolution in the Arab World, which draws together a whole raft of recent pieces about the region written by FP journalists. I strongly urge you to buy and read it if you’re interested in what’s been going on – fascinating stuff.

The fact that it doesn’t try to make sense of events after the fact, but instead provides a collection of articles “as they happened” (so to speak), is actually quite helpful. For example, some of the articles focus on the “will they / won’t they” questions about regime change in Egypt and Tunisia before Ben Ali or Mubarak stepped down – such musings may seem irrelevant now but the thinking behind them still applies to countries such as Saudi, Jordan and Morocco.

Reading the articles, and the fact that I also need to work on our Mediterranean scenarios tonight, got me thinking again about the range of post-revolutionary scenarios for North Africa and the MENA region and the link to generational succession.

The three scenarios most commonly discussed seem to go something along the lines of:

Scenario 1: The blooming of “true” Arab democracy.

Seemingly against the odds, the person on the Arab street (presumably aided in some way by a Facebook account) is finally able to participate fairly, fully and directly in the governance of her country. This participation is peaceful and productive as the advent of a fair process in a climate of optimism is legitimized and held to be more dear than the specific outcome – hence new constitutions are ratified that maximise political and social freedoms, and new elections are hailed as free and fair. Consensus is defined as “I may disagree, but I can live with it and will support it”. The people “own” the results. The resulting coalitions of interest groups who form government(s) are tolerant and celebrate each other’s strengths, bound together (both nationally and regionally) by a common vision of maximizing prosperity for all while refusing to be tempted to trade their hard-won freedoms for the promise of “stability” (often artificially threatened and created). As a result, while decision-making and the economic and political environment is initially messy, reforms proceed in such a way that they eventually lead to a far fairer distribution of wealth, new employment opportunities and a flourishing of entrepreneurial activity among younger generations. Over time this translates into far higher standards of living and competitiveness for the entire region.

What would indicate we are moving in this direction? The proliferation and use of websites like Egypt’s Dostour2011 (use the Google translate bar to read it unless you can read arabic!) to engage previously un-consulted segments of the population on crucial elements of government policy and the post-revolutionary structure. Increases in entrepreneurial activity by youth.

What would indicate we are moving away from this scenario? For Egypt, a failure to fairly rapidly adopt a new constitution. Prolonged internal instability, violence on the streets, a drawn-out war in Libya, the co-option of key institutions by old elites who play only lip-service to the youth.

What are the major implications for the rest of the world in this scenario? New investment opportunities for foreigners, but in an environment where new relationships must be formed. A resurgence of regionalism in the Arab world that will change power dynamics in foreign policy and commerce, particularly for Europe.

Scenario 2: A messy and destabilizing transition that leads to regional conflict.

A combination of in-fighting between post-revolutionary factions, the reluctance of incumbent/overthrown sources of power to relinquish control, and the actions of a range of powerful destabilizing forces (including external powers) leads societies into prolonged periods of social, political and economic chaos. As “legitimate” protest is threatened, quashed or squeezed out by lack of progress and more sinister elements who are willing to use violence as a tool, Al Qaeda, Islamism and extremist social and political views play an increasing role in the political discourse. The internal instability leads to the “hollowing out” of the region. Old elites and new faces cycle in and out of power as stability is sought with increasing desperation but is not found. Instability within countries spills over to create instability between states. Ultimately, the people on the street are even worse off than before the revolution, and the entire world suffers from a region wracked by uncertainty and conflict.

What would indicate we are moving in this direction? Long delays in constituting new governance models, the spread of violent stand-off tactics by governments facing popular protest (e.g. the Libyan model of government resistance is replicated elsewhere), the Libyan war spills over into other countries, a very messy situation in Saudi Arabia etc

What would indicate we are moving away from this scenario? A surprisingly quick transition to open, transparent democratic systems in Tunisia and Egypt. Reforms promised in other countries are undertaken with alacrity. Economic outcomes for people on the street improve thanks to strong growth and investment.

What are the major implications for the rest of the world in this scenario? Sky-high oil prices threaten global growth, migration flows to Europe create social stresses and further instability around the Med, security concerns create ever-greater transaction costs to business and the movement of people and goods.

Scenario 3: Plus ca change – regime capture by the old elites.

Despite the hopeful media reporting and the promise of change by government representatives and community leaders, the region experiences revolution only in name, as slight variations on the old elites take power in essentially the same institutions. Reforms are promised and short-term solutions implemented, but emergency laws return in order to “keep the peace”. While protests recur for a time, an exhausted public eventually accept once again that it is easier to trade freedom for stability, and simply hope that the new set of old leaders (made up of members of the previous ruling families, military structures etc) will be better able to manage the economy in a way that benefits them personally.

What would indicate we are moving in this direction? The continual delay of elections in Egypt and Tunisia on security grounds. A new series of coups by military or religious leaders.

What would indicate we are moving away from this scenario? An entirely new set of faces elected in a free and fair process (and which remain there for more than a few months). Public statements (or better, new constitutions) which explicitly provide separate roles for the military, religious bodies, monarchies etc, and leave no questions over what could constitute political capture by a body other than a fairly-elected representative.

What are the major implications for the rest of the world in this scenario? Lower oil prices, but the threat of a future revolution. 

More challenging scenarios:

Since these three scenarios are not mutually exclusive (we could go through 3 before eventually getting to 1, or, as many people argue, go through 2 and end up in 3), nor do they take much imagination to conceive, they are not as useful as they could be. What other more challenging scenarios might be useful to think about?

Here’s one, inspired in part by Evgeny Morozov’s speech to the RSA last year (you can watch the slightly more engaging RSAnimate version here on YouTube), and his recent book, The Net Delusion.

Scenario 4: A new age of cyber repression:

On the back of unprecedented political engagement, and with the support of Western powers, a new coalition of young, vibrant and independent leaders emerge across the region. They take particular care to emphasize their disconnect with previous regimes, their willingness to engage with all segments of society, and their commitment to distributing the wealth of the nation in a more equal way than previously was the case.

Unfortunately while they possess sincere fervour, an understanding of technology and a desire to capitalize social change, they underestimate the challenge of delivering on their promises. As time passes, cracks begin to appear and the murmurings of protest re-emerge amongst the public, driven in part by legacy issues from previous regimes, in part by frustration at the inexperience of new leaders and the unintended consequences of their hasty policies.

The reaction by the new leaders is to bunker down and to use their knowledge of social networking to buy more time. They start to spend more and more time on marketing activities designed to stabilize public support, and less and less time on solving the underlying issues. Eventually, it becomes clear that a series of new authoritarian states have emerged, intent on heading off dissent. Only this time, they are intimately familiar with the technologies that helped destabilize previous regimes, and are able to use the internet to project power much more effectively than the fragmented opposition groups can. It turns out that a highly educated and technologically sophisticated generation of leaders is far better at controlling dissent than their forbears. And yet, given that the underlying issues of unemployment, corruption and limited resources remain, how long until another popular movement has nothing left to lose and takes to the streets?

Naturally this is all just rambling, but perhaps useful to consider. What other scenarios for the region should we be considering?



  1. You may be focussing too much on who has nominal power. The key thing in oil-rich countires is, who controls the oil? This could be us, other foreigners, ‘entrepeneurs’ or criminal or terrorist gangs. Similarly, who controls the army? The minds? (E.g., ‘mad mullahs’).

  2. Good point – by “leaders” I was meaning the set of power-brokers in the key institutions (army, religious institutions, monarchies, political institutions, economic institutions etc). However I am, as you say, assuming that key strategic resources are effectively controlled by these groups – there are scenarios where that is not the case, and outside interests exert more or less explicit control in some way. I’ll add that to my list of interesting scenarios.

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