The Winter of Their Discontent: What Will the Arabs Do?
Is the Arab world headed for chaos or democracy? The U.S. has been wrong so many times, it’s hard to know who to trust in these matters. But some trends are clear, at least. Usually societies that enjoy economic growth also show increased happiness. In the U.S. we’ve seen that equation hold true, especially in reverse. Economic woes reflect personal discontent. But by this measure, the uprising in Egypt is something of a paradox. In Egypt the GDP has been rising in recent years, yet the population has become discontented, and the rate of their discontent has been sharp. Only the top 20% of Egyptians think that their lives are increasing in well-being.
This is according to the Gallup organization, one of the few sources of reliable, objective information in the Arab region. Gallup classifies respondents worldwide as “thriving,” “suffering,” or “struggling” based on how they rate their current and future lives. Since 2005, the number of Egyptians who describe themselves as “thriving” has declined by 18%; in Tunisia a similar sharp decline occurred, down 10% in the last three years. The picture is of a society where the top elites grab most of the prosperity — along with the sense of well-being that goes with it — while the vast bulk of the population feels shut out and deprived.
What happens when such a drastic imbalance occurs? Few are willing to offer even an educated guess. Arab societies are unusually closed-off in a world rapidly trending toward globalization. Gallup cannot offer reliable statistics on such a basic thing as mosque attendance, for example. There are ominous facts, however, that the region’s despots must live with. In Egypt 75% of the population is under 30 and 50% under twenty. This reflects a staggering birth rate throughout the Arab world. Every country has a surplus of young males who have nowhere to go economically but who are connected via Facebook and Twitter to the world at large. They cannot help but see themselves as dispossessed, and they direct their anger at those in power.
In India and China we’ve seen the rise of the dispossessed, and it has occurred without widespread violence, much less revolution. The secret is that an older generation took responsibility for freeing up the access to opportunity; central government subsidized education and technology; and the middle class was already large enough and prosperous enough to aspire higher. In the Arab world none of these beneficial conditions seem to pertain. In Egypt the Mubarak regime was deaf to cries for change, and in particular it shut out religious conservatives, who for better or worse represent the common people. Half of Egypt’s population lives on less than two dollars a day, which the central government ignored.
To an outsider, the tensions in the Arab world, when looked at in terms of demography, are a race between the mullahs and the iPod. Islam is an all-embracing religion, and its devotees are raised to believe that God has a say in every aspect of life. Such a viewpoint is inimical to secular modernism. Therefore, the West has backed reactionary regimes in the name of stability, but also because it is impossible to communicate with religious fundamentalists who debate whether God has condemned electricity or the motor car. The two worldviews are too disparate. Yet if you are a young Arab male, you must reconcile the two.
There we have the pivot point. In their own ways, each Arab country can either stagnate or find a way to make peace between God and modernism. Most are so far behind the curve that no one can be optimistic about where they will land. Oil-rich Kuwait is lethargic; oil-poor Lebanon is in the grip of perpetually enraged Hezbollah. It doesn’t seem to matter if a society is educated and westward-looking, like Iran and Iraq before their revolutionary convulsions, or backward and inward-looking, like Morocco and Tunisia. The same tensions exist and can boil over into theocracy, democracy, chaos, or orderliness. Throw the cards in the air; it’s anyone’s guess where they will land. In the end, what determines the fate of a society is very mysterious — the movement of collective consciousness. No one can predict when the collective will decides to change, yet once it does, its power is always unstoppable.
Published by SanFrancisco Chronicle