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Homepage > Publication Type > Speeches & Interviews > MENA’s Crises: How to Address the Breakdown of the Social Contract

MENA’s Crises: How to Address the Breakdown of the Social Contract

Joost Hiltermann  |  21 Mar 2016

This is a transcript of a presentation given by Crisis Group's Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa Joost Hiltermann to the Economic Research Forum’s 22nd annual conference (“Towards a New Development Agenda for the Middle East”).

Thank you for inviting me to speak at your annual gathering. In the first half of my presentation, I want to briefly reflect on what I have observed and taken in these past three days. I noticed, first of all, that I’m one of the few non-economists in the crowd. As an outsider, I have learned a lot, and I thank you for inviting me here and giving me this opportunity. I have come to see how my analysis of conditions in the MENA region would benefit immensely from a healthy dose of economic insight, which I lack. Yet I have also learned that any attempt at interpreting events in the region through a strictly economic lens – the tenor of the presentations I have heard so far – is also bound to fail in producing a comprehensive understanding of what ails the region. In essence, what I took away from the discussions about the origins of the crises that culminated in the Arab Awakenings is: “It’s the economy, stupid!” I would argue, to the contrary, that it certainly is not only, and probably not even primarily, an economic issue we are facing in the region.

I will illustrate my point with an anecdote: Just before I came to Cairo, I was in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The economic situation there is disastrous. The plunging oil price in a single-commodity economy has wreaked havoc on the society and exposed a deep malaise, the results of the growth over the past decade of a distorted, “rentier” economy, state-led corruption, and a repressive (two-party) duopoly. Strapped for cash, the Kurdish regional government was unable to meet payroll last fall and stopped paying public-sector salaries; it resumed monthly payments recently, but with a growing delay and at far less than 100 percent. This means that ordinary citizens now have to get by on…what? It’s not clear: on their savings, and on whatever productive activity they can engage in in the informal sector.

As I’m sure you can imagine, together these developments have led to a pervasive disaffection and loss of hope for the future, especially among the young. In Suleimaniya, one of the Kurdish region’s main cities, which traditionally has enjoyed a relatively larger degree of political freedom than other parts and has a history of opposition to the government in Erbil, discontent has taken the form of mostly peaceful demonstrations and, since January, a full-scale public-sector strike: teachers, healthcare workers, administrators in government offices – everyone has stopped working.

A friend of mine, a civil society activist I have known for many years, explained to me how he had suddenly come to view his own situation differently. He had been very comfortable in his job, and from a financial perspective has had nothing to complain about: he receives a salary not from the Kurdish government but from his Western-funded NGO. Last month, his young son cut himself, needing disinfection and stitches, so he took him to the hospital emergency room. There were doctors there, but they refused to treat his son – or indeed anyone needing care. Worse, they laughed at father and son for being so presumptuous to ask them for a favor in these dire circumstances. “It was then,” he told me – this hardened activist who has seen a lot and overcome many obstacles in his life, and remains truly committed to his work – “that I decided to leave this place.”

You will recall that what set off the Arab Awakenings was a Tunisian street vendor’s self-immolation in response to the humiliating treatment he had received at the hands of the local police. His economic situation no doubt frustrated him and limited his opportunities, but it alone was not enough to push him to his self-destructive act. To understand what ignited and sustained the uprisings in MENA, we need to look at a combination of economic, political, social and psychological factors: worsening economic conditions and prospects, especially for the young (in a situation of a bulging youth population); overt and more subtle forms of repression, coercion and intimidation (often exercised through the permit system); conspicuous corruption by ruling elites; republican leaders acting as monarchs who believe they can transfer power to their sons; individual acts of bravery communicated and magnified through social media networks; and a tone-deaf and, in some cases, violent response to peaceful demonstrations by state authorities.

The driving force of the revolts throughout the region was a widely held perception of grievous social injustice. What I have heard from you in the past two days – and what I found particularly helpful – was that the existing social contract between rulers and ruled was broken, and that now, in the aftermath, as we pick up the pieces, there is a need for a new social contract. I agree with that analysis, but I have four caveats:

First, like any contract, a social contract assumes a degree of mutual consent. In the case of MENA countries, social contracts have mostly been imposed from above, without any meaningful popular participation in the drafting, without any real negotiation. These contracts worked until the rulers were seen to be violating the terms, and they couldn’t be renegotiated because they had lacked popular legitimacy all along.

Second, these social contracts were not merely focused on social and economic factors, as has been suggested in this room. They were not only about guaranteed public-sector employment, free healthcare and education, and subsidies on primary necessities. The basic tradeoff was security/protection and social and economic benefits together in exchange for a major infringement on rights and freedoms. Many people accepted this arrangement, because the region has historically been unstable; they were willing to trade in some of their freedoms if the result was that they and their children would be safe, and everyone would be taken care of.

Third, these social contracts didn’t break down in the Arab Awakenings; they had been coming apart for some time via deregulation, privatization, growing corruption, and increasingly overt state repression. The state, in effect, was “renegotiating” the social contract, again without any popular input. And this was causing major social dislocation, and a growing sense of injustice.

Fourth, we are not just seeing the breakdown of the existing (yet changing) social contracts, but also of the social fabric that has held thee societies together. This has come about through the naked manipulation of ethnic and sectarian identities by rulers, who tried desperately to cling to power by raising fear of the “other”. This will have major implications for rebuilding once new social contracts come about.

I now want to switch to the second half of my talk, which is my original prepared presentation. Here I want to focus on the meat of my métier: deadly conflict and how to address it. It follows sinuously from what I have discussed so far.

The conflicts we currently see in the MENA region have three principal dimensions:

  1. Regime manipulation of ethnic and sectarian fault lines, as I just mentioned, which creates fear of both the “other” and of the unknown (and unknowable) alternative to long-established order, however iniquitous and oppressive the latter may have been. Of course, the “other” are “communities” intermingled with one’s own in towns, villages, neighborhoods, tribes and even families. Societies are intricate mosaics, but powerful actors can build partitions where previously one could see only blurry lines. The “other” are also radicalized forms of the declared enemy, e.g., the radical Salafi-jihadist form of Islamism as the only to-be-expected alternative to the (oppressively-ruled) secular state.
  2. Precisely those radical actors, arising as a self-fulfilling prophecy. These groups – I can name the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, but there is a wide variety of them – are the symptoms of the failure of the popular uprisings to create workable alternatives to the old order; of the security vacuum as well as the brutalization that increasing conflict wrought; and of external intervention that supports such groups in opposition to the beleaguered rulers. I don’t need to mention Syria here as the obvious example.
  3. And then that very external intervention, which seeks to address the security vacuum created by evolving conflict between local actors (rulers and rebels). It starts at the regional level – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey – and it escalates to the global one, bringing in the United States and Russia as well. Again, Syria is the prime example.

In yesterday’s discussions I heard the claim that a correlation has been found to exist through empirical research between ethnic/sectarian polarization and foreign intervention. I haven’t seen the data, but I am a bit skeptical that this could be the whole picture. Intuitively, I would say that one could expect a correlation to exist between ethnic/sectarian polarization and political manipulation, at least at first. To this could then be added foreign intervention, which is like a meta-manipulation. If we look at the regional super-power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, we can see the dangerous impact of the sectarian power-play between them on conflicts throughout the Middle East. (I am deliberately taking conflicts in North Africa – Libya, Sinai – out of the equation, as they have not been affected by this particular dynamic.)

For analytical ease, I look at deadly conflicts in the region in three concentric circles. First, you have conflicts at the country level: Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and to some extent Lebanon. Here we have seen state collapse, polarization, and in the cases of Yemen and Syria outright civil war. These wars have started to metastasize, bringing us to the second level, the regional one. The perceived failure of their proxies (or preferred parties) and anxiety about a growing security vacuum on their borders have precipitated the intervention – for defensive purposes, I would argue, but with a nakedly aggressive demeanor – by Saudi Arabia and Iran. We also see the rise of radical actors with transnational agendas: IS and AQ, as mentioned. This combination of factors then began to draw in global powers: the United States in an anti-IS/AQ effort in Syria and Iraq, and to back up Saudi Arabia in its foolish misadventure in Yemen; and Russia to prop up a wobbling regime in Damascus. In northern Syria this has led to a very dangerous situation that holds the potential of triggering a super-power confrontation (against the super-powers’ better instincts) by local actors rashly pursuing their own agendas, come what may.

The challenge we face is to find ways to persuade the various sides at all levels to deescalate, and I would argue that we will not be able to succeed in doing so at either the regional or local levels before the U.S. and Russia first find some accommodation, some common vision of what the region could look like in the future, and some willingness, as a result, to put pressure on their regional allies to step back from confrontation and, in turn, seek accommodation; and, by extension, no lasting solution can be forged at the local level before the regional powers have come to a basic agreement about what they can and cannot accept in their neighborhood.

This does not mean, however, that we should focus exclusively on the Russia-U.S. equation without regard for efforts to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and without regard for peace efforts in Yemen and Syria. It should all go hand in hand. I am merely saying that local actors need to have “space” to make lasting peace deals, i.e., a situation in which regional powers encourage, not actively seek to undermine, ceasefires and peace negotiations.

And let’s say we reach that point, sometime in the distant future. Then what? How to rebuild? I contend that the challenge will be to forge, not as I heard in this room merely a “new” social contract, but a true social contract: one that is brought about through an inclusive, participatory political process, a genuine negotiation between citizens and their chosen representatives. These true new social contracts will need to envisage a degree of state decentralization in order to take into account, and address, the breakdown of the social fabric.

And of course there will be – I have not forgotten to whom I am speaking here today – the ultimate challenge of rebuilding the region’s economies and making them more responsive to people’s needs. I leave this matter to you, as I lack the requisite expertise to provide guidance.

One final word about the countries that have not dissolved into violent conflict: what about them? I call them the “states still standing”, and they will require a particularly delicate approach, given their fragility, and the regional stakes. External support, driven by the concern that another state collapse will vastly compound the impact of the crises that we are already seeing today – massive refugee flows in the region and outward, and radicalization involving actors that have transnational objectives – could further entrench the region’s autocratic orders. But it is the bankruptcy of those orders that precipitated the Arab Awakenings in the first place. The approach, therefore, should be to provide conditional support that encourages gradual but steady reform of autocratic institutions in exchange for support on the economic front. Whether this is possible, only time will tell.

I want to end by saying how useful this conference has been to me, and to propose, as a way to bridge the yawning gap I have perceived between the economist community and, for lack of a better word, the non-economist one, to which I belong, that we join efforts to start thinking about what true social contracts might look like in the countries of this region, combining our various areas of expertise. This could lay the technical groundwork for the important negotiations that will need to take place between the various groups in the new order that eventually will emerge. I believe – and I hope you agree – that we can make beautiful music together.
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