September 10, 2017


The Arab Autocracy Trap (SHLOMO BEN-AMI, 9/-8/17, Project Syndicate)

Egypt offers a classic example of how revolution often ends in betrayal. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's dictatorship is even more violent than that of Hosni Mubarak, the strongman whose 30-year rule was ended by the 2011 uprising. With the help of a police force that he himself describes as a "million-man mafia," Sisi has made repression the paramount organizing principle of his regime.

It would be a Herculean feat for anyone to reform Egypt's economy so that it benefits the country's 95 million people (plus the two million added every year). And it is a task that Egypt's leaders cannot avoid, because the social contract of the Mubarak years, whereby Egyptians traded freedom for an expansive welfare state and generous subsidies, is no longer sustainable.

With youth unemployment at 40%, only a bold reformist president could pull Egypt back from the brink of economic disaster. Sadly, rather than providing hope to the younger generation of Egyptians who protested in Tahrir Square six years ago, Sisi has stifled individual initiative and made the army the primary actor in the economy.

Perhaps fearing even greater social unrest, Sisi has yet to meet the conditions set last November by the International Monetary Fund as part of a $12 billion bailout. These include drastically reducing the wage bill for Egypt's bloated public sector, which still employs six million people (not counting the army and police); and reducing subsidies, which still constitute 30% of the national budget.

Moreover, Sisi has offered even fewer institutional channels for political expression than existed under the Mubarak-era one-party system. According to the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, there were five times more street protests in Egypt in 2016 than there were, on average, in the years preceding the Arab Spring. A social volcano is forming; sooner or later, it will have to erupt.

In Saudi Arabia, the monarchical-theocratic regime weathered the Arab Spring with relative ease, because it could lavish its citizens with largesse. But the kingdom's social contract, like Egypt's, has become unsustainable, owing to falling oil prices and a population that has grown by more than 25% in the last decade alone.

Earlier this year, the Saudi government was forced to cut public-sector salaries and subsidies on basic goods. This represents a major risk for the regime (indeed, the salary cuts were quickly restored, after protests were called in four cities), not least because the state is the largest employer of Saudi citizens.

Many of the region's autocrats have put their faith in the "China model" of non-democratic development. But that model has clearly failed them. It requires far too much socioeconomic and political regimentation to be workable under prevailing conditions in the Arab world.

Posted by at September 10, 2017 8:12 AM