A line-up of Arab leaders in 1991, the year the Cold War ended and a wave of democratization started to gather momentum around the globe, would look almost identical to a line-up of Arab leaders today. A few kings and emirs have died and have been duly replaced by their legitimate heirs. The long-ruling Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, has also since died and been replaced, less legitimately, by his son, Bashar. In Algeria and Lebanon, there has been much drama, but while presidents and prime ministers have been replaced, the underlying systems remain unchanged, with the same political dynasties controlling the life of Lebanon and a leader of the 1950s war for independence still running Algeria.
The Arab world has been bypassed by the process of political change that has marked much of the post-Cold War period in many other regions of the world. Virtually nothing changed in the 1990s in the Middle East. After a brief period of ferment and hope in the early and middle part of the present decade, democracy (or even less far-reaching, political reform) appears an ever more distant prospect, as opposition parties, including Islamists, lose ground in elections and incumbents re-establish a firm grip on the status quo. This is bad news for Arab citizens, because for the majority of them, particularly outside the Persian Gulf, the status quo does not hold much promise. On the political front, the status quo means the perpetuation of regimes that do not believe in accountability or participation and put much greater emphasis on regime security than on human security. On the economic front, the perpetuation of the status quo in all but the richest oil-producing countries means difficult living conditions, high unemployment, poor education, fraying health services, and, in many cases, decaying urban infrastructure overwhelmed by population growth.
In a perverse way, though, the stress the status quo imposes on human security also contains the possibility that the seemingly dead process of political reform will revive before long. Protests over economic and social conditions are spreading in Arab countries. It is mostly organized on a strictly local basis, so far without any sign of overall coordination or even clear goals, a seemingly endless stream of small protests and critical blogging. There appears to be no underlying ideology or organizational structure unifying the disparate episodes in each country, let alone across the region. Indeed, attempts by leftist or Islamist political parties to join protests or take control have not been well received. But even such small-scale action is putting pressure on governments to do something, before the general malaise that underlies the outbreaks finds expression in organized movements rather than scattered incidents. The Egyptian government, for example, has been confronted by hundreds of strikes called by workers without the support of the labor unions, particularly in the textile sector. So far, it has responded mostly with repressive measures, but has thought it more prudent to give in to economic demands in a few cases.
If the reform/democracy dossier is reopened in the Arab world anytime soon, it will not be because opposition parties gain ground in the formal political process, but because citizens' discontent convinces governments that reform is a wise political option.
The maintenance of order and state security, rather than the provision of good administration, social service, and human security have been and remain the major concerns of Arab governments. But during the 1960s, when the influence of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was strong in the Arab world, many governments followed his example in creating a de facto compact with the population, which denied political freedom but in return provided a measure of security and even socio-economic advancement. Nasser's Egypt launched an enormous effort to provide more widespread education and health services, while boosting employment in state industries and the civil service. For a time, the arrangement was popular, and many countries followed suit on a smaller scale.
Without adequate financial resources to sustain it, the extensive welfare and employment system that formed the positive side of the social contract soon started eroding, while on the negative side, the lack of freedom and democracy persisted. Egypt illustrates the problem. Universities created to provide a chance for advancement for all citizens became overloaded with more students than they could manage, graduating tens of thousands of poorly educated youths with scant job prospects. The guarantee of government employment for all graduates who wanted a job led to a bloated civil service packed with people without real tasks to carry out or even desks to sit at. Many were forced to work at random outside jobs to supplement their derisory salaries--the law school graduate idling away time in a government office in the morning and moonlighting as a barber in the afternoon was not an uncommon figure in Egypt and, to some extent, in other countries. Health care remained free, but this meant little as facilities became overwhelmed. The situation continued to deteriorate, in part because of the imbalance between diminishing resources and the needs of a rapidly growing population, and in part because an increasing number of governments turned from the Arab socialism of the Nasser era to the neo-liberal ideology of democracy being pushed from Washington.
Not all Arab countries embraced a form of Arab socialism in its heyday. The Gulf countries, in particular, bypassed the Nasserite phase. Some Gulf countries did not even become independent until 1971. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, deliberately set itself up as the countervailing power to Egypt. At the ideological level, it sought to spread the influence of its puritanical interpretation of Islam while Nasser preached Arab socialism. Politically...