This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
The Tunisian revolution took everyone by surprise. And immediately afterwards, aftershocks occurred in nearby countries (Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen), so observers (knowledgeable ones as well as TV blabberers) started to ask themselves which states were “ripe” for similar uprisings. Egypt was immediately one of the dots on the radar screen, but how quickly and strongly it exploded was another surprise to everyone. So one must then ask: what makes a state “ripe” for such revolutions?
This is obviously far from just an academic question, or one of interest only to economists and social analysts, who would like to advise their clients (investors and strategists) on what their next moves should be. There are huge geopolitical stakes to this; indeed, top players (President Obama and Senate intelligence committee, among others) have asked their relevant institutions (CIA, NSA, embassies, etc.) why they did not warn them of such potential revolutions, and which ones should now be watched (for something to be done about it in anticipation).
Not surprisingly, to answer that “ripeness” question, analysts have resorted to country data and statistics to see which states seem to resemble Egypt and Tunisia most.
In a recent Op-Ed, Charles M. Blow, the New York Times columnist, constructed a chart of socio-economic and political measures to compare all MENA (Middle East and North Africa) states, in an attempt to find the one(s) that most resemble Egypt and Tunisia and would thus be the “ripest” for revolution. The factors he considered are: 1) level of democracy and regime type; and 2) unemployment rate, income inequality, spending on food, median age, and internet penetration.
The first category includes political factors (level of democracy and regime type), which were taken from the recent report of The Economist Intelligence Unit: Index of Democracy 2010. This report/index, which is produced every year or two, assesses and rates 167 countries on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. On each one, as series of questions (e.g. “are there free and fair elections?”) are answered with Yes, No, or Partly (1, 0, 0.5) either from official surveys or by experts. With their overall scores, countries are then placed within one of four types of regime categories: full democracies; flawed democracies; hybrid regimes; and authoritarian regimes.
The latest study, presenting “the situation as of November 2010” (just before the Tunisian revolution) found that half the world’s population lives under full or flawed democracies, and half under hybrid or authoritarian regimes; in fact, the overall conclusion of the report was that “democracy is now in retreat”, partly due to the recent financial crisis, which made governments feel vulnerable and thus move to tighten their grips on the media and the political landscape. Interestingly, France and Italy moved down from “full” to “flawed democracies”, joining Israel, India, Malaysia, and Mali in that group. The top four countries were (can’t you guess?!): Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden (scoring between 9.8 and 9.5 out of 10).
What about Muslim countries? Bangladesh, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, Pakistan, and Iraq join Russia (which ranks 107th!) in the “hybrid regime” category. Among the bottom 10 one finds Libya, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, just above Chad and North Korea.
Now, Charles M. Blow (the NYT columnist) realized that this democracy ranking is far from sufficient to predict which countries will undergo a revolution (soon). So he considered socio-economic factors. Let’s look at them briefly.
First of all, the last one, namely internet penetration, is rather superfluous in my view. This, I would call the Facebook and Twitter myth, as too many pundits have exaggerated the role played by these two internet tools in the recent revolution. And indeed, it is enough to point out that the biggest demonstrations in Egypt occurred right in the middle of the week-long internet blackout that the government imposed.
The other factors (unemployment rate, income inequality, spending on food, and median age) are useful parameters to consider, although accurate figures are very difficult to come by. For instance, while Blow takes his numbers from the CIA’s World Factbook, the unemployment rate cited for Algeria is 9.9%, although everyone agrees it is at least 15% overall, and somewhere around 30% for people below 30. Also, if high income inequality is a factor which contributes to social unrest, then one should note that the USA’s is higher than all the MENA states’ numbers.
In any case, if we follow Blow’s analysis, then on political (lack of democracy) grounds, the MENA countries most resembling – and even worse than – Egypt and Tunisia would be Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran. On socio-economic factors, the “ripest” countries would be Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Jordan, and Oman.
However, as I stressed in my previous post, one important factor that seems to be overlooked by most of these analysts is that of corruption (of various types). For this factor too, one can find data from Transparency International for 2010, listing 178 countries. In the bottom ten, one finds Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, most of which are what is often referred to as “failed states”. Looking further from the bottom up, one finds Russia (at 165), Yemen and Libya (equal at 146), and Pakistan (at 143).
Surely, all the above factors play some role in the people’s discontent; it is, of course, a multi-dimensional problem. One then notices two countries that seem to figure in each dimension (lack of democracy, economic troubles, corruption): Libya and Yemen… But then, Egypt does not come up as particularly noteworthy on any one of those factors, but that’s because there is one more issue that I highlighted in my previous column: nepotism (the ruler’s family and clique taking possession of the country). There is, to my knowledge, no survey or ranking of countries on this factor, but I bet you that Egypt and Tunisia would have appeared huge on such a study.
Conclusion: it’s a combination of the above factors; and needless to say: such analyses are far from an exact science…