Arab Spring: from instability to progress

It’s time to re-write the rule book.

Authoritarian dictators may have ensured stability, via repression, trhoughout the countries of the Middle East and North Africa for the past 40 years - while the oil-hunger countries of the world watched - but it is mass instability that is now bringing rapid progress to the region. From the whirlwind of the Arab Spring - from street protests, to uprisings, to revolutions and civil war - we are seeing how instability is delivering seismic shifts and progress to the political, economic and social landscapes of Arab countries. And, it's happening within seasons, not decades, fuelled by the aspirations of its people.

Democracy takes time, granted, and how you get there has long been documented but what is happening in the Arab Spring can not easily be labelled, and no pre-packaged 'long-term strategy' readily applied. Its pace and unpredictability are its assets, which also mean it is impossible to judge the next step.

Instability can reduce confidence, breed doubt and panic - in Europe we currently fear Euro-contagion and a 'double dip' which has sent our markets reeling and gold bullion peaking. Similarly, some Arab countries are miscalculating their moves and imposing irrational policies to try and stabilise their countries while others are already planning elections, signing huge international investment deals and bringing together tribes and dissidents who have long been left out in the cold - and in many cases countries are doing both.

Indeed, many Arab countries will take two steps forward and one step back, and some will even resist change while also trying to introduce reform, as they learn how to read and respond to the 'Arab street'.

This past 10 days we have seen a plethora of such changes from Mahmoud Abbas submitting the UN bid for Palestine and boldly declaring that the Arab Spring has arrived in Jerusalem, to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's incremental yet still unprecedented moves in giving women the vote in 2015 and revoking the sentence to lash a woman for driving her own car, Qatar continues its support for Arab nationalist uprisings - financially and militarily - by committing $0.5bn in development loans to Tunisia while at the same time accepting the resignation of the brains behind the rise of Al Jazeera, Waddah Khanfar, and replacing him with a Qatari royal, to the surprise return of President Saleh to Yemen and Turkey imposing an arms embargo on Syria while hosting opposition figures in Ankara.

The Arab Spring has reminded us all, including strategists who write 'five-year plans on progress and stability' and dictatorships that try to hold to power, that once in a while a black swan comes along, enabling incredible progress to be made even in the most unlikely of places, where instability can sometimes be a force for good and not knowing what the next move is, becomes your most an invaluable asset.

And, when that 'place' is an entire region of hundreds of millions of people - many who are under the age of 30 - who share a language, a culture, a hunger for change and progress, and a desire to achieve their aspirations, then it is time to re-write the rule book on 'how to deliver progressive change, equality and rights'. There are rumours that the Nobel committee will award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to the main actors in the Arab Spring, which would be consistent with having awarded it to John Hume and David Trimble previously. No one saw that coming either.

 

 

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories