In choosing “the protester” as their Person of the Year, Time Magazine had in mind anti-corruption crusaders in India and the “Occupy” movements in North America and Europe, but above all the young men and women who surged into the squares of Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, Sana’a and Benghazi; protesters who gave a whole new meaning to the term “Arab street”. Long used to denote a sullen, inchoate, unfocused rage, it now came to mean a yearning for democracy, for a political form long identified with the western world alone.
What will happen, in 2012 and beyond, to the quest for democracy in the countries of the Arab world? Will it be further deepened by the establishment of representative government, a free press and an independent judiciary? Or will it be aborted by new forms of authoritarianism or a return to older tribal rivalries?
A transition to democratic consolidation will depend in part on the models the protesters seek to uphold. Rather than looking west, Arab democrats should study the experience of the newer democracies that lie to their east. Consider India, where every general election (there have been 15 thus far) represents the largest expression of the democratic franchise in human history; where the military is kept firmly away from politics; and where people of all faiths have equal rights under the constitution and in law.
Even more relevant than India is Bangladesh. Once written off as a basket case, this country now has an average annual economic growth rate close to five per cent. It is self-sufficient in food and has a large manufacturing sector that employs more than a million women. The military has retreated to the barracks, the Islam on display is more ecumenical than literalist, and there is a vigorous civil society.
Bangladesh’s turnaround is the subject of a fine recent book by David Lewis, which went to press before the Arab Spring and now acquires great salience because of it. Can a culture steeped in Islam respect women’s rights? Can a polity dominated by the army break free of it? Can a desperately poor country assure decent education and health care at the same time as promoting economic growth? These are all questions pertinent to the Arab protesters – who might find answers in a country to their east that does not yet appear to be on their horizon.
The writer holds the Philippe Roman Chair in history and international affairs at the London School of Economics
Next year is not going to be better, and one might just stop there. Whatever temporary economic fixes are applied to the eurozone, American deficits and unemployment, the overheated Chinese real estate market, petering Indian reforms or stalling Brazilian growth, the downward slide will continue. This is because all are symptoms of a structural global economic dislocation that is becoming increasingly disorderly. Yet the second half of this prediction is that politics may be deceptively calm in 2012 – calm before the storm.
To start with the economics. Two trends are underway that have drawn much comment. One is between the old western economies and the formerly emerging economies, notably those in Asia. The second, which heightens the pain of the first, is that the globalisation of markets that enabled the first trend (by giving Asia access to western markets) has also created two new classes of winners. The first is a global super-rich, made up of the innovators, traders and bankers. The second is made up of the Asian and other emerging market manufacturing and service sector workers, who have undercut western labour costs.
The big losers are western middle class and blue collar workers, who (with notable exceptions such as Germans) have lost out dramatically. The real source of this crisis is a decades-long loss of competitiveness and income for these groups that politicians have tried to cover up with unserviceable levels of sovereign and household debt. Now the bill is due and, as the global economy is so interlinked, nobody will be left unscathed. Chinese developers will struggle as much as western business leaders with turbulence and recession.
So why will the politics be calmer? Because at least during 2012, it will be driven by tactical and electoral timing. The great revolt, despite the sit-ins on Wall Street and outside St Paul’s cathedral, will come later. The old prediction that incumbents cannot survive high unemployment and recession is likely to be replaced next year by the lesson that tactically adept incumbents can survive, by offering stability during a time of chaos and so slipping back in under the claim that ‘the devil you know is better than than the devil you don’t’. Their chances are particularly high if they can identify with their citizens’ pain more effectively than weak challengers. Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama may slip through their elections on these terms, while Angela Merkel and David Cameron may survive the year better than the economic facts would appear to warrant.
The writer is chairman of global affairs at FTI Consulting, and former UN deputy secretary-general. He is author of ‘The Unfinished Global Revolution’