Blogs > Revolutionary Moments > Unpacking the Arab Uprisings (Part 3)

Oct 30, 2013

Unpacking the Arab Uprisings (Part 3)

 [Map of Syria and Military Deployment, 2011]

This is the third part of a series addressing the Arab Uprisings. Here i discuss the impact of the new elitism that developed in various parts of the Arab world (with parallels beyond the region) in the past two to three decades. See part one here and part two here

Economic Policy, Economic Structure, and Social Impact

The apparent social effects of the new elitism and the policies they engendered are even deeper, affect the lives of most Syrians, and were all too clear before January 2011. Discussed elsewhere in greater detail, the impact of this alliance had a tremendous polarizing effect on Syrian society, one that approaches, if not matches, the pre-Ba`th era. The effects proceeded at three levels: economic policies, economic structure, and social impact.

It is not too challenging to demonstrate that the policies supported by this new nexus of power are responsible for unduly removing or destroying various forms of social safety nets (e.g., welfare, subsidies, job provisions) that kept populations afloat or barely above water for decades. If these provisions were not removed altogether then either their quality has deteriorated significantly (e.g., health, education) or rations have shrunk (e.g., bread, flower, sugar). Such drastic changes contributed to two dangerously related phenomena: first, increasing poverty (including absolute poverty) and thus social polarization, whereby societies are increasingly losing their middle classes; and second, economic exclusion from the “market,” a phenomenon contributing to a dramatic increase of the informal sector, or those who are functioning, and living, almost completely outside the market, most of whom inhabit rural areas, small towns, and smaller cities. 

Meanwhile regime policies that emphasized the growth of the “private” sector by providing investors with privileges, distinctions, and exemptions did so without exacting reciprocity in practice in terms of added value, employment, and exports. More important is that the most lucrative new economic opportunities were monopolized by regime loyalists, relatives, or partners, all part of the same state-business networks that developed in the 1970s and 1980s and matured in the 1990s. The striking proximity of policy makers to policy takers made rent-seeking and structural corruption extremely efficient, producing a plethora of tailored policies that weakened, fragmented, and taxed the national economy.     

The broader societal impact was hard-felt in some important sectors. The incremental—and not so incremental—goring of workers’ and labor interests in the private and public sectors is another outcome that can be easily traceable to policies and political decisions associated with the new elitism. The shifting of effective alliances from labor to business was part and parcel of the unraveling of state-centered economies. Rights, rules, and regulations increasingly favored business at the expense of labor as time went by, starting in the 1970s (officially or unofficially). Trade/peasant unions and labor organizations were co-opted around that time by corporatist authoritarian systems of representation, but continued to enjoy some privileges. It is true that the political elite started this process of shifting alliances and privileging capital long before business actors became prominent, but the sort of change that took place in the past three decades has a different character. Earlier, such stripping of labor rights was considered a function of problematic authoritarian arbitrariness, something that is frowned upon socially and viewed as a departure from a social (developmental) contract of sorts. More recently, and before the wave of protests and revolts, the incremental stripping away of labor rights was carried out in the name of “investment,” “growth,” and "modernization." 

The ideological context in times gone by was one of a socialist-nationalist coloring that provided a basis for judgment and norms. Hence, social polarization, poverty, and developmental exclusion were considered “wrong” and unacceptable. Today, such disturbing effects have become the new norm, a means to a “better” future, a legitimate station along the way to prosperity and efficiency. All such designations were short-circuited by the uprisings, but it is too early to sound the death-knell for growth formulas that are zero-sum in character. In part, it was this “positive”-sounding narrative of the new policies that camouflaged the deep discontent and resentment among the essentially voiceless.

Perhaps most significant were the developmental implications of a new elitism that vehemently emphasized urban development (at the expense of the neglected countryside and its modes of production) and non-productive economic activity, characterized primarily by consumption. The increase in shares of the tourism and service sectors at the expense of manufacturing and agricultural production (associated with land re-reform laws and other regulations) produced different kinds of needs in society. For instance, there was significantly less need for skilled labor, and the educational systems and institutions that would be required to train skilled labor. 

Whatever emerged in terms of the “new economy” and information technology fields lagged far behind other countries, was too small and too underdeveloped to substitute for losses in other sectors, and was certainly not competitive internationally. Employment of hundreds of thousands of yearly new entrants became increasingly a pipe-dream, pushing masses of disenfranchised youth to oblivion and circumstance. 

An interjectory note is in order, even if unrelated to “policy.” Since 2003, Syria has experienced an unprecedented drought that caused the internal migration of more than 1.2 million people, by conservative estimates. Tens of thousands of families migrated to the cities where they joined the ranks of the unemployed, especially in smaller towns/provinces like Der`a, Idlib, Homs, and elsewhere. This displacement exacerbated discontent on all those affected, directly and indirectly, and increased the social and regional polarization to levels Syria had not seen since the middle of the last century. Though this was a natural disaster, the government’s chronic poor planning and mismanagement of water resources since the 1990s was one opportunity cost of the myriad of polarizing policies pursued during the same period.

The problem of development is not simply about rules and markets and will not be resolved as such. Nor is the panacea of “democracy” sufficient to treat the basic ills. Whatever else is at work, the most egregious problems stem from various and continuing forms of political and economic disempowerment and denial of self-determination at the individual and collective levels. Most of these problems were/are being exacerbated by a new nexus of power that was as unrelenting as it is/was essentially unchallenged (depending on the case). This new elitism and the policies that came with it were not the only source of discontent and dissent, but a guarantee that they will fester if alternative agencies, institutions, and social contracts do not develop, even under changed regimes. For our purposes here, we cannot underestimate the contribution of these resultant social effects on the structural reservoir that fueled the uprising’s origins, notably in the rural areas and small towns. 

In the next post, I shall resume my discussion of the general causes of the uprising by addressing the factors, or areas of research, that should be included in any comprehensive study.

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