Measuring the Causes of Instability in the Middle East and North Africa
January 26, 2012
The Burke Chair at CSIS has developed a new report entitled The Causes of Instability in the Middle East and North Africa, which is available on the CSIS web site here.
It updates and expands work done for a previous report in the spring of 2011. It uses a range of different sources to provide indicators of the factors that have driven political instability in the region and which both new and existing regimes must address.
The pressures revealed in the various metrics in this report provide important insights into why what seemed to be a relatively minor incident in Tunisia could have so much impact in the region. As earlier studies of the region -- particularly those in the Arab Development Reports -- have warned, many of the regimes in the Middle East and North Africa failed to meet the needs and expectations of their populations for decades. They create sets of growing pressures that meant even one catalyst could trigger a regional response.
At the same time, the report shows that these pressures vary sharply by country, and it is critical to stress that polling data show that the populations of given countries have very different priorities. The fact that most are Arab and share Islam as a common religion is a key factor shaping their attitudes but it is only one aspect of the forces for change.
Differences in economic and demographics pressure, problems with corruption and human rights, basic security issues, and ethnic and sectarian differences led to major changes in goals and motivation even in neighboring counties. A “one size fits all” approach to the importance and impact of given factors in this study is no substitute for a case-by-case approach.
There are several other important caveats to the use of the data in this report.
- First, sources differ sharply over many of the data involved, most sources make no effort to estimate the uncertainty in the data they provide, key aspects of the data are not defined or are not defined in terms that ensure comparability, and the reliability of reporting on even the basic population and national economic data is unreliable. This is true even of data like the total population or the size of the GDP.
- Second, international data take time to update on any comparable basis. It is sometimes possible to track trends over the last year of political unrest for key countries like Egypt, but far too many undefined estimates of uncertain reliability are surfacing in media and other sources. A “guesstimate” is a “guesstimate,” and its value must be judged accordingly.
- Third, judgments and rankings for the quality of governance, rule of law, corruption, human rights, and other “soft” indicators often reveal major differences in how experts model and judge national performance. Such scores and rankings can still be useful in flagging key issues, but all such rankings must be used with extreme caution and none can be called authoritative.
- Fourth, as the analysis shows, no MENA country consists of a population with common perceptions, goals, and values. The metrics in this report affect the entire country, but their impact varies sharply by income group, age, status, sect, ethnic group, region, and tribe – and particularly in the case of countries with large numbers of foreign workers.
- Finally, almost all of the data were developed for different purposes from measuring how much they actually drive unrest. The correlation between income, unemployment, corruption and other key measurements, and how much they may drive a given society or element in a given population toward revolution and unrest are never clear.
More broadly, politics -- and sometimes violence -- are the driving variables in times of acute political instability and unrest. Political analysis, polling, and the study of any patterns of violence, are often more useful tools in tracking and predicting events than trying to analyze the underlying causes that triggered political unrest.
The fact remains, however, that what many in the West came to call the “Arab spring” occurred in countries that had critical problems in demographics, economics, job creation, income inequalities, governance, corruption, effective rule of law, and other underlying causes that had steadily built up pressure over a period of decades.
As most case studies in history warn – regardless of culture – these underlying pressures help explain why most political upheaval and revolutions fail or fall far short of the goals of those who make them. Success – if it comes at all – occurs over years of effort and almost inevitably after those who start a revolution are no longer in power.
No amount of good intentions can produce rapid major structural changes in governance, the national economy, and demographic pressures. The history of violent political upheavals and revolution is rarely one of quick effective solutions, or even the ability to effectively begin to address such problems. Entire political systems have to find a new balance in the face deteriorating conditions, and then deal with problems that take years or decades to solve.
As events over the last year have also shown, political upheavals often act to make many problems worse in the short run. Nations that lack an effective structure of governance cannot suddenly improvise or create one. Nations without effective political parties and experience with representative government do not become capable of good governance simply because people are now elected. Constitutions and changes in the legal system often become little more than statements of good intentions. Existing populations create pressures that new governments must deal with, and national economies cannot suddenly grow or change at the rate necessary to meet popular expectations.