Stability in the Middle East and North Africa: The Other Side of Security

National security is normally seen in terms of military strength and internal security operations against extremists and insurgents. The upheavals that began in Tunis have highlighted the fact that national security is measured in terms of the politics, economics, and social tensions that shape national stability as well. It is all too clear that the wrong kind of internal security efforts, and national security spending that limits the ability to meet popular needs and expectations can do as much to undermine national security over time as outside and extremist threats.

The challenge to national security planners is now to bridge the gap and find ways to assess stability as well as security. Unfortunately, there are no simple or agreed upon ways to do this, and experts differ sharply as to the factors that cause popular unrest, how to measure them, and how to weight given factors. Moreover, much depends on popular perceptions and expectations as well as underlying trends and causes, and there is no convincing way to predict the point at which trends and problems that take years or decades to develop will suddenly reach a flash point that can cause a national security crisis.

There are, however, a range of indicators that do seem to underlie the current unrest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) area. These indicators differ sharply by country, and accurate data on such indicators are often lacking for given countries as well as for the region. Nevertheless, they provide at least a first step in considering how to reassess national security in terms of stability and give popular needs and perceptions the proper priority.

These indicators are summarized in a new briefing entitled Stability in the Middle East and North Africa: The Other Side of Security. This briefing is available on the CSIS web site at  This briefing has major changes and additions reflecting comments and suggestions from outside experts.  Some comments are included without attribution as requested.  

Setting the Stage

The first part of the briefing sets the stage by showing how the development of the MENA region compares with that of other parts of the world. It shows just how dangerous it is to ignore the sharp differences between MENA countries. At the same time, it also reveals long-standing problems in the development of the MENA region.

The region as a whole has not move forward at anything like the pace of Asia, and its ratio of GDP to population falls far behind that of developed regions. Moreover, its patterns of GDP growth, while they have improved in recent years, have consistently lagged behind those of other developing areas, and fallen far short of the percentages normally needed to keep pace with high levels of population growth in the region.

These figures are also distorted by the impact of petroleum export revenues and savings, which have made up a major part of the apparent growth in the region without leading to balanced development or benefitting the broad majority of the people in most exporting countries. It is also striking to see how limited “oil wealth” really is in per capita terms in many MENA exporting states, and it is clear that relying on petroleum would not bring national stability in several key exporting countries even if the income was better distributed and used more productively in terms of economic development.

As the following sections of this brief show, the MENA region is broadly more developed than other regions, and does not face the same levels of problems in basic nutrition and dealing with dire poverty. At the same time, a number of MENA countries do face serious problems in these areas, and the others do not reflect anything like the progress in rising above food dependence and poverty seen in many Asian states. In far too many cases, development, and the governance that make it possible, have not provided the benefits that can meet expectations and show people the consistent improvement in their lives that is a key to stability.

This raises two key issues that affect all of the trends and metrics in this briefing:

  • First, the key to popular unrest in most countries is not at the extremes of income and services, but in the failure to meet the expectations and needs of a much wider range of the population – coupled to the broad perception that a narrow elite is benefitting at the expense of other groups. As a result, the econometric and social metrics designed to deal with lower levels of income and development sharply understate the problems MENA state face in terms of popular expectations and stability.
  • Second, these problems have been driven by a mixture of massive population growth and social change, and a failure to provide the desired rate of development and governance, that has built-up over decades. There are no short-term structural solutions and population growth will pose a critical set of challenges for at least the next decade and probably two.

Put simply, no change in government, or existing patterns of governance, can produce enough major changes in government services and the economy quickly enough to meet popular expectations. At other metrics show, this may be far less true of the ability to make changes in the way governments respond to their peoples, carry out day-day governance, run their justice systems, and deal with internal security. However, the political stability of the MENA region will remain under serious pressure for the indefinite future.

Civil Challenges to Security and Stability

The second section of the briefing highlights the range of pressures involved, and it is clear that they go far beyond both the nature of governance and economics – important as these two factors are to both national security and stability. It identifies the following key factors:

  • Rigid and/or Repressive Regimes; Lack of Peaceful Civil and Political Alternatives.
  • Problems with Security Forces Police and Rule of Law.
  • Ethnic, Sectarian, Tribal, and Regional Differences.
  • Major Demographic Pressures – Youth Bulge.
  • Social Change, Hyperurbanization, Media, Education
  • Economic Pressures.
  • Uncertain Governance: Services, Education, Health, Utilities (power, water, sewers/garbage)
  • Secularism vs. Religion vs. “Justice” vs. Other Ideological Issues

It should be stressed that this is a partial and highly controversial list, that its relevance varies sharply from MENA country to MENA country, that there is no way to weight the importance of given issues, and that far too little meaningful polling data are available to tie the metrics in this briefing to the popular expectations that  shape stability and can explode into popular unrest.

Perceptions of Security and Stability

These problems are highlighted in the section on perceptions of security and stability. It highlights key polling data in the Arab Development Report for 2009, which provided an important warning of the instability that might break out in the region.

These polling data show just how different the demands and concern are in four MENA countries, and how many different factors need to be considered. Other polls by PEW, Gallup, ABC/BBC/ARD, and many other sources confirm this reality. The stability and security of given states must be measured in terms of popular perceptions within that particular state, and generalizing on  the basis of geography, ethnicity, religion, or regime type can be deeply misleading – as can focusing on one narrow set of factors.

Rigid and/or Repressive Regimes; Lack of Peaceful Civil and Political Alternatives

The metrics dealing with political stability, levels of democracy, voter participation, and press freedom represent a traditional Western approach to evaluating the legitimacy of governance. They are not without merit, and they do illustrate just how different MENA countries are when judged by such metrics.

They also, however, essentially mirror image Western values as “universal” values in ways that often ignore the level of economic progress and well being, the quality of government services, the level of government expenditure to meet popular needs, and the extent to which governments do or do not meet popular expectations on a broad level.

They also do not necessarily reflect the extent to which given countries have a political system where enough pluralism exists for opposition parties to actually have a meaningful voice, and where they have the capability to govern and deal with the underlying problems in the region.

One of the key challenges for regional security and stability is how to reshape governance to meet popular needs. These measures treat “legitimacy” largely in terms of how governments are chosen and not how well they govern. They also tend to understand the regional emphasis on “justice” versus “democracy,” and often bear little relation to the level of abuses documented in narratives like the US State Department Human Rights report, and the extent to which given states deal with ethnic, sectarian, and tribal issues.

Put simply, far better and more sophisticated measures are needed, and the kind of surveys illustrated in the previous section may be better ways to understand popular grievances and expectations, and the prospects of major unrest, than these types of indices.

Problems with Security Forces, Police and the Rule of Law

The measures in the next section provide a clearer set of warnings, and ones confirmed by much of the popular unrest that began in Tunisia. Repression does not bring lasting security and stability, particularly if it is applied clumsily, arbitrarily,  and in ways that are seen as both corrupt and serving the narrow interests of the ruling elite.

What these metrics are less capable of showing is that repression is sometimes mixed with poor policing, corrupt police and courts, confessions-based justice that involves hard interrogation, and corrupt or elite influence over the commercial justice system and property rights. Less public surveys in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq provide important warning that human rights abuses and harsh security procedures are only part of the problem and one that reaches a far smaller part of the population. It is the overall quality of policing and the justice system that may do far more to either encourage stability or lead to major unrest.

This is also a key issue in judging the level of military expenditure and the tradeoffs between direct national security expenditures and other investments in stability. The data on military expenditures are so different in definition that many do not take account of the cost of police, paramilitary forces, and the justice system. This can sharply understate the effort in given countries.

Classic Economic Pressures

Far too often, economic analyses focus on total national economic growth, the size of GDPs, opportunities for investment, and measures that are critical to macroeconomics and business, but fail to provide meaningful measures of stability.

  • Data on per capita GDP help put the economic pressure on stability in more perspective, but differ sharply from source-to- source – even when they appear to have the same definition. Like many indicators in this briefing they can be useful as warning, but do not directly indicate stability.
  • The same is true of employment data. These figures are very controversial. Many governments understate the level of direct unemployment,  none report credibly on the size of the potential work force that is excluded from employment data (particularly women), and there is no clear measure of disguised unemployment – where a job does exist but has no real value or productivity gain.
  • Once again, popular surveys help put this in perspective. The Arab development Report again highlights the fact perceptions are critical.
  • The data on poverty and income inequality are also potentially important. One problem is that the poverty level is set so low that it really does not affect the perceptions and expectation of any part of the population other than the poorest citizens.
  • Another problem – as the Arab Development Report and income distribution data for the US show -- is that income disparity – while important – does not show trends that favor a small elite and can cause major unrest, a loss of relative status, or major problems by group (age, ethnicity, sect, location, etc.)
  • Adequacy of income is also a critical factor, and this is illustrated by the data on food costs and food as a share of total income. Sudden peaks in prices, problems with subsidies and corruption of subsidies, can be a key source of unrest as is steady pressure on income. Food also is only one such measure. Housing, electricity, commuting, medical care costs, and education costs, are also potential red flags as to popular feelings and stability.

Demographic Pressures

The charts on demographic pressures provide a grim warning of the level of challenge population growth has, does, and will present to national security and stability. This is a challenge that many Arab (and several Iranian) experts and reports began to flag as early as the 1950s. 

It is also a challenge that no government has effectively met, and regional countries and societies resist debating on a broad level. So far, it is driven largely by rises in the cost of living, better education and new expectation, and the gradual rise in the role of women in the work forces. The decline in MENA birth rates doers, however,  lag that in the more rapidly developing Asia states and is largely driven by society in the absence of effective national policy.

Youth Bulge

The data on the sharp rise in the number of young men and women highlights these issues for what is the most volatile element of society – although the leaders of unrest may be older or at the older limit of the age group.

To some extent, these data speak for themselves, but they do not reflect trends that need far more attention from governments: growing delays in employment, lack of opportunity for real careers, poor opportunity for secondary and university graduates, exclusion of educated young women and loss of productivity gain, serious problems in financing marriage and housing, discrimination by group and favoritism/corruption in job opportunities. Many MENA states fail the portion of their population that is both growing most rapidly and a key potential source of instability.

Ethnic, Sectarian, Tribal, and Regional Differences

The metrics in this section are only a crude illustration of the fact that stability and security must be measured in terms of key groups within a given nation and not in terms of national averages. Any failure to do so ignores critical sources of unrest and potential social violence.

Social Change, Hyperurbanization, Media, Education

Once again, any survey of MENA trends has to oversimplify the sheer scale of change. Data on the education of women for example, illustrates a key change but the Arab Development Report warns of complex changes in patterns of violence and human trafficking. 

Urbanization has radically changed the face of the entire region and continues in most countries. It does not, however, reflect the extent to which it can create a massive enclave of urban poor with inadequate government services, and the fact such density also means that popular communication and unrest can take on a very different character.

At the same time, the data on Internet and cell phone use are only two indicators of the fact that government censorship activities may do little more than push popular perceptions and unrest into listening to foreign (and especially satellite television) media, distrust of governments and authority, and creation of informal networks which are outside government control. Freedom of information is not something governments can now really control. Moreover, efforts to do so almost certainly do more to undermine security and stability by depriving governments of popular trust and preventing informed debate than they can possibly be worth. 

Uncertain Governance: Corruption, Services, Education, Health, Utilities (power, water, sewers/garbage)

It is all too clear that all of the prior trends make citizens more dependent on government services, and that the ability of governments to provide competent and affordable basic services, education, and health are critical to stability. It is also clear that this presents critical challenges in dealing with population pressures, particularly at an equitable nation level.

This is very clear from the focus on such problems in a number of countries since the turmoil began in Tunisia, and it is compounded by the perceptions of favoritism and corruption in virtually every aspect of government activity including services. Stability and security require effective governance in these areas.

It is also clear that this is particularly true of education – not simply at the youth level but at the family level. Education is seen as critical to status, social mobility, and the family unit and regimes that do not meet expectations face significant challenges in stability.

Secularism vs. Religion vs. “Justice” vs. Other Ideological Issues

The final key area of instability in this briefing is one where there are no clear metrics, but where the events of the last decade have made it brutally clear that governments that do not address these issue socially and in their education systems cannot succeed through the use of security forces and counterterrorism.

“Find their worst grievances and deal with them”

Finally, it should be clear that no government can meet every challenge and that some challenges can only be met over a decade or more. This means that the civil side of national security, and the search for stability, must involve efforts to prioritize action and hard trade-offs in resources and government priorities. As one expert put it,

“We cannot change population trends quickly. We cannot solve key economic problems in less than half a decade. We cannot suddenly create whole new political systems, or deal with the challenge of religion.

We can, however, listen to the people. We can find their worst grievances and deal with them. And we can seek consistent progress over time”

The challenge for every country and regime in the MENA region is to find a new balance of efforts that can be meet popular needs and expectations. It is also to communicate the limits to what can and cannot be done. This ultimately requires both listening to the people and communicating with them. It also requires some existing regimes to rethink much of their approach to national security and stability, and new regimes to consider from the start what can and cannot be credibly accomplished in ways that actually serve their people.