The Underlying Causes of Stability and Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa: An Analytic Survey
August 21, 2013
The political dynamics and violence that shape the current series of crises in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – and daily events in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen – dominate the current course of virtually every aspect of these states including much of the current course of violence and instability in the region.
Political dynamics and violence, however, are only part of the story. The current patterns of events have many underlying causes, and causes that vary sharply by country. The current pattern of politics, religion, and ideology are shaped by major tribal, ethnic, sectarian, and regional differences within each given nation.
This is illustrated in a new Burke Chair analysis of the broader trends shaping unrest and instability in the region titled "The Underlying Causes of Stability and Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa: An Analytic Survey." It is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/130821_MENA_Stability.pdf
The examination of the broader demographic, economic, and security trends in the MENA region in this report shows how critical these factors are in shaping public anger and discontent. They also show the critical role of the quality of governance, internal security systems, justice systems, and progress in social change in shaping and dealing with each nation’s problems.
There is no reliable way to assess the deep underlying structural impact of factors like demographics and economics on unrest. Both efforts at modeling and analysis, and a wide range of polls show that it is impossible to credibly assign weight to a given measurement or trend. Efforts like the UN Arab Development Report warned nearly a decade ago, however, that demographic pressures, failures in economic development and the combination of challenges related to income distribution, deep problems with corruption and nepotism, and discrimination were compounding pre-existing agitation over a lack of freedom, threatening regional stability, creating significant challenges to given countries.
No one can realistically address the current upheavals in key countries and the MENA region without considering such factors. A focus on politics and violence, and on issues like terrorism and religion, grossly understates both the forces at work and the time and effort needed to correct them. This briefing helps set the stage for a better understanding of the underlying causes of unrest by surveying some of the key statistics and data on the key trends in demographics, economics, internal security and justice systems, governance, and social change, and showing how they affect both the region and differ by individual nation.
The Need for Far Better Data, Planning, and Analysis
The briefing serves another purpose as well: it illustrates the severe limits to the availability and quality of the data on many key aspects of stability. As such, it is a warning that countries, intelligence experts, members of international institutions, NGOs, and area experts need to do a far better job of developing basic data on the causes of instability.
The Need for Valid Data, and More Relevant Metrics, in A World of International Statistical Rubbish
One key problem affecting all of the current crises in the region is the failure to collect accurate, up-to-date data that measures the seriousness of the problems in nations whose instability and violence has now led to years of deterioration in the real-world economics that affect their citizens and key ethnic, sectarian, and income groups.
Worse, in many cases, the data available not only long predate the now years long course of the Arab Spring, but never included information that went beyond national totals to examine difference by tribe, ethnicity, region, sect, class, and other key sources of discontent. As a result, measures like GDP growth not only become irrelevant, but also show progress in terms that are totally misleading in regards to their real world impact on the population as whole, and the pressures and perceptions shaping the actions of key elements of the population.
Even the limited and sometimes dated information in the charts and tables that this report presents, however, show that important variations exist in basic data on factors such as the size of given economies, per capita incomes, populations, and population growth rates. These discrepancies challenge much of the single point analysis used by the US government, some UN agencies, and the work done by key international organizations like the World Bank and IMF. They include enough comparisons of efforts to provide summary scores on factors like governance and justice systems. Some of these comparisons are untrustworthy or uncertain in measuring how given countries do or do not meet given challenges, but a lack of reliable measures – often driven by underfunding rather than the limits to collection – is always a warning that far better efforts are necessary.
It is also important to note that this briefing can only hint at the problems that currently exist in the data: no one source or organization emerges as reliable in reporting on any key parameter that is currently being measured. Seeming agreement is largely the result of using the same uncertain method or data. More often, serious variations exist in basic data on factors such as the size of given economies, per capita incomes, populations, and population growth rates. They include comparisons of efforts to provide summary scores on factors including governance and justice systems. Some of these comparisons speak for themselves in showing how untrustworthy such systems are as a substitute for looking at the details of how given countries do or do not meet given challenges.
The Drunkard and the Lamp Post: Failing Update Metrics and Analysis to Measure What Actually Counts
All this shows that far better data are needed in key areas like unemployment and underemployment, income distribution, the efficiency of the state sector, barriers to growth and economic development, the size and function security forces and police, and quality of governance.
Some key societal trends that affect a remarkably young population remain unmeasured. These include factors such as access to meaningful, job-related education, the cost of marriage, substantive employment leading to real careers and income to marry, dependence on the state sector, career options for young women, social mobility and status, and the belief that government and social order offer dignity and justice while being free enough of corruption and favoritism to create loyalty and hope.
The figures in this briefing also reflect the fact that there are few reliable qualitative data on key government services such as education, housing, medical services, water and refuse removal, and infrastructure. The data on corruption and rule of law do not begin to reflect the degree to which given elements of MENA populations are angry at their governments, furious about their living conditions, and identify the political and social framework as unjust.
Furthermore, the data that are available shows that there is a need for far better efforts at statistical standardization, for transparency, for added data on critical aspects of stability, and for accepting the sheer complexity of the various force at work.
Finally, it is clear that metrics and analyses that do not include survey data on popular perceptions of the quality of all these factors involved and ignore the country-by-country causes of popular discontent and anger have only limited value.
Polls can be a key tool in supplementing the metrics provided in this briefing, but they are often lacking – or unreliable – in measuring key areas of popular perceptions of the causes of instability.
The Near Certainty of Regime Change Cannot Bring Near Term Stability
There are no reliable ways to provide exact measurements of the quality of governance and the justice system, but the briefing indicates that those indicators available regarding the quality of governance show that “corruption” is only part of a much broader pattern of gross inefficiency, favoritism and nepotism, and indifference to popular needs that has built up over decades.
The demographic and economic data reveal patterns of population growth and other trends that make any quick solutions or improvements difficult to impossible. In the case of far too many countries, problems such as the need for jobs on the part of the region’s youth are, in and of themselves, certain to put extreme stress on their governments for a decade or more to come.
In such cases, governments may become more “legitimate” in the way they are chosen and in their reduced reliance on repression. They will not, however, be able to build legitimacy by successfully treating the underlying causes of unrest for years to come, and therefore political change alone offers little hope of future stability.
A Decade to a Quarter Century, Not a “Spring”
Finally, the broader patterns that emerge from the entire set of indicators warn that that the “Arab spring” is likely to involve a decade of more of political, economic, and social unrest. The causes of unrest are deep, complex, and involve structural problems in governance, demographics, and economics. None can be solved in a few months or years. Even the most successful nations – and the briefing shows that such nations clearly exist – still face major challenges over the next decade. Others must fight their way out of problems that have brought them close to the edge of becoming “failed states.”
Most MENA states have no real political parties or pluralistic structures, and only the monarchies have a history of political legitimacy.
There is no clear basis for representative government, no experience with political compromise and making elections work, and no pattern of effective governance combined with economic progress and social evolution to build upon. Ethnic and religious issues often cut deep and have been repressed for decades. Justice systems are weak and/or corrupt, religious extremism challenges necessary social and economic change, and the security forces are often an equal or more serious problem.
The US and the West may still think in terms of rapid, stable democratic change. None of the proper conditions exist in many states, and political evolution is the only road to stability in the others. The reality is that far too many revolutions eat their young and the hopes of those who cause them. The “European spring” of 1848, for example, produced continuing instability through 1914 – when new crises led to still greater problems.
There will be Arab successes, particularly with proper support and help from neighboring Arab states and the outside world, but sudden successes are unlikely and even the best regimes face major challenges where it will take years for them to meet popular hopes and expectations.