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The wages of Arab decay

For the last few weeks, a massive wave of protests has been rocking Tunisia over the Ben Ali regime's alleged corruption, authoritarianism, and economic failings. A grisly suicide attack on a Coptic Christian Church in Alexandria on New Year's Day has sparked escalating worries about the state of Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt. Over the last few days, Jordanian security forces have struggled to put down riots in the southern town of Maan, the latest in an increasingly worrisome trend towards local violence and clashes. Kuwaiti politics continue to be roiled by the fallout from the Dec. 8 attack by security forces against law professor Obaid al-Wasimi and a group of academics and parliamentarians. What do these have in common?

These four seemingly unrelated incidents over the last month all draw attention to the accelerating decay of the institutional foundations and fraying of the social fabric across many of the so-called "moderate," pro-Western Arab regimes. What seems to link these four ongoing episodes, despite the obvious differences, is a combination of authoritarian retrenchment, unfulfilled economic promises, rising sectarianism at the popular level, and deep frustration among an increasingly tech-savvy rising generation. The internal security forces in these states remain powerful, of course, and it's unlikely that any of the regimes will fall any time soon (though some analysts seem more enthusiastic about the prospects for change in Tunisia). But even if these upgraded authoritarians can keep hold of power, there's a palpable sense that these incidents represent the leading edge of rising economic, social and political challenges which their degraded institutions are manifestly unable to handle.

Stalled politics and authoritarian retrenchment certainly plays a role in this institutional decay, as entrenched elites have proven skilled at manipulating elections to maintain their hold on power and opposition movements have largely failed to figure out effective ways to organize and maintain serious challenges. Jordan and Egypt have both recently completed disappointing parliamentary elections, which drew boycotts from crucial political sectors in each case and attracted little enthusiasm from even those who took part. The impressive protest wave in Tunisia comes despite the near complete absence of democratic institutions and fierce government repression of public freedoms. Kuwait has evolved probably the most interestingly contentious democratic institutions in the Gulf -- indeed, the efforts of its Parliament to hold the government accountable for the attack on its MPs bucks the regional trend by strengthening rather than weakening the role of the elected Parliament and formal political institutions.

These four events hitting at roughly the same time, for all their differences, seem to crystallize a long-developing sense that these regimes have failed to meaningfully address this relentlessly building wave of troubles. For years, both Arab and Western analysts and many political activists have warned of the urgent need for reform as such problems built and spread. Most of the Arab governments have learned to talk a good game about the need for such reform, while ruthlessly stripping democratic forms of any actual ability to challenge their grip on power. Economic reforms, no matter how impressive on paper, have increased inequality, undermined social protections, enabled corruption, and failed to create anything near the needed numbers of jobs. Western governments have tried through a wide variety of means to help promote reform, but not really democracy since that would risk having their allied regimes voted out of power -- the core hypocrisy at the heart of American democracy promotion efforts of which every Arab is keenly aware. Obama talking more about democracy in public, which seems to be the main concern of many of his critics, isn't really going to help.

It would be good if these incidents served as a wake-up call to Arab regimes, but they probably won't. The tactical demands of holding on to power will likely continue to stand in the way of their engaging in the kinds of strategic reforms needed for long-term stability. Meanwhile, the energy and desperation across disenfranchised but wired youth populations will likely become increasingly potent. It's likely to manifest not in organized politics and elections, but in the kind of outburst of social protest we're seeing now in Tunisia.... and, alarmingly, in the kinds of outburst of social violence which we can see in Jordan and Egypt. Whether that energy is channeled into productive political engagement or into anomic violence would seem to be one of the crucial variables shaping the coming period in Arab politics. Right now, the trends aren't in the right direction.

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