Challenges of the Arab Region: The difficult Arab transition

Joël Ghazi, Ziad Abdel Samad
Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND)

Turmoil, transitions and trespasses

Arab countries that witnessed uprisings are currently at a pivotal phase. They are facing tremendous political, social and economic challenges. Indeed the different groups that took power failed to lead the transition period. They were unable to reach a consensus on the state’s new framework and to address the citizens’ immediate needs. More specifically, the objectives of the transitional period were supposed to be the elaboration of a holistic new social contract endowed with political, economic, social and cultural dimensions, as well means for implementing participatory, transparent and accountable governance.

However, due to decades of oppression and weak and unaccountable institutional structures, people in these countries have no previous experience and limited capacities to democratically manage diversities and differences; which are pre-conditions for engaging properly in political processes. Adding to that, remnants of the old regimes are still omnipresent among the political echelons and the state’s institutions: Corruption, nepotism, narrow-mindedness and grabbing of state’s institutions hinder a country’s ability to provide for citizens and to guarantee their rights.  On the other hand, violence and foreign interventions in certain countries, such as Bahrain, are preventing peaceful transition, while the turmoil in others, especially in Syria, Yemen and Libya, has taken a violent turn, one from which peace is hardly feasible and where the death toll is exponentially rising. It is also worth noting that while writing this report, tensions in Egypt and in Tunisia are on the rise and this threatens any potential consensual agreement. 

The process of writing the Constitution in Egypt is a very delicate matter that should be inclusive and that should reflect the concerns and protect the interests of all relevant stakeholders. Developments in the country, during 2013, clearly indicate that freedom of Assembly and freedom of expression and demonstration are under grave threats. The texts written are worthy of regimes living under emergency laws: they give the ministry of defense and the army a special role in public life and the Ministry of interior and the security apparatuses the right to cancel demonstrations on the basis that they are safeguarding “peace and security”. According to the same law, peaceful demonstrators can be jailed up to seven years. Unions were not spared, the law in question hampers on syndical work and the right to strike too. On the 14th  and 15th of January 2014, the Egyptians voted for a new constitution that protects political, civil, economic and social rights; however, the constitution gives both the armed and the interior forces autonomy from other state institutions. This is a danger for the country’s future and leads to a lack of democracy and the non-application of citizen’s rights guaranteed by this same Constitution.

Following the security void in 2011 after the Tunisian revolution, the democratically elected transitional council failed to draft a new constitution and organized public elections to properly reconstitute the state’s institutions within one year. Moreover, the successive transitional governments have failed to address the security issues in the country. Indeed, Jihadi attacks are on the rise and their shadow casts a dire slur on the country’s future. Leftist figures from the opposition, like Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, along with several security and army officials were assassinated in the past few months. Borders and their permeability are also another problem in Tunisia. Hard drugs, quantities of military equipment and small arms are being smuggled from Libya. The security issue is being politicized by parties and used to political ends whereas it should not be instrumentalized and should be addressed accordingly. This infectivity in addressing the issue will only help foster what is being called islamo-gangsterism in Tunisia.  These security developments along with the issues of the formation of a new government are causing an increased polarization in the country. However, the latest version of the constitution issued by the council and the appointment of a new electoral commission are positively perceived. On the long run, only inclusivity and the respect of diversity among the different political components of the Tunisian scene will solve the political impasse and other questions related to security threats and borders.

Despite the findings of the “famous” report delivered by the independent commission of inquiry known as “Bassiouni” and its recommendations, the government of Bahrain is constantly denying its human rights violations and the crimes it is perpetrating against its people. Freedom of expression and opinion are being daily trampled and Human Rights activists are being jailed for their peaceful activities. With an increasingly more difficult social and economic situation in the country (results of years of inadequate policy that failed to guarantee equality and Rights), peaceful demonstrations were met with more repressive laws. Indeed, the measures adopted before the 14th of August include banning of protests in the capital Manama, toughened anti-terrorism laws, including  imposing longer prison terms and revoking citizenship .

Neocolonialist economic and trade approaches:

One of the main questions raised by the uprisings is the appropriateness of the economic choices and development models followed for decades in Arab countries. This highlights the importance of promoting a national debate focusing on these issues. In fact, over the previous decade, the Arab region has witnessed a regress in its productive capacities. This was coupled with a decline in decent job-generating activities, although high economic growth rates were noted in the past few years in countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia . Structural Adjustment programs were coupled with a decrease in social spending and the marginalization of developmental projects under a predominant macroeconomic framework. This later prioritized trade and investment liberalization and deregulation, as well as aimed at dismantling state-owned enterprises. In the framework of the existing economic model, Arab countries have struggled with the Balance of Payment and they thus witnessed increasing debt that was incurred through non-transparent borrowing from international institutions under the reign of undemocratic regimes. The increasing debt necessarily entailed a higher share of the gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to debt servicing which in turn affects the reallocation of national resources and funds away from projects that come to support the citizen and ensure that their social and economic rights are preserved. Moreover, the unequal redistributive mechanisms, including inadequate tax policies and the inefficient provision of services, increased social and geographical inequalities.

Given that for decades, countries in the Arab region have relied heavily on food and fuel price subsidies as a form of social protection, the IMF’s major austerity-related policy proposals include unwinding subsidies on food and fuel products while coupled with better poor-households targeting schemes, a step that the Fund describes as a doorway for achieving “economic recovery” . Adding to that, the Deauville partnership , depicted by the EU as their supportive response to countries that are witnessing change, is pushing for more trade liberalizations and the signing of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade agreements (DCFTAs). The DCFTA negotiations concern four countries: Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan . The negotiations will include an expansion of the existing trade agreement between the EU and Morocco to include, in addition to tariff reduction, regulations on services trade, new investment framework aiming at protecting foreign investors, liberalization of public procurement, competition policy and intellectual property protection. These negotiations will address areas that are at the heart of the macro-economic structure and may directly affect the state’s policy space when it comes to regulating the economy in line with national development goals. These negotiations are being done without relying on any social and environmental impact assessment study of the results of the existing free trade agreement between the EU and Morocco, and without the discernment of the potential effects of the proposed regulations in the negotiated areas. Civil Society actors have already warned against potential negative effects on sustainability, development, human rights, and the future of productive sectors as a result of these negotiations and they also demanded full transparency in the negotiations course, which are yet to be disclosed.

Furthermore, starting 2011 and after the Egyptian revolution, revenues dramatically decreased and the budget deficit aggressively increased. Consequently, the IMF has been engaged in negotiations concerning a $3.2 billion loan (that was later raised to $4.8 billion) . The negotiations reached a deadlock due to the main condition related to the reduction of public expenditures by lifting subsidies on energy among others.  Moreover, No country has heeded the call of CSOs in Egypt in demanding fair and transparent debt audit mechanisms and an eventual cancellation of the country’s odious debts  , taken during the reign of the previous regime. Knowing that the country has a total of $35 billion of foreign debt , and that debt servicing has a larger share of the budget than social expenditure, such steps are much needed to ensure a viable transitional period and the realization of the Egyptian people’s social and economic rights.

The Sudanese government adopted in June 2012 an IMF package that includes austerity measures and subsidies cuts. However, the government has resisted pressure to totally cut down subsidies until it ceded in September 2013 . This incited 44% inflation in the country and prompted unrests that caused the death of 50 demonstrators according to Amnesty International . The subsidization of fuel costs the government around $1.7 billion per year , it might not be a very sustainable solution but given the fact that the 40% of the Sudanese people live under the poverty line and that the country has a foreign debt that amounts to $40 billion (82.2 % of total GDP according to 2012 numbers) , abruptly cutting it down is also not economically viable. On the other hand, around 75% of the country’s debt is owed to the Paris Club of creditor nations. What could be done is a transparent and fair audit that would finally result in the partial or total cancellation of the country’s debt. However the IMF’s Mission Chief for Sudan Edward Gemayel noted that “it will be near impossible for Sudan to secure debt relief even if it satisfied technical and economic requirements”. Indeed, he called to mind the fact that this process is entangled with political complications. In other words, he asserted that any debt relief deal with Sudan would require the unanimous consent of all 55 countries in Paris Club, which is highly improbable . Efforts towards reaching a political consensus in this matter should be undertaken instead of pressures to adopt austerity measures and other “neoliberal” trends.

Inadequate Development efforts undertaken so far and means for reshaping them

The Arab 2013 Development report published by the ESCWA indicates that “The Arab region has made impressive progress towards many Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly in education” . By their own admission, the ESCWA stated that some of the countries that noticed nation-wide upheaval were considered as “best students” in liberalization efforts and MDGs, most notably Tunisia . The challenges identified by this report, are “good governance, quality and not just quantity of development empowering women and reducing inequalities”. This publication was supposedly aimed at assessing MDGs and learning from this process’ mistakes and not repeating them in the future. However, the approach in it is identical to the previous one; it is also fragmented and goal oriented. It indicates that 12 goals to be considered for the post 2015 agenda.

As it was noted in the CSO regional consultation organized by the UN-NGLS, that one of the main inherent problems of the MDGs approach is that it was a fragmented one .  Checking progress “in silos” induced misconceptions that shadowed true social and economic problems. Despite all this, the ESCWA report at hand still handles the different development sectors as separate and no mention is made of a comprehensive framework interlinking the different sectors within a new development paradigm.

Some recommendations for the new paradigm were suggested during the two CSO regional consultations organized jointly by ANND and ESCWA (March 2013) and by the UN-NGLS (July 2013): 1) rebalance power relations for more justice, 2) ensure the fulfillment of human rights and overcoming exclusion, 3) ensure equitable distribution and safe use of natural resources and finally 4) establish participatory governance, accountability and transparency.

1) Rebalancing power relations for more justice highlights the need to move from undemocratic “rentier” economies to “Democratic Developmental States”. This transition induces the following: empowering productive capacities, reforming the trade and investment architecture, reforming the financial architecture and macroeconomic framework, enacting redistributive policies for equity and social justice, enhancing transparency, accountability and civic engagement in public policy making and establishing peace and security. In order to make this transition possible, it is necessary to foster fundamental changes at national and international levels. At the international level, trade partners and agreements should be reevaluated and rethought based on their contribution to development objectives and their respect to Human Rights. Moreover, imbalances in global trade relations and the financial architecture should be reformed based on the suggestions of the 2013 UNCTAD report on trade and development; whereby policy conditionality imposed by the IMF should be lifted. Moreover the increasing amount of odious debts that impede on a state’s space and nurtures injustice should be relieved or restructured.    

2) Well-being and dignity for all people must be the ultimate objective of sustainable development. In order to achieve this, the post 2015 agenda must adopt an unalienable rights-based approach. It must urge states to abide by international standards and fulfill economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights for all. In the Arab region, meeting these goals translates into: ending foreign occupation, reforming security policies to respect civil and political rights, fulfilling human rights toward equitable empowerment of all people, obligating the private sector to respect human rights. 

Furthermore, development should be fully inclusive and avoid exclusion and inequalities.  Accordingly, comprehensive development policies and programmes are essential to realize human rights such as: education, health care, decent work, social protection, based on equality and non-discrimination. Reforms are needed in the Arab region to empower people equitably, with particular attention paid to gender, youth as well as people with disability equality and their adequate inclusion.

3) The Arab region faces tremendous environmental challenges related to the use of natural resources. Indeed, issues like agricultural sustainability and sovereignty, extractive industries, energy and water shortages.  Food sovereignty is the cornerstone of agricultural sustainability in the region. To achieve sustainable agriculture, small-scale farming must be supported through the model of food sovereignty. Organic and agro-ecological practices must be promoted, and food production should be oriented to serve local consumption needs before export markets. Moreover, natural resources, especially water, are unevenly distributed in the Arab countries with some regions in rural areas lacking access to water services and clean drinking water; the same goes for energy, with some areas lacking electricity installations. The root causes of these issues are mainly structural problems characteristic of Arab states: corruption, bureaucratic obstacles, inefficient planning, and poor infrastructure. 

4) Fact remains that, participatory governance, accountability and transparency are essential to craft this new social contract. The responsibility of respecting these conditions is not limited to the national dimension; it also falls on international institutions embroiled in the region. Consequently, it is imperative to focus on the following priorities: Mutual Accountability based on the Human Rights Mechanisms and standards, accountability in Global Economic and Financial Governance, accountability to Extra-territorial Obligations, binding Corporate Obligations, participatory and Accountable National Governance, defining Post-2015 priorities and Benchmarks through A Bottom-up Process

To top it off, Social justice and developmental objectives cannot be realized without adopting a “new social contract between citizens and the State based on the human rights framework and protection of citizenship” in the post 2015 agenda. However, if it is intended, such a transformation would be taking place under a climate where violence and insecurity are increasing, exclusivity and extremism are on the rise. Furthermore, economic difficulties increase impatience among populations and thus political instability. Adding to that, the above-mentioned specificities of a renewed social contract do not carry short-term economic benefits.


People’s uprisings in the Arab region highlighted the challenges caused by inequalities and the continuous violation of Human rights. In fact, the increase in poverty, geographical and social marginalization and of unemployment rates particularly among young graduates were the main reasons behind the political unrests.

This was at the heart of the debate focusing on the nature of the transition; whether it should be limited to setting a new political framework for the state or should it also include economic choices and development models? From a civil society perspective, the main reasons behind inequalities are related to the decrease in productivity and thus in employability, as well as in the unfair redistribution of wealth.

It is therefore imperative to take into account economic transition in the agenda of change while discussing the new social contract and the framework of the state. In other words, this means a rights based developmental agenda and new economic and social choices based on the result of an inclusive, open and democratic national dialogue.


For more information about the situation in Egypt, please visit:

In November 2011 the independent mission of inquiry was called “Bassiouni, after the former Bahraini official who headed the commission

For more information on the Human rights situation in Bahrain, please follow:  

Since the onset of the financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been adamant on following mainstream economic models in the Arab region that include pushing for more liberalization and deregulation policies and for a diminished government role. The Fund’s main policy proposals to alleviate economic burdens in the region include traditional austerity-oriented policies which aim at advancing investment by way of attracting foreign investors.

  The Deauville partnership was launched during the G8 summit held in the French town “Deauville” in 2011 as a response to the “Arab spring”

These 4 countries are part of the Agadir agreement aiming at creating a free trade zone within the Mediterranean last checked 3/12/2013

For a full list of the goals, please visit:  last checked 3/12/2013   page 55,  last checked 4/12/2013