The Arab revolution demands a renewed role for the State

A scene of the Tunisian Revolution.
(Photo: cjb22/Flickr/CC)

According to the Social Watch 2012 report on the Arab world, last year’s revolutions in that region “reflect the connection between sustainable development, democratic government and freedom” and the search for “a renewed role for the State” as a “leading actor” in “the reform of development paradigms”. This demand also applies to the whole of the developing South.

In its contribution the report, the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) said the developing countries must reconsider the present role of governments in economic and social affairs, to achieve an effective balance between the role of the State as a regulator and facilitator and the role of interest groups in the market.

According to the regional report entitled “Sustainable development and a renewed role for the State in the Arab region”, these countries, including the Arabs, must abandon the focus that is centred only on economic growth and design “development projects based on a wider perspective of rights”, and support the democratic processes of the future.

The public sector’s role, development models and a “new social contract” in the light of the Arab revolutions were the outstanding points at an international workshop convoked by the ANND. This meeting came to an end last Thursday in Beirut with the launch of a process to draft the first regional report on economic and social rights (First Arab Watch Report on Social and Economic Rights).

Rethinking the role of the State

According to the ANND, in “the last 30 years” the Arab governments have been liberalising trade and investment, deregulating their economies, fostering privatization and alliances between the public and private sectors with “a disproportional emphasis on macroeconomic stability”, and as a consequence the States have abandoned their duty to promote a development project.

The report explains that “these countries have achieved economic growth” that is frequently “inflated” with “oil exports”, while “poverty, unemployment and social inequities continue to increase, which has weakened them still further and made them more dependent on food imports and more vulnerable to external impacts”. The shortcomings of this approach have been laid bare with “the people’s revolutions in the Arab region”.

These revolts reflect a rejection of “unrestrained corruption” in privatization processes and alliances between the public and private sectors. These are facilitated by governments “for the benefit of a small group” and are to the detriment of “most of the population” because public services are deteriorating in quality and becoming more expensive.

The situation is getting worse because of weak legal and institutional frameworks that allow the transfer of public goods to private ownership, concessions to exploit natural resources and award public service contracts to private firms with scant regulations as regards the rendering of accounts.

The State and sustainable development

The ANND evaluation is that the Arab revolutions were not limited to demanding civil and political rights, they also demanded economic and social rights, which are their “natural and basic counterpart”, and this makes it “necessary that policies include more than growth and income and that they tackle the fair distribution of wealth”.

The report goes on to say that in this framework, the State has two functions: first, to regulate the forces of production and market relations, and second, to protect national interests such as safeguarding and defending the rights of vulnerable groups. These rights include fair access to quality services in the areas of “transport, health, education, energy, water and housing, and also social protection and all economic and social rights”.

The ANND says it is the State’s responsibility to secure a balance between the three pillars of sustainable development: the economic, the social and the environmental. It is also responsible for ensuring democratic participative processes that include many interest groups, including civil society organizations, in the design of policies, and that there should be no commitment to programs established by donors.

According to the regional report, “moving away from the route to sustainable development and the commitments acquired contributes to the weakening of the world economy as a whole”, which “is already suffering the consequences of production and consumption models that exploit natural resources in an unsustainable way, which causes serious environmental and ecological problems and is aggravating inequalities between peoples”.

The successful revolutions

The successful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were fuelled by social and economic injustice, but according to a subsequent ANND report on “the demands for new development models at the centre of the people’s revolutions in the Arab region”, these problems “have not been handled through democratic dialogue” beyond “the basic reaffirmation of the market economy” by the “transition political parties and governments”. 

This reaffirmation of the market is being promoted by international institutions and countries in the industrial North. Last June, 67 civil society organizations in 12 Arab countries stated they were worried that the conditions attached to European Union and United States economic aid packages for Tunisia and Egypt could damage the transition processes.

Kinda Mohamadieh, the director of ANND programmes, said these conditions include “orthodox recipes that contributed to the injustices that Tunisian and Egyptian people faced” and they “should not end up inhibiting the democratic transition” these countries are working towards”.

In July, after a series of protests, the transition government in Egypt discarded its plan to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan of 3,000 million dollars because the conditions of this credit violated national sovereignty.

The State and sovereignty

Problems of State weakness are even worse in Palestine because, as the Social Watch 2012 report points out, this country does not have sovereignty and its territory is partly occupied by the Israelis. This prevents the people and their representatives from controlling their own resources.

This scenario is one of the causes of an unemployment rate of 19%, a “daunting situation” in the health area, and deficient water, sewage and electricity services, “institutional weakness” and a lack of control over the private sector and foreign aid, on which the country is extremely dependent.

The national report on the Yemen says the country “could become a failed State …the economy is paralysed, poverty is increasing, unemployment has doubled, public services are failing, the price of basic products have trebled since the start of the year (2011) and about 60% of the country’s 24 million people are living below the poverty line. Inflation is running at over 35%. If this goes on the economy will collapse and famine will come.”

In reaction to this crisis, in January there was a Youth Popular Revolution against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose Government is fraught with “bad administration and generalised corruption”.

Opening spaces

We read in the Social Watch 2012 report on Iraq that there were protests last February that catalysed an unprecedented movement by organizations and civil society networks that monitor Government activities in an effort to make it respect human rights and “secure democratic national development”.

In June, more than 800 organizations were involved in a Civic Initiative to preserve the Constitution that is mobilising and using legal means to try to strengthen State institutions and force the Government to safeguard the people’s human, civil, economic, social and cultural rights.

North Sudan, whose population is mainly Arab, is in trouble because its oil revenues have fallen after the area of South Sudan seceded.

Civil society organizations have made progress since 2005, when the peace treaty was signed, and they have been monitoring electoral campaigning, parliamentary education and voter registration processes. But “they have not engaged actively in decision-making and major policy issues” due to their “tense relation with the Government”, which is restricting their operations.

This report is based on data from the following sources:
Social Watch Report 2012:
“The demands for new development models”
Renewed protests in Egypt: