The Arab Transitions project, funded through the European Commission’s FP7 framework, continues to offer valuable insight into the socio-economic and political transformations underway in North Africa, Iraq and Jordan five years on from the Arab Spring. By combining data collected during a comprehensive cross-national survey undertaken during 2014-2015 with additional longitudinal indices, the project has been uniquely positioned to offer analyses that are comparative, contextualised and take a longer view of the Arab uprisings, accounting for both historical and projected trends. Based at the University of Aberdeen, the project has further fostered a transnational collaboration that brings together academics from across Europe and the MENA region, providing research connections that will only become more crucial now that the post-Arab Spring context has emerged.
At an evening event held in UN House Scotland, representatives from the Arab Transitions project presented highlights from their survey findings and offered insight into what might be in store for the Arab world going forwards. The survey data pointed to states- from the ‘success story’ of Tunisia to the ISIS crisis of Iraq- that continue to face a number of acute social, economic and security pressures to a greater or lesser degree.
The survey also drew attention to the fact that political identities within MENA states, as well as internal political responses to the regional transitions, are far more complex and nuanced than Western states have sometimes been willing to acknowledge. In the West, Middle Eastern and North African societies are often pre-judged as being dominated by religious dynamics, in which religious identities are not only paramount, but further provide the prism through which all other priorities and issues are assessed. While distinct religious identities are present both within and between the MENA states, their citizens’ understanding of their political rights and concerns are as multi-faceted as the European understanding, with distinct priority clusters emerging around the themes of society, economics and governance, and problems such as corruption and a lack of jobs and basic services. In fact, the survey demonstrates that demands for economic rights were not only perceived to be the key driver behind the Arab uprisings in 2011, but that weak economic performance continues to be perceived as the major challenge today, more so than internal security and authoritarianism.
These findings have important ramifications for the EU’s policy approach to the MENA region, which has too often focused on achieving procedural democracy, whilst arguably trying to anticipate the ways in which religious factors might problematise progress, whether through conflicts with a sectarian dimension, religious persecution and discrimination, and, of course, terrorism. This approach has emphasised the promotion of a ‘thin’ version of democracy along with economic liberalisation, while downplaying more fundamental economic issues, culminating in a misunderstanding of what drove the Arab uprisings on the one hand; and what the EU’s role in the post-Arab Spring context should be on the other. As Dr. Natalia Waechter of the University of Graz commented, “the momentum behind the Arab Spring did not necessarily represent a ‘value-shift’ between older and younger generations, but rather pointed to how people involved in the movements- old and young- were driven by their frustration with the lack of economic and educational opportunities.”
The survey gives weight to the idea that the EU could benefit immensely in terms of credibility if it were to start responding in a more meaningful way to the socio-economic concerns of MENA citizens, for example, by providing economic assistance orientated towards basic service provision, investment, jobs creation and anti-corruption initiatives. The advantages of a more balanced approach are manifold; lengthening the timescale on which democratic progress is to be judged, aligning interests and expectations between European and MENA policy-makers, fostering trust and, most importantly, offering forms of external assistance that would be more welcome within MENA societies themselves.
The Arab Spring appears to be definitively over and yet progress remains elusive. However, the Arab Transitions project, through its survey findings, heightens our awareness of change, continuity and context. The region is experiencing a transition moment and if change is possible, then so too must progress be possible. Reworking the EU’s economic support would be a good place to start.