The Economic Reasons behind the Arab Spring

Arab Spring economic impact infographic
Arab Spring economic impact infographic. Image courtesy-RIA Novosti
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“Man is born free but is kept in chains everywhere. ”
~Jean Jacques Rosseau~

Rosseau’s statement is central to the idea that Man is born free  and has the ability to prevent enchainment , only through institutions of righteousness, respect and compassion. In “The Social Contract”, Rousseau addresses  the fundamental quagmire of politics- the reconciliation of the freedom of the individual with the authority of the state. He advocated the construction of political institutions that allow for the co-existence of free and equal citizens in a community where they themselves are sovereign. It is this notion that has inspired uprisings and revolutions throughout ages, of repressed societies and foreign occupations.

Rosseau’s theory can be only a part of the argument for the endeavour of the human spirit to be free and adopt means, no matter how extreme, to achieve it. Throughout history the reasons for revolutions and uprisings therefore are multifold.  Foreign occupation, political or ideological, being the most obvious ones. And yet if one were to examine closely, it was not so much as freedom and free will alone,that provoked agents of political change, but economics too had a large, more dominant role to play. If we were to diagnose the root cause of all the revolutions that has ever happened, from the French to the Russian to the American, the common denominator has always been about socio- economic imbalances.

In modern history, from the fall of Communism, the historic election of Juan Peron in Argentina & his inevitable downfall, to the  more recent Arab Spring, were all as a result of the economics of the region. People elected, protested or overthrew regimes, when their livelihood was at stake, when unemployment became a casualty and the divide between the rich and the poor became far too large to ignore. Add to that repressive regimes and corruption, and it becomes the perfect fodder for an uprising; to move towards democratic governance, that most people see as the ideal. The Arab Spring and its subsequent impact on a global scale that sparked widespread protests against governments and policies, is a watershed in the evolution of socio-political movements. George Orwell in his “Animal Farm” through allusions had prophesised this very predicament across nations where the poor, overworked and repressed, revolted against their leaders.

The Arab Spring is in theory a proponent of this. William Shaub, in his article, “The Roots of the Revolution in Egypt,” has highlighted on the average per –capita and it’s possible affect on the revolution. He wrote, “Egypt has had a massive income gap throughout Mubarak’s control, which is clearly the root cause of the original uprising. One half of Egyptians live on $2/day or less. The average per-capita income in the country is just $6,200.”

Considering the volatility of the region, a concerted report has been released by the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Development Programme examining the marketing trends and structures caused by  the introduction of economic liberalization, in the past decades upto the Arab Spring of 2011.  It examines labour supply, its impact on employment , social protection and social dialogue. It also presents policy recommendations to governments, employees and employers in the region. Below is the summary of the report.


Over the past 20 years, Arab incomes have been among the lowest in the world, while effective governance declined. It also accounted for  least freedom of expression and government accountability . Poor economic policies with bad governance  led to flawed employment creation. Arab citizens in the process , traded political freedom for government jobs, public services, subsidies, low taxes and hand outs.

Despite pro market reforms and privatization in Arab states in the 1990s, the private sector failed to produce enough profits that benefited the broader economy. States lacked profound trade, financial foreign investment policies, developed capital markets and institutional reforms.

Privatisation was done without regard for income concentration outcomes.

Government spending was inefficient and ill designed. Social protection did not support the domestic economy.

Job creation was concentrated in low productivity sectors .Workers were highly educated but the jobs created required low skills. Thus export of skilled workers began.

Though employment increased and poverty was reduced, share of consumption and wage share declined significantly.

Social protection deficits widened. This reduced access to welfare benefits, expenditure cuts, targeting subsidies.

The region had the lowest per capita income, no voice or freedom of expression or accountability. The citizens had no say in policy making and governments remained oblivious to the impact their economic reforms had  on society .

Economic growth should ensure quality jobs and working dignity of women and men. This can be done only through effective dialogue between workers, employers and governments.


-Economic growth in the Arab region until 2015 is projected to be the lowest in the world, next only to Latin America .

-The only way forward is to create an inclusive more sustainable path toward economic growth.

-Macroeconomic policy aimed at productivity gains and increase in wages.

-Inclusive Social dialogue between governments, workers and employers through reform of labour relations .

-Social Protection that includes income and employment security.

-Enhance employment policies and active labour market programmes.

-Provide access to quality education for all income groups and encourage demand driven training according to market needs

-Establish reliable information systems ,better statistical studies and monitor and evaluate adopted policies and programmes.

According to the report, future economic buoyancy in the region rests on good governance alone . This calls for  structural and institutional reforms. The report lays emphasis on the fact that political and economic reforms must go hand in hand.

Infographic by RIANOVOSTI showing  countries affected by the  Arab Spring and their economic snapshot:

Arab Spring economic impact infographic
Arab Spring economic impact Infographic. Image credit- RIA Novosti
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