Political Transformation and Radicalization in the Middle East and North Africa

January 22, 2015
Political Transformation and Radicalization in the Middle East and North Africa
Michele Dunne
Michele Dunne Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is undergoing a painful and probably lengthy period of change, which is rooted in local and global drivers, particularly demography as well as the shift in power between individuals and states. These phenomena, like the Arab spring itself, are not intrinsically positive or negative and can lead to various outcomes for the region depending on how local and international actors respond to them. Instability over at least the next decade at least is likely, but could give way either to a future of enhanced stability and prosperity or one of even greater incoherence and human suffering than is now underway. Perhaps the most important determinants will be whether MENA states improve in meeting the needs of their youthful populations compared to what they have done heretofore, as well as whether they give enough space to peaceful non-state actors to express and meet those needs.

Drivers of change

There are many ways to understand why the MENA region is in so much turmoil, but two avenues that have been relatively underexplored—or perhaps, they were discussed briefly a few years ago and since forgotten—are demographic developments and the region’s participation in broader global trends.

The striking demographic development is the remarkable youth bulge the region is experiencing, a phenomenon known worldwide for bringing instability and conflict. More than 50 percent of the MENA countries’ population is under age 25 (more in some individual countries), according to UN population data, and a good 20 percent is between 17 and 25, an age cohort known particularly for participating in armed conflict. While the youth bulge will gradually pass, the proportion of those in the MENA region between 17 and 25 will remain above 17 percent for another decade or so.

The MENA regional also seems to be participating significantly in the global trend toward the empowerment of individuals and non-state actors at the expense of states, which is a byproduct of the information revolution and globalization. For various reasons, Arab governments that once ruled with an iron fist (Syria, Libya, Iraq) have lost control of large swathes of territory, leaving vast ungoverned spaces into which non-state actors including Daesh (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) have moved.

Neither one of these developments—the youth bulge and the relative empowerment of individuals as well as non-state actors—is in itself positive or negative for the MENA region. Right now there is much focus on the negative side, such as the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, as well as the frightening spread of non-state actors such as Daesh trying to usurp the powers of states. But there are positive sides as well: countries with ageing populations envy the vigorous youth of the MENA region’s citizens, which has the potential to drive tremendous economic growth if educated properly. The flowering of individual initiative seen during 2011-2013 has the potential to unleash creativity and productivity as well as chaos, and non-state actors include peaceful and constructive groups such as youth movements, political parties, and volunteer service organizations as well as Daesh.

Consequences since 2011

The youth bulge and upsurge in individual empowerment boiled over into uprisings in 2011 at least partly because of a yawning gap between the expectations of a young, increasingly informed, and dynamic population and the opportunities and services many governments in the MENA region were provided. Unemployment among youth, especially educated youth, had become extremely high: in the 25-40 percent range in some countries, although good data are hard to come by. And in several countries, police brutality and lack of accountability were serious problems of which young people were increasingly aware due to social media (for example, the case of Khaled Said in Egypt in 2010), adding to a sense of humiliation and rage.

The uprisings of 2011 yielded a handful of quick changes at first, but with the passing of several years it is clear that only Tunisia has been able to translate the removal of a longtime leader into a viable transition to a new political order, which is still quite fragile. After a roller coaster ride of politics and unrest, Egypt has slipped back into authoritarianism, Yemen into communal strife, Libya into civil war, and Bahrain into an ongoing political standoff. Iraq, which had seen regime change as the result of the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, proved unable to establish workable politics after the withdrawal of foreign forces and resorted to increasingly poisonous sectarianism. The most tragic case by far has been that of Syria, where the government’s brutal reaction to initially peaceful demonstrations has led to a civil war, regional proxy struggle, and partial takeover by Daesh from which the country might never recover. The weakening of state authority created ungoverned or lightly governed spaces in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt into which militant groups such as Daesh spread.

Nor were the tragedies of the failed transitions confined to the countries concerned. The killing of some 200,000 Syrians, and the fact that nearly half of the population has become refugees or internally displaced, has destabilized the entire Levant and sent ripples throughout the MENA region. Libya has the potential to become similarly destabilizing for North Africa, as does Egypt (which has seen unprecedented human rights abuses and a simmering insurgency based in the Sinai but not confined to it) for the region as a whole.

Reacting to the initial popular uprisings, as well as to the spread of terrorists into ungoverned areas, many of the governments in the MENA region have clamped down on political, civil society, and media activity. New or proposed counter terrorism laws classify forms of expression such as lack of allegiance to the state or to Islam, not only as crimes but as forms of terrorism potentially bringing harsh penalties. Islamist and secular movements that long played prominent roles in society and at least briefly did so in politics, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the April 6 Youth Movement, have in several countries been banned or declared terrorist organizations. All in all, space for political activity, non-governmental organizations, and media has tightened significantly not only in comparison to what it was in the post-uprising period of 2011-2013, but even compared to what it was before 2011. Zero sum politics, and polarization in several forms (including inter alia Sunni/Shii and Islamist/secularist) have made consensus building around solutions to the region’s problems harder than ever. There is reason for concern that such developments and policies are driving frustrated youth toward radicalization at the very time that governments are committing themselves to an international effort to fight terrorism.

Critical factors moving forward

The question now is where the MENA region is going amidst the traumatic and tragic events now unfolding in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. As noted above, the youth bulge in population will pass only very slowly over a decade or more, suggesting that instability is likely to persist for years. And the relative empower of individuals and non-state actors at the expense of states is most likely an irreversible trend.

What this suggests is that there is no return to the past; MENA states cannot reconstruct the pre-2011 situation but can only move forward and try to channel these two major trends in a positive direction. The youth bulge can become a blessing rather than a curse only if there is a significant investment in human development, which right now only the oil exporting countries have been able to make for their relatively smaller populations. Non-oil exporting countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan will need ongoing help from abroad if they are to enable their young populations to gain the education needed to become competitive in the global economy.

Similarly, the relative empowerment of the individual can become a positive rather than a frightening phenomenon if channeled in the direction of pluralism—social, political, economic, and cultural. Even the wealthy states in the region will be hard pressed to solve their problems if they frustrate individual initiative in the effort to maintain control. In the end, the choice will be between allowing the pluralism that can unleash the potential of MENA societies to find indigenous solutions to their problems and continuing the exclusion that is likely to lead to ongoing radicalization.