Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/FILE
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
The Arab world can’t feed itself, and that’s how the region’s dictators like it.
“The only thing we really need to worry about is a revolution of the hungry,” said one, a retired Air Force general. “That would be the end of us.”
As it turned out, it took less than four years for Egypt’s dictatorship to reconstitute itself, crushing the hope for real change among the people. In no small part, the regime’s resilience was due to its firm grasp of bread politics. The ruler who controls the main staples of life — bread and fuel — often controls everything else, too.
Nonetheless, the specter of a “revolution of the hungry” still worries authoritarian rulers today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Roughly put, the idea is shorthand for an uprising that brings together not only the traditional cast of political and religious dissidents but also pits a far greater number of poor, uneducated, and apolitical citizens against the state.
Look across the region, and regimes have good reason to be afraid. Even in countries where obesity is widespread, people suffer from low-quality medical care and malnutrition due to a lack of healthy food.
The basic equation is stark: The Arab world cannot feed itself. Rulers obsessed with security have created a twisted web of importers and bakeries whose aim is not to feed the population efficiently or nutritiously but simply to maintain the regime and stave off that much feared revolution of the hungry. Vast subsidies eat up the lion’s share of national budgets.
So far, the bakeries haven’t run out of loaves in two of the region’s biggest bread battlegrounds, Egypt and Syria. But the sense of plenty is only an illusion. Food is expensive, people are poor, and repressive regimes rely on imported wheat financed through foreign aid. It’s an unsustainable and volatile cocktail.
“You have a system where access to food is a primary mechanism of social control,” said journalist Annia Ciezadlo, author of the book “Day of Honey,” who has written extensively about food subsidies, unrest, and the use of food as a weapon in the Middle East. “The moment something happens to that supply of subsidized food, everything can go out of control.”
THE ARAB UPRISINGS of 2010 and 2011 offered only the most recent glimpse of what it would look like if people got hit where it hurts the most: at the dinner table.
In 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt managed a feat that had been considered impossible when he broke with the entire Arab world and initiated a peace process with Israel, even traveling to Jerusalem to address the Knesset. The bread conundrum, on the other hand, proved much more intractable.
Sadat tried in January 1977 to cancel Egypt’s expensive wheat subsidy at the urging of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Riots swept nearly every major city, and in two days Sadat caved. He restored the bread subsidy that has remained in place ever since, and the Egyptian military took control of many crucial bakeries to ensure that the government could control the bread supply in a crisis. That awkward status quo prevails to this day. The government’s bread economy is inefficient, unstable, and nearly entirely dependent on foreign imports. But any attempt to tinker with bread prices or subsidies still terrifies the country’s rulers and enrages its citizens.
Regimes took heed. Hafez al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, extolled peasants in his rhetoric and made food independence a central pillar of his regime. For decades, Syrian officials constantly bragged they didn’t need to import wheat.
Dictators in the Arab world learned that one of the best routes to dominance runs through the bakery. Rulers the world round usually deploy some variant of pocketbook politics, rewarding their loyalists with perks like community centers, jobs, and payola — and punishing opposition areas by scrimping on their basic services like roads and schools. In many Middle Eastern countries, the level of control was more basic: Without the government, citizens would starve.
The brittle, undemocratic regimes had, however, no mechanism of oversight and little resilience to withstand outside shocks. So distant events like a bad crop on the Black Sea or low rainfall in Canada could quickly translate into a political crisis in the Levant or North Africa. In 2008, world food prices spiked, and, once again, bread riots broke out across the Middle East. Regimes scrambled to cover the shortfall with handouts and subsidies, on the assumption that their populations might tolerate repression but not hunger.
Indeed, rising commodity prices were one of the triggers in the 2010 to 2011 uprisings. Protesters in Tunisia brandished baguettes. In Egypt, many of the revolutionary chants talked about food, and a central demand was for “bread, freedom, social justice” (it rhymes in Arabic).
The first Syrians to rise up against Bashar Assad included many poor farmers who had been displaced by drought and the government’s neoliberal disinvestment from agriculture. Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C., argue that a series of droughts in Syria from 2006 to 2010 created the preconditions for the uprisings — crop failures drove farmers off their land and raised the level of desperation until Syrians directly challenged their ruler.
Saudi Arabia’s ultrarich monarchy calculated that it could survive any challenge from political dissidents critical of the country’s lack of rights and freedoms — as long as it could keep its citizens in material comfort. The king quickly increased handouts to citizens, and after a brief rumble, Saudi Arabians sat out the regional wave of protests that swept through nearly every other Arab state.
Yet the obsession with food sovereignty and security remains close to the region’s despots. Saudi Arabia has purchased land in fertile water-rich countries like Ethiopia in order to secure its food supply.
In Syria, unscrupulous combatants on all sides have made food one of the war’s central battlegrounds. The regime blocks delivery of food aid to rebellious regions; its blockade of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus has also kept out truckloads of UN food aid, causing years of famine in the camp. Further afield, the regime routinely bombs bakeries in areas that fall under rebel control, in a method colloquially referred to as “starve-or-surrender.”
The Islamic State, for its part, has made control of the food supply a basic part of its blueprint for power, starting with the bakeries and wheat warehouses, and even facilitating the international aid deliveries that have kept some parts of northern Syria from suffering the same fate as Yarmouk.
THE ARAB STATES are the world’s largest net importers of grains, depending on exports from water-rich North America, Europe, and Central Asia.
So it follows that bread riots will break out every time there’s a disruption in the global food supply. Anger will bubble up every time there’s a drought. Or when oil profits fall and it becomes harder to pay for grain imports. The Middle East North Africa region consumes about 44 percent of global net grain imports, according to Eckart Woertz, author of “Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East”: “Self sufficiency is not an option in the region,” he said in an interview.
Still, most scholars now accept the idea first proposed by the economist Amartya Sen, that food shortages and famines are usually caused by political mismanagement, not by an actual lack of food.
In the Middle East, that means conditions are still ripe for a tempest. “At the end of the day, we can explain the crisis in terms of political economy: corruption, crony networks favored over rural populations. Droughts don’t cause civil war in Los Angeles,” said Woertz, who studies food and security at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, a think tank.
And it can’t be ignored that droughts have been a fact of life in the arid Arab world as long as there has been agriculture, and bread riots on their own have yet to transform a dictatorship into a democracy. That’s because the problem is much larger: People in the Arab world have been kept poorer than they should be by corrupt repressive governments that hog national wealth for a tiny elite. Until that changes, hunger and food insecurity will remain yet another symptom of the region’s terrible governance.
Of all the authoritarian Arab states researchers studied, only one now meets the standards of electoral democracy.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
MODERN DEMOCRACY tends to come with a strong evangelical spirit. If voting and personal liberty are good for us, the thinking goes, surely they’re worth spreading to the world as well.
The foreign policy driven by this belief is known as “democracy promotion,” and has long been an explicit goal of Western governments. At least since the 1950s, institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have aimed to promote democratic values in the economic and political life of developing countries.
The favored method is a top-down approach: Democracy-promotion groups funnel money to nascent political parties and help train people to run the institutions considered central to democracy, from elections commissions to associations for judges and lawyers. Western advisers push democratic ideas and try to strengthen local civic organizations. Then, when the opportunity for a new government arises, the wisdom goes, we have only to step back and watch citizens embrace it.
AMINE LANDOULSI/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2011
Tunisian voters lined up at a polling station in Menzeh, near Tunis.
It may sound naive to think you can midwife societal change or transplant political ideals, but this method has long been almost universally accepted among policy makers. Even those lukewarm in their support for democracy promotion itself have believed it can work this way.
Then came the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. America and other Western nations had been working for decades and investing hundreds of millions of dollars to support a vast network of pro-democracy organizations across the Arab world. Based on prevailing theories, once protests started to shake one authoritarian government after another, the popular momentum should have been unstoppable.
Instead, the results have been dismal. In nearly every case—arguably, the only exception is Tunisia—the countries that rose up against dictators ended up less democratic than they began. Now, armed with new case studies from the Arab uprisings, a group of contrarian political scientists is arguing for a radical reconsideration of the whole notion of how to spread democracy to other nations—or if it’s even possible at all.
“We should be much more humble about what the best possible outcomes are,” said Tarek Masoud, a political scientist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who recently coauthored a study of the Arab transitions titled “Why the Modest Harvest?” The study, which took a systematic look at the results of the Arab Spring, concluded that the authoritarian regimes enjoyed a structural stability that no amount of Western-funded political idealism was likely to displace.
Masoud, once a believer in traditional democracy promotion, has become a vociferous new critic of its tactics and ambitions. Based on his research, he has come to believe that a more effective approach would be to focus on the underlying conditions that allow democracies to flourish—skipping the election coaching and party-building in favor of basics like education, health, and economic growth. If it means working with nondemocratic regimes to help get there, and giving up our vision of democracy sweeping out tyranny at the first opportunity, so be it. “Maybe in a place like Syria or Libya,” he said, “the best possible outcome is one in which the old regime is at the table.”
Masoud and other skeptics aren’t ideologues. They profess a deep personal preference for democratic rule, and sympathize with oppressed peoples who oppose tyranny. But, they say, our desire to see freedom spread has been clouding our judgment about what actually allows it to take root.
ALTHOUGH MODERN democracy promotion has ideological roots in the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union competing for influence in smaller countries around the world, by the 1980s it began to be accepted as a common-sense investment in human well-being. As an increasing number of nations climbed the economic ladder, and some replaced authoritarian regimes with democratic ones, most political scientists came to agree that bolstering civil society and good governance helped bring about both prosperity and democratic rule.
This dominant school of thought is called “voluntarism,” and it is fundamentally optimistic: It assumes that individual actions can change the course of nations, and that democracy can be nurtured by giving the right skills to promising leaders and activists. Duke political scientist Timur Kuran, in a highly influential 1991 paper on the Eastern European revolutions, put forth the notion of “cascades.” In a fear-based dictatorship everyone hides their opposition, he wrote, but if one or a few courageous individuals take a public stand, they might suddenly be joined by great waves of supporters emboldened to reveal their preferences.
In policy terms, the conventional wisdom on democracy promotion has translated into billions of cumulative foreign-aid dollars earmarked for programs that train everything from young journalists to labor organizers to members of parliament. The underlying assumption is that even when they don’t lead directly to democracy, these efforts are good for society, and from time to time they’ll yield a great leap forward in freedom.
While it started with national governments and intergovernmental organizations, democracy promotion has grown into an industry of its own. High profile groups funded by the US government, like the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, have became ubiquitous on the international scene. They help design elections, train political parties, and give advice to student groups and labor unions. A plethora of less-well-known organizations fund workshops and international travel for lawyers, human rights advocates, and community organizers.
Although George W. Bush talked about democracy more pointedly than Barack Obama, the amount of money invested in democracy promotion has steadily grown even under the current administration, according to Thomas Carothers, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Today, Carothers estimates, about $10 billion a year is spent worldwide promoting democracy in countries from Iraq to Mongolia, from Honduras to Pakistan.
At the time that the Arab uprisings broke out in late 2010, Masoud says, he was firmly persuaded by the conventional wisdom about democratization and transitions. Buoyed by the brave actions of so many individual activists and politicians across the Arab world, he expected to see the dictatorships replaced by a wave of democratic, or at least more democratic, regimes. Even in the worst cases, most scholars and policy makers assumed, surviving authoritarian regimes would be held to new standards and forced to govern more transparently.
Of course, that is not what happened. Instead of falling like dominoes, most of the Arab regimes prevented or crushed popular uprisings. In cases like Egypt, where longstanding president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, the current military regime has turned out to be even more repressive.
Masoud and two fellow political scientists studied 14 Arab states under authoritarian rule and found that in the end only Tunisia experienced an unequivocal improvement on the democracy scale. Elsewhere, within a few years of the revolts, even countries that had appeared promising, like Egypt, Syria, and Libya, were headed in a negative direction, their hopeful democratic movements having crashed against an immovable structural obstacle.
What made the difference? Masoud and his fellow researchers found that the biggest determinant of whether authoritarian regimes survived had nothing to do with civil society, individual protest leaders, or even the workings of the political system. The calculus turned out to be much simpler. As long as regimes had sufficient money and loyal security forces, they seemed able to ward off any pressure to democratize, regardless of whether they were monarchies or republics, or whether they were endowed with oil wealth. Though Western countries had spent enormous money and effort to support the development of democratic institutions in these places, this factor seemed to make little difference.
So what does help democracies take root? Even amid the mass support for the voluntarism theory, there’s always been a contrarian school of thought. “Modernization theory” argues that for any democracy to thrive, economic development must come first—and that the most useful way to encourage struggling countries is to help them improve literacy, per-capita GDP, and other benchmarks economists use to measure human development levels. Once a country is wealthy enough, better institutions, governance, laws, and political systems can take root and thrive. An influential 1997 paper by NYU political scientist Adam Przeworski argued that wealth didn’t cause democracy—the prosperous but authoritarian nation of Singapore shows that clearly enough—but in wealthy states that achieved democracy, the new order tended to hold.
For Masoud and other critics, the Arab uprisings made this view suddenly far more persuasive. The failures there couldn’t be blamed on lack of desire or exposure to democratic ideas. Rather, they pointed toward structural factors that had nothing to do with civic groups or courageous individuals.
Once the dust had settled on the Arab uprisings, Masoud began a separate research project comparing conditions in the Arab world to other nations that successfully made a transition to democracy, measuring literacy, per capita GDP, and other indicators of modern development. The results were striking. Egypt, he found, had literacy levels comparable to England in 1850, long before universal suffrage there. And Egypt’s per capita GDP wasn’t even where Argentina’s was in 1970, when that country embarked on a final round of dictatorial rule before emerging as a democracy.
It was this lack of wealth and development, Masoud concluded, that is currently impeding democracy in the Arab world. No one knows what causes democracy to break out, but Masoud believes the evidence shows what’s necessary to sustain it: an advanced economy. Otherwise, strong authoritarian regimes will be able to rebound even after a brief bout of democracy, just as has happened in Egypt.
MASOUD AND HIS two coauthors—political scientists Andrew Reynolds at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jason Brownlee at the University of Texas at Austin—have expanded their research into a book to be released this fall, which takes a deeper look at the structures that enable or prevent new, more democratic politics.
Though the three differ in their prescriptions for US policy, they all agree that the prevailing expectations for our abilities to seed change are unrealistic. “We need to recognize that there is a historical time to these processes that can take generations,” Brownlee said. “There’s an impulse to want to accelerate these processes, to think that because we’re in the 21st century things move more quickly.”
Reynolds has spent decades designing new electoral systems for nations in transition; currently he’s helping to set up a regional parliament in a new semi-autonomous zone of the Philippines. The Arab revolts have made him “more pessimistic” about democracy support, he said. Now, he thinks only limited assistance can work. Instead of the vague and sprawling complex of democracy promotion programs we currently fund, he suggests, we should invest in technical help in situations where local powers have already agreed to do something.
Masoud, the most skeptical of the three, sees the policy implications as quite stark. The United States should preserve small, values-based programs, he says, like promoting human rights and opposing torture, in the hope of encouraging small but tangible improvements even in authoritarian countries. But we should dispense entirely with the fiction that our policies can bring about democracy directly. Not only doesn’t it work, he says, but it gives a false expectation of US support to antiregime activists challenging despots in places like Syria or Ukraine.
Not everyone is rallying to their position. Eva Bellin, a political scientist across town at Brandeis, looked at the Arab Spring and came to exactly the opposite conclusion: that ideology and individual choice really did matter, at least in Egypt and Tunisia. Once a dedicated believer in the importance of modernization, she has effectively switched places with Masoud in the debate. “The events of the last three years in the Arab world have persuaded me of the crucial importance of individual choice,” Bellin said. “As my 17-year-old daughter tells me, I have embraced the old ‘great man in history’ approach.”
There’s also an argument that we simply can’t tell how well democracy-promotion efforts work, since they’re always happening in the context of other foreign policy operations as well—some of them working at cross-purposes, and at a much larger scale. In Egypt, for example, the United States spends a few millions on overt democracy-promotion efforts, supporting civil society groups that monitor the regime’s abuses of human rights, while simultaneously giving billions to support the same repressive regime as a political ally. In Iran, the United States aims to empower citizens to challenge the ayatollahs in street demonstrations and on Twitter, but at the same time impoverishes them through economic sanctions. In Bahrain, which depends on a US naval base for military protection, the United States stood aside while the government violently crushed its pro-democracy movement in 2011, apparently deciding the security relationship trumped its interest in nudging a nation toward democracy.
It may be, as Masoud suggests, that international democracy training programs amount to well-intentioned but ineffectual junkets. But there is another possible reading of this complicated picture as well. When those unexpected jumps toward democracy do happen—in Mongolia in 1990, Indonesia in 1998, Tunisia in 2011, Burma’s halting moves toward democracy today—it’s surely because of a web of factors.
It may be that we need to put more money into basic development for authoritarian countries—education, health, and so on—and put less faith in our ability to promote democracy directly. But it may be premature to cut off democracy promotion efforts as sharply as their harshest critics suggest. In the mysterious and complex picture of what leads countries toward democracy, it seems that we’re still figuring out which tools actually work. Until we do, it may not pay to get rid of the one that probably does the least harm.
[Published in The New Republic.]
Hassan Nasrallah has always been more sophisticated than the caricatured nightmare featured in the breathless propaganda of Hezbollah’s many enemies. Even at his most noxious he usually managed to present himself as a man of principle. That’s why it was almost sad to see Nasrallah this week pandering like an old-time Arab despot to public anger over the misbegotten Prophet Mohammed YouTube clip.
“America, which uses the pretext of freedom of expression needs to understand that putting out the whole film will have very grave consequences around the world,” Nasrallah said at a Hezbollah rally on September 17, one of the exceedingly rare occasions on which he appeared in public since he went into hiding during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. “The world should know our anger will not be a passing outburst but the start of a serious movement that will continue on the level of the Muslim nation to defend the Prophet of God.” Though the message sounds militant, it was actually just a flailing attempt to catch up to developments elsewhere in the region. Hezbollah, which used to set the Arab world’s trends, now finds itself forced to opportunistically jump on the latest global Islamist bandwagon.
In fact, Hezbollah’s embrace of the controversy over the video marks a final stage of its speedy evolution from revolutionary militant resistance movement to Machiavellian establishment power center. Lebanon’s Party of God once literally threw bombs at those who stood in the way of its ideology, attacking powerful enemies like America and Israel as well as smaller rivals at home. Today, Hezbollah represents the very sort of power it used to oppose. It dominates Lebanese politics as the majority party, choosing the prime minister; it commands a formidable standing army; its complicity in domestic political assassinations no longer is credibly debated; and it remains comfortable with its deep, compromised embrace of Bashar Al-Assad’s criminal regime in Syria.
There’s no mystery here: Hezbollah has become essentially conservative, fearful of the status of its political interests and financial and military networks. The very fact that Nasrallah felt compelled to risk emerging from his underground safe haven suggests that he fears very seriously for his organization’s future. It’s a remarkable change for a movement that was once confident in its ideological rigor and in its ability to earn unparalleled popular support in the region.
IN THE FIRST two decades of Nasrallah’s stewardship, Lebanon’s Party of God transformed itself from a potent but small militant group, best known for spectacular terrorist attacks, into the driver of the Axis of Resistance, crafting a widely appealing message of nationalism and fearless self-reliance built on an uncompromising opposition to Israel and the United States. Just two years ago, Nasrallah was still crowing about an open war with Israel and was still reaping the political benefit of being seen as the sole Arab leader to stand up to the U.S. and Israel.
Today, of course, his critical patron in Syria is teetering, threatening to vastly curtail Hezbollah’s military power, and his source of money and weapons in Iran is distracted by sanctions, a feeble economy and its nuclear showdown with the West. More importantly, the Arab world is awash in genuine retail politics. Indeed, what ultimately broke Hezbollah’s monopoly on popular legitimacy—what ultimately put the Axis of Resistance to rest as a meaningful political or ideological bloc in the Middle East—were the Arab revolts.
Like any establishment power with too much to lose, Hezbollah has kept a distance from uprisings that empower competitors. Still, there is no denying that those rivals have risen throughout the region; fire-breathers and populists have taken position all along the political spectrum from the Islamist right to the secular-anarchist left.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood embraces many similar views to Hezbollah, without the call to violence and regional war. There are Salafi extremists running political parties, and there are secular nationalists who sound every bit as uncompromising as Hezbollah when it comes to Israel. To round out the picture, there are voices that oppose violence and endorse diplomacy and pluralistic electoral politics, again along all parts of the spectrum (although sadly, they form a minority). Even Hamas, one of the four pillars of the Axis, has quietly quit its alliance with Syria (and its reliance on Iranian money), gambling that a dignified and principled stand against Bashar Al-Assad will pay handsome long-term dividends in popularity and legitimacy.
Hezbollah, however, calculated that it had no such option. The Assad regime has long allowed Syria to serve as Hezbollah’s rear staging area. Weapons transit through the Damascus airport to Hezbollah training camps and depots. In times of war, trucks can ferry all manner of material into Lebanon from safe havens in Syria. Without Syria, Hezbollah could find itself isolated in the tiny confines of Lebanon, where about half the population detests Hezbollah and its project. For now, Hezbollah’s hard power is undiminished, but the future doesn’t look so secure for the Party of God.
And so, backed into a corner, Hezbollah has responded to the radical transformation of Arab politics much like American policy makers, improvising on an ad hoc basis. Hezbollah has doubled down on its anti-Israel and anti-American credentials, but has abandoned the more inclusive nationalistic part of its resistance credo that arguably propelled its meteoric rise and sustained power. Nasrallah used to unabashedly endorse any populist Arab movement that opposed dictatorship at home or Western ambitions abroad. Now, Hezbollah seems to pick and choose the occasions when justice matters: Yes for the Shia of Bahrain, less so for the citizens of Egypt, and not so much for the Sunnis of Syria. When Israel was occupying southern Lebanon or bombing its villages, and U.S.-backed tyrants were oppressing much of the region, the sense of a powerful, monolithic enemy united support behind Hezbollah. The new reality is patently more complex, with none of the old bugbears solely to blame for the Arab world’s woes. Without a villain, Hezbollah’s fundamental recipe for power and legitimacy loses its yeast.
Of course, Hezbollah has never become explicitly or exclusively sectarian. It has managed to maintain a tight, six-year alliance with Lebanon’s largest Christian party, Michael Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. But this has never been an especially durable strategy. The contradictions are profound and irreconcilable. To some, Hezbollah is a pan-Arab guerilla front against Israel. To some it is a dogmatic Shia religious movement that sincerely embraces Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theocratic theology. And to some, it is a shrewd and pragmatic political actor that knows how to make the trains run on time. Yet, it cannot be all of these things at once.
Hezbollah has never been free of such tensions and Nasrallah has always managed to masterfully hold the movement together despite them. As the disconnect has grown wider, however, the false narrative that Hezbollah uses to bridge the gap has grown ever more tenuous. It’s getting harder for even Hezbollah’s most committed supported to believe that Syria’s uprising is a foreign, American-backed plot to massacre innocents, create sectarian strife, and impose Israeli hegemony over the Levant. As the civil war next door spills ever more toxically across the border into Lebanon, claiming lives in Hezbollah’s neighborhoods, it has become impossible to maintain the charade of denial. As the nature of the Syrian regime’s brutality (and the cynicism with which Nasrallah has blessed it) begins to sink in, Hezbollah risks ending up looking more and more like a Shia sectarian movement, just another player in a polarized regional struggle.
If history is any guide, of course, Hezbollah will be nimble and adaptive, and use any circumstances possible to turn a bleak outlook to its advantage. Some holes, however, are too deep to climb out of. The fall of the House of Assad might be one of them. And, judging from his flailing, Nasrallah himself seems to know it.