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Opinion

Five reasons why Arab regimes are falling

The massive protests in Egypt and the Arab world aren't just about political grievances. Major societal and demographic factors are at play that won't go away with a new government. Understanding them is key to understanding the unrest and the progress that will hopefully come.

By Moataz A. Fattah / February 8, 2011



Mount Pleasant, Mich.

Public protests in Egypt are not about minor changes or grievances. President Hosni Mubarak’s regime faces a deep process of legitimacy erosion – the same pattern of legitimacy erosion that exists across much of the Arab region. This erosion won’t simply go away with more protests or new governments, and it will be with us in the years to come. Understanding the larger societal and demographic factors eroding these regimes is vital to understanding the unrest in the Middle East and how the Arab world can move forward.

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This erosion is coming from five directions.

Biological challenge (The generation gap)

The first challenge is what I call the biological challenge. There is a generation gap between old rulers and the majority youth. Biologically, a new generation of Egyptians reproduces at a relatively high rate. Currently, around 65 percent of Egyptians are under 30 years old with an unemployment rate of 25 percent among those who are between 18 and 29 years old. For those who are employed, half of them work on jobs that do not match the kind of training they got while in college or technical high school.

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Moreover, only 1 percent of Egyptian youth are officially affiliated with political parties, which means that they are politically underrepresented. These young men and women do not have the historical memories of their parents. Egypt's younger generation simply does not remember Mr. Mubarak as the esteemed air force leader in the 1973 war against Israel. His military background, which may have meant a lot to their parents, does not mean much to the new generation.

Geological challenge (Oil wealth and social capital)

Second, the geological challenge contributes to this legitimacy erosion. There was great geological virtue in having such primary resources such as oil and phosphates, and being in control of geo-strategic waterways or even sources of water (following the famous theory of Asiatic despotism). This control over natural resources, in addition to foreign aid, brought many Arab states their legitimacy in the 1970s through 1990s through “baksheesh” or “stipend petrocracies.”

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However, wealth gained from natural resources, controlled waterway access, and foreign stipends, cannot continue to have the same legitimizing effect for Arab regimes in the future. There is an increased demand on the part of the new generation for free education, healthcare, and jobs. The formula of a "better-off super-citizen" economically and a "worse-off nobody" politically will not work in the future. As UN Human Development Indexes show, Mubarak’s regime has generally failed to convert monetary capital into social capital.

Theological challenge (Islam and democracy)

Third, there is a new Islam-related challenge that faces autocratic rulers in the region. This can be called the theological challenge. Some Islamists have proven that they are more committed to democracy than some of the secular autocrats. The "theological/theocratic" card used by autocratic rulers to defame Islamists has been fading away due to the fact that many Islamists have proven less violent or radical than their own rulers. Modernist Islamist groups, such as Egypt’s al Wasat Party, have been constantly trying to establish their commitment to peaceful democratic participation in Egypt. Yet it was deprived of this right.

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