To avoid another decade of crisis and instability

View of a ship having grain loaded in San Lorenzo, 30 km north of Rosario, Santa Fe province, Argentina, on March 14, 2022, Argentina's government announced on Monday it had suspended exports of soyabean flour and oil amidst rumors it is planning to hike taxes due to soaring primary material costs blamed on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Photo:AFP)
Recently, Carmen Reinhart, chief economist at the World Bank, warned that the food insecurity that could be caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be a catalyst for unrest around the world, particularly in Arab states.اضافة اعلان

“I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it’s not a far stretch that food insecurity and riots were part of the story behind the Arab Spring,” she cautioned. There is one part of Reinhart’s quote that is definitely wrong: the bit about her being melodramatic.

Russia and Ukraine export various essential staples to the states of the global south. In Egypt, where 80 percent of wheat comes from these two countries, officials have already banned exports of many grains for three months, underscoring the urgency of the situation.

In Jordan, the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Supply banned exports and re-exports of certain food items.

Hunger and rising prices could very well be the factor that kicks off a second (or third, if we include the 2019 protests in some Arab nations) great uprising.

Recall the story of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation started the Arab Spring? In December 2010, Bouazizi went into debt buying the produce he was to sell the following day. The frustration of soaring prices and the headache of not knowing if the next meal would  come was too much to bear for him, as it must have been for his nation, which protested in anger after his death.

Economic hardship was the main reason for 2011 Arab Spring. People become desperate when they cannot make ends meet. It seems that Arab governments have not learned this lesson, because there is still discrepancy between the minimum wage and the cost of living.

Examining three Arab countries, one finds that the problem is approaching a breaking point. In Cairo, Egypt, a single person has monthly living costs of 6,757 Egyptian pounds, without rent, while in January, the monthly minimum wage was 2,400 Egyptian pounds. Providing for a family of four will cost 24,228 Egyptian pounds, without rent.

The monthly cost of living, without rent, for a single person in Algiers is 57,132 Algerian dinars. The number goes up to 201,961 dinars for a family of four, yet the monthly minimum wage is 18,000 dinars. This wage has not changed since 2012.
If Arab states want to avoid another decade of crisis and instability, they must address the pressing economic and social needs of their citizens.
In Jordan, a single person’s monthly cost of living averages JD481; this climbs to a whopping JD1,734 for a family of four. Unfortunately, the minimum wage stand at a dismal JD286 per month. Sure, not all goods in the monthly cost of living are essential, but the fact that the numbers are so staggeringly high without taking housing costs into account is bound to cause discontent.

Making ends meet is not the only problem that may trigger social unrest. Lack of civil and political freedom, another important reason for the first Arab Spring, is a major and worsening problem in the Arab world.

Freedom House is an organization that ranks the state of civil and political liberties on a scale from worst (1) to best (100). After comparing scores for 12 Arab countries in 2017 and 2022, I found that the amount of freedom in eight Arab countries has decreased.

Countries that had revolutions in 2011, such as Egypt and Tunisia, experienced dramatic drops. Tunisia, the most democratic of these states, has gone from 78 to 64, meaning that no Arab country is considered “free” according to the rankings. As for the states that experienced uprisings in 2019, the outlook is not great either. Algeria lost three points despite the Hirak movement, and Lebanon also experienced a slight decline. Sudan has gone up four points, but still has a 0/40 in the ranking of political liberties, likely a result of the military regime there. Jordan has dropped from 37 to 33.

So much upheaval caused by these problems in the last decade, yet no substantial change whatsoever.

As tensions flare up in Eastern Europe, it may be that the world’s superpowers will take a break from intervening in the Arab world for some time. Moreover, the region’s most powerful countries are warming toward each other. Thus, external problems are no longer an excuse for government shortcomings. No longer can Arab regimes deflect problems and blame them on Israel, the US, and Iran. The ball is in their court.

If Arab states want to avoid another decade of crisis and instability, they must address the pressing economic and social needs of their citizens. The circumstances that prompted the 2011 unrest still exist. The bonfire has been built, and anything could light it any time.

Mohammad Rasoul Kailani is a writer and first year student at the University of Toronto. Amongst various other topics, his interests are in Middle Eastern affairs.

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