By Carnegie Team (*)

Long-standing pillars of the Arab order—authoritarian bargains and hydrocarbon rents—are collapsing as political institutions struggle with the rising demands of growing populations.

Pervasive socioeconomic deficiencies, polarization, and repression have resulted, leading to unprecedented state disintegration, particularly in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. These forces are in turn fueling massive human displacement and geopolitical power plays. If any semblance of order is to return after the conflicts subside, citizens and states must forge new social contracts that establish accountability and energize systemic political and economic reform.


The Human Landscape

The collapse of the regional order and the fraying of social contracts in many Arab countries have important implications for how Arab citizens relate to their governments and to each other. Although societies worldwide are struggling to adapt to technological and cultural transformations, these social pressures provide a particularly combustible mix in the Middle East, given the region’s political and economic challenges and the proliferation of conflict, sectarianism, and radicalization. Complex, social transformations are occurring at the individual level within and across four domains: demography and human development, migration, polarization, and social activism.

Demography and Human Development

The future stability and prosperity of the Arab countries depends on accelerated human development, as reliance on hydrocarbon resources has become untenable due to growing populations and changing world energy markets. While Arab countries have made strides in literacy and higher education for women, other areas of human development have lagged, inhibiting the needed shift from public-sector-led growth to private-sector-led growth.

One major obstacle relates to perception and attitudes. As youth unemployment and restiveness have risen, some governments have tended to treat their younger citizens more as security threats than economic assets, inhibiting their activities in the public realm. These attitudes are ultimately denying the region the potential demographic dividend—accelerated economic growth as a result of an expansion of the working-age population—that has given East Asia and other regions economic boosts in the past.

In 2002, the release of the first of a series of Arab Human Development Reports (AHDRs) sent shockwaves throughout the region. Produced by a prominent group of independent Arab scholars and researchers, these reports were painfully honest examinations of the state of human development in Arab countries. The 2002 report concluded that the Arab world suffered from profound deficits in political freedoms, education, and women’s empowerment. Yet nearly fifteen years later, all three challenges remain and new challenges have emerged.

The AHDRs define freedom as “participatory governance.” Since 2002, only one Arab country, Tunisia, has crossed over into the category of “free,” according to Freedom House ratings. There are only two countries, Lebanon and Morocco, that are deemed “partly free”; the rest are all classified as “not free.”

In recent decades, Arab countries have made strides in school enrollment and literacy, but the quality of education—meaning the provision of skills needed for employment, technology training, and academic and scientific research—remains a major challenge. A disparity has emerged in this regard between the wealthier and poorer Arab countries.

In the World Economic Forum’s 2014–2015 Global Competitiveness Index, the United Arab Emirates ranked number twelve among the 144 countries surveyed for quality of higher education, whereas Egypt, Libya, and Yemen remained at 119, 126, and 142, respectively.

Regarding women’s empowerment, female literacy and school and university enrollment also have progressed since 2002. The adult female literacy rate across the Arab world increased from an estimated 41 percent in 1990 to 69 percent in 2010.

In most Arab countries, women outnumber men in universities. And yet women’s participation in the workforce in the Middle East and North Africa continues to be the lowest of any region, at just 22 percent compared to the global average of 50 percent.

Political participation, similarly, is lower in Arab countries than in most other regions, according to UN data tracking percentages of women ministers and parliamentarians.

Moreover, human development challenges, particularly unemployment, have intensified with population growth. The population growth rate in the Middle East and North Africa is second only to the rate in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although the average fertility rate among Arab countries has dropped from 5.2 children per woman in 1990 to 3.4 in 2014, the fastest decline of any region in the world, it is still well above the replacement rate of 2.1; and several countries—notably Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, and Yemen—average more than four children per female.

Egypt, the region’s most populous country, has experienced rapid population growth: the country’s population has risen from 68 million in 2000 to 92 million in 2015, while fertility rates (which had declined dramatically in recent decades) have again moved upward from 3.0 children per female in 2007 to 3.3 in 2014.

As a consequence of historically high fertility rates, Arab countries have experienced a youth bulge—a larger proportion of young adults compared to other age groups.

Figure 1, representing age and sex distribution in the twenty-two member states of the Arab League, shows a classic youth bulge, in contrast to Figure 2, which shows the contracting population of European Union member states.

The Middle East and North Africa’s disproportionate population of adolescents and young adults between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five means the number of people demanding work and requiring higher education or vocational training is unusually large.

Youth bulges have been historically associated with civil conflicts, thus compounding the need for countries with youth bulges to achieve rapid economic growth to keep pace with the abundance of young workers. When the aspirations of youths are stymied, countries tend to be unstable.

In the Arab world, which has long had the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, frustration levels are high. The generation gap also has social and political consequences: While several Arab countries have median ages under twenty-one, political and economic power is firmly concentrated among the older generation.

Some Arab countries, such as Tunisia, are gradually moving past their youth bulges, with fertility rates beginning to fall. The populations of other Arab countries are continuing to grow at rapid rates, and in populous places such as Egypt, another even larger youth bulge is expected within the coming ten to fifteen years.

These population pressures add urgency to the need for Arab states to address human development gaps, dismantle cronyism, and match a trained labor force with private-sector employment opportunities. Experience in other contexts has shown that with wise investments and policy choices, especially in education, these youth bulges can become development boons. If a shift toward greater human development does not take place in the Arab countries, demographic trends are likely to continue to be a source of problems rather than prosperity for years to come.

Human Migration

Demographic and human development challenges have been further compounded by massive population movements triggered by the post-2011 regionwide conflicts. Some countries, particularly Iraq and Syria, have had large numbers of citizens flee the horrors of conflict to seek safe haven in neighboring countries or further afield in Europe.

Consequently, they are experiencing severe human development deficits, as well as a dramatic reduction in the number and range of professionals remaining, such as medical and engineering staff.

Other countries, like Lebanon and Jordan, that have received an influx of migrants, are experiencing a severe strain on their education, welfare, and security systems. Further, with the social makeup of countries rapidly changing, political systems based on identity politics are becoming increasingly complex.

It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the catastrophe. In 2015, it was estimated that more than 143 million Arabs are living in countries experiencing war or occupation, and around 17 million have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Further, while Arabs constitute only 5 percent of the world’s population, they account for more than 50 percent of its refugees.

With more than 4.8 million people forced to flee the country and nearly 6.6 million displaced internally, one in five refugees globally is Syrian. Iraq, which has suffered through waves of displacement dating back to the 1980s, has also witnessed considerable internal displacement due to ongoing conflict, with more than 3.3 million people fleeing territories held by the Islamic State.

People in Libya, Sudan, and Yemen are all facing forced displacement as well. Additionally, the Arab world has hosted significant numbers of Palestinian refugees—the oldest and largest refugee population in the world, numbering more than 5 million people—from the time of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.

The region’s conflicts and the resulting widescale population movements have resulted in major social changes, and refugee populations risk becoming trapped in intergenerational cycles of poverty.

Populations that have fled violence, joined in the fighting, or become refugees include many of those best-positioned to contribute to postwar reconstruction—mainly the youth and the middle class.

A recent study, for example, found that 86 percent of Syrians who fled to Greece between April and September 2015 have secondary-level or university education. Further, more than 2.8 million Syrian children are not in school, which could have long-term consequences.

The overall poverty rate in Syria was estimated to be 83 percent in 2014, with 35 percent living in abject poverty, unable to meet basic food needs for their households. Elsewhere, almost 11 million people in Yemen are severely food insecure.

In Iraq and Libya, the United Nations estimates the number of individuals in need of some form of food assistance to be 2.4 million and 210,000, respectively.

Jordan and Lebanon host the largest number of refugees in the Arab world, with roughly 655,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan and 1.01 million in Lebanon, in addition to the long-standing Palestinian refugee communities of roughly 2.1 million and 450,000 registered refugees, respectively.

This large population influx is having a significant impact on both countries’ societies and security structures and threatens to undermine existing social contracts.

The settlement of large numbers of refugees in Jordan’s and Lebanon’s most impoverished areas has induced large-scale urbanization in places lacking the requisite infrastructure—for instance, as of November 2016, the Mafraq and Zaatari camps in Jordan host 158,683 Syrian refugees, or roughly 24 percent of all those registered in the country.

Welfare systems that have exhibited remarkable resilience and generosity in hosting refugees have also come under immense pressure. Both Jordan and Lebanon have seen a decline in crucial social services such as education and health, a depression in wages, an expansion in the informal sector and youth unemployment, and a rise in child labor.

In Lebanon, for example, 10 percent of Syrian refugee children are working, including 18 percent of refugee children in the Bekaa Valley. Furthermore, 26 percent of Syrian refugee children are estimated to have been withdrawn from school.

The refugee crises have been exacerbated by identity politics, changing the demographic makeup of many areas and greatly complicating postwar reconciliation efforts. For example, Mosul in Iraq has been emptied of its Christians for the first time in centuries, but Christians fared better than the Yazidis, Shabaks, Mandaeans, Shia, and Turkomans, many of whom were hunted down by the Islamic State and killed.

Moreover, population transfers are no longer just the by-products of political power struggles and war; they have also become principal elements of local peace agreements in certain places. For example, in Syria, the accords to end the sieges of Zabadani in 2015 and Darayya in 2016 included population transfers.

This Arab demographic unraveling has not only weakened states and societies, but also undermined, perhaps irreparably, cultural values of coexistence and pluralism. The creation of ethnic or sectarian entities could well further sow the seeds of conflict for decades to come, creating new claims for rights of return.

Finally, the emergence of new actors and economies in conflict zones, which also feed off forced migration, will affect prospects for peace. The smuggling of refugees, for instance, has become a large-scale industry for organized criminals in Europe, with estimated annual revenues of $5 to $6 billion.

A large conflict-related economy in Syria has emerged, involving the sale of weapons, the smuggling of food and essential products, and other criminal activities. An estimated 17 percent of Syria’s active population is involved in the conflict-related economy, creating a new stratum that has grown wealthy from the war.

Many of these actors, along with the large number of militias that have been formed during the conflict, could act as spoilers of any prospective peace settlement.

Similar trends are also apparent to a lesser extent in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen and are having an impact on neighboring countries. Tunisia’s border towns, for example, have become closely implicated in Libya’s war-related economy.

With conflicts not abating, the flow of displaced populations both within and outside Arab countries is likely to continue. This expansion will bring about more dramatic transformations in the region’s social fabric and economic outlook.

The prospect for the return of this massive number of refugees will, to a large extent, be contingent upon the shape of the peace settlements that end the current conflicts and their ability to offer safety and security to those who managed to escape their horrors.

The availability of a viable economic- and service-oriented infrastructure, the status of reconstruction, and the prospects for participation in the governance of their own affairs will also play a vital role in facilitating the safe return of refugees to their homes.


The changing social makeup of populations is contributing to the rise in, and complexity of, social polarization. While polarization seems to be a global phenomenon, arguably no region has been as divided as the Middle East since 2011. Though the specifics vary from country to country, spaces for moderate voices have generally receded.

Authoritarian practices of ruling regimes, their systems of patronage and co-optation, the general weakness of opposition currents and civil society organizations, and the ideologically divided nature of public spaces have all enabled Arab rulers to close the public space and sideline voices of dissent.

As a result, political actors and citizens alike are left with little scope for compromise and forced to choose between supporting or opposing a government, or, more dangerously, adopting or rejecting a particular confessional, ethnic, or tribal identity.

Polarization in Arab societies can be divided into two broad categories. The first is ideological, unfolding between secular and religious forces and exemplified by the differing post-2011 experiences of Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, the military autocracy has attempted to persuade the public to accept the loss of pluralist politics and personal freedoms, in exchange for stability and security.

But repressive measures—such as wide-scale human rights abuses, the passing of undemocratically spirited laws, and the unchecked prerogatives of military and security institutions—have exacerbated long-standing social divisions and induced more violence.

In contrast, though Tunisia’s popular uprising has yet to fully translate into public trust in political institutions, the country has had significant success in creating the framework for a new constitutional order that both integrates secular and religious forces and provides citizens access to a vibrant public space, where economic grievances, social tensions, identity issues, and policy objectives can be deliberated freely.

It remains to be seen whether the rare spirit of compromise that Tunisia’s political elite demonstrated during its post-2011 transition can be further institutionalized, or whether the growing terrorist threat, political violence, and ideological demagoguery have injected long-term destructive factors into Tunisian politics.

A second, more virulent, category is political polarization, which has accompanied political turbulence in ethnically and religiously divided societies. A powerful political tool, polarization can provide scapegoats on whom to pin socioeconomic failings and against whom to mobilize core constituencies.

In places such as Iraq and Syria, partisan rhetoric has sometimes been radicalized to the point of legitimizing political or sectarian violence, creating fertile ground for extremism and terrorism. The results have varied from an upsurge in communal tensions in Bahrain and Lebanon to civil wars and state collapse in Iraq and Syria. 

In Iraq, sectarian politics has resulted in civil strife and dysfunction in a social context conducive to violence and terrorism. The ongoing conflicts over economic resources and political representation between Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni communities have created safe havens for the Islamic State and led other social groups seeking to capitalize on sectarian division, such as the Popular Mobilization Forces, to adopt similar violent strategies.

In Syria, the sectarian-based patronage system and the repressive nature of the Bashar al-Assad regime led to the almost complete loss of popular trust in state institutions and their neutrality. The notion of a Syrian national identity has collapsed along with modern conceptions of citizenship based on equal rights and entitlements for all Syrians.

The destruction of the social fabric of the country and the apparent dismemberment of what was a unified Syrian state have created de facto sectarian fiefdoms in their wake.

With few venues for consensual political expression, polarized systems allow rejectionist voices to dominate, and extreme political discourse becomes a potential gateway to radicalization or religious extremism.

Bahrain is quieter today than it was in 2011, when tens of thousands of protesters (a significant number in a country of 1.3 million people) took to the streets in protest before being repressed by the security forces, with strong support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. But the rift between the disenfranchised Shia majority and the ruling Sunni minority is growing, and Bahrain’s long-term stability seems somewhat in doubt.

In Lebanon, major sectarian groups, or more specifically their political representatives, are locked in a permanent conflict over the distribution of limited resources and competing regional affiliations. The resulting polarization has weakened state institutions, created political paralysis, and widened the rift between the Lebanese population and the political class governing it.

With few venues for consensual political expression, polarized systems allow rejectionist voices to dominate, and extreme political discourse becomes a potential gateway to radicalization or religious extremism.

Unless democratic transitions are once again seen as viable and new social contracts between ruling establishments and citizens are developed to overcome economic grievances and governance deficits, extremism and terrorism may become more appealing for underprivileged and marginalized groups.

Social Activism

For decades, Arab citizens have lacked access to public policymaking processes, formal political spaces, and mechanisms for effective government oversight. However, they have not been passive bystanders to developments in their countries, using mainly nonviolent activism to voice their concerns.

In fact, in several Arab countries, young citizens and groups of civil society and labor movement activists have been at the forefront of peaceful protests opposing the status quo, culminating in the 2011 Arab uprisings.

They have championed demands to improve deteriorating living conditions, fight corruption and nepotism, and commit governments to uphold human rights.

[Arab citizens] have not been passive bystanders to developments in their countries, using mainly nonviolent activism to voice their concerns.

Protests were hardly a rarity before 2011. They were among the assorted tools young activists used to denounce their government’s failures. Protests organized around political demands were less frequent, but occurred nonetheless, giving birth to a new type of citizen engagement and activism.

Young and more established activists from civil society, labor movements and professional associations, and student groups sought to transcend the prevailing religious-secular divide and joined to establish informal protest networks. They broke with formal politics—regime and opposition alike—and channeled new energy into Arab societies and polities using peaceful protests and modern communication technologies.

These included the April 6 Movement, Kefaya, and the Youth for Change movement in Egypt; the National Campaign for Defending Students’ Rights and the Jordanian Democratic Youth Union in Jordan; the Diplômés Chômeurs in Morocco; the Fifth Fence group in Kuwait; and the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

Nothing brought to the fore the significance of the new activism among Arab citizens better than the Egyptian uprising. Inspired by events in Tunisia, the call by Egyptians to participate in the peaceful protest of January 25, 2011, was championed by those informal protest networks.

Although most mainstream opposition political parties initially declined to participate, young activists gradually mobilized considerable segments of the population to engage in peaceful protests.

But if the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 represented the high-water mark of Arab social activism, popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes elsewhere were met with brutal force, as in Libya and Syria.

The momentum of protests was broken, and security forces throughout the region reasserted themselves. The resulting dislocations have yet to be resolved.

Despite the different—and contradictory—directions that various Arab countries have taken after the democratic uprisings of 2011, activism has continued to shape realities on the ground.

In Tunisia, young citizens have entered formal political arenas and have sustained their strong presence in informal spaces as well as on the protest scene, driven primarily by economic and social dissatisfaction.

In countries consumed by conflict, civil society organizations are currently focused on finding safe havens to ensure their own viability. So long as severe repression continues, it will be difficult for Arab populations to engage in meaningful discussions about the contours of new social contracts.

In Egypt, the military-led government has stifled pluralist politics and imposed severe restrictions on civil society organizations. However, this has not stopped young Egyptians from remaining engaged in informal spaces of protest, nor has it affected the cross-ideological nature of citizens’ activism.

Informal networks have continued to bridge the religious-secular divide and have either expanded their roles in new public spaces such as the artistic or literary realms, or rediscovered their traditional strongholds in universities and secondary schools.

Networks of young filmmakers, novelists, and university students have shaped a new anti-establishment narrative that does not shy away from demanding radical democratic reforms and commits to a vision of a secular and modern Egypt.

In Syria and Yemen, citizens’ initiatives have continued despite brutal civil wars. Especially during the brief cessation of hostilities that began in Syria in February 2016, local nongovernmental organizations and groups of activists resumed popular protests and facilitated the delivery of humanitarian assistance to embattled populations.

Despite this resilience, it is indisputable that the forces of the status quo have regained momentum. The quest for stability and the backlash against religious politics in Egypt, not to mention the chaos in Syria and Yemen, have pushed significant segments of the Arab populations to side with autocratic regimes against demands for change.

The horror of events in those countries at war has convinced many Arabs of the overriding need for stability—a sentiment that rulers have exploited to defend the existing state of affairs as the only way to avoid mayhem.

But even in these difficult circumstances, civil actors continue to engage using various modern technology and social media tools. Even as avenues for political reform have closed, the importance of defending personal freedoms through launching advocacy campaigns and citizen initiatives has increased in resonance. And the opportunity for progress remains feasible in several areas—for example, in the struggle for women’s empowerment, improvement of workplace conditions, modernization of educational curricula, and encouragement of fiscal transparency.

While status-quo forces seem to have regained the upper hand in most Arab countries, Arab citizens are unlikely to remain docile as socioeconomic stresses increase and welfare systems are curtailed in the years to come. They do not expect governments, ruling establishments, and state institutions to provide for their basic needs, nor to guide societies out of the persistent crises. Thus, citizens will increasingly use activism, albeit in forms different from those associated with the Arab Spring, to influence the fate of their countries.


(*) Perry Cammack, Michele Dunne, Amr Hamzawy, Marc Lynch, Marwan Muasher, Yezid Sayigh, and Maha Yahya


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