A disastrous decade

A decade after the Arab Spring, the bitter reality is that the states of the Middle East and North Africa are in even worse shape in terms of all three BTI dimensions than they were 10 years ago. Any hopes of advancing democracy, expanding economic participation and furthering social justice remain almost entirely unfulfilled. A telling indicator of the dismal situation is the fact that the region’s most encouraging signals are coming from a failing state.

COVID-19 wards engulfed in flames, dying patients gasping for air, an exhausted nurse hunched over in a corner: In addition to illustrating the extent to which many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are buckling under the weight of a health crisis, these and similar images also capture the dire state of a region suffering more than ever from oppression, mismanagement and poor governance. And then, as if the region needed yet another shock, a warehouse in Lebanon’s port of Beirut exploded in August 2020 – the result of criminal negligence – wreaking havoc in a country whose economy had already collapsed.

Ten years after the Arab Spring mobilized millions in early 2011, the hopes of citizens across the region remain almost entirely unfulfilled. This is also true for Tunisia, the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings. On July 25, 2021, President Kais Saied dismissed the government and suspended parliament, which has allowed him to rule by decree, at least for now, in the midst of a long-smoldering conflict with the Islamist Ennahda party.

This kind of ideological polarization between ostensibly secular and Islamist forces has come to dominate developments in several of the region’s countries. Algeria was subject to this kind of dynamic for several decades until President Abdelaziz Bouteflika came to power in 1999 and who managed to split the Islamists into several factions, effectively weakening them. However, by the spring of 2019, the aging president – who built his standing on stabilizing the country after the Algerian civil war in the 1990s – had lost much of his credibility and was thus deposed. At almost the same time, the Inqaz (Salvation) regime of Omar al-Bashir fell in Sudan. The reform steps introduced by the transitional government have been remarkable. However, because the country no longer features basic administrative services that are functionally operational, it is paradoxically now categorized as a “failing state” in the BTI even though it recorded the largest gains of all 137 BTI countries in the political transformation dimension and in the Governance Index.

Political transformation

Some progress, but only in Sudan

In January 2021, the end of the BTI’s review period, Sudan was far from being able to serve as a success story of sustainable democratization. Although improvements were recorded in all core criteria associated with political transformation, the country’s public administration suffered setbacks. In fact, public services remain rudimentary even in Khartoum, the capital city. The same holds true for health care, which most Sudanese could barely afford even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. These problems, combined with growing difficulties with the country’s energy supply, have led Sudan to be classified as a “failing state.”

Nonetheless, the considerable advancements that Sudan has made – and which have largely been driven by young revolutionaries – are noteworthy. The end of 30 years of repression under the Inqaz regime has facilitated the emergence of new civil society organizations and more diverse media outlets. Assembly rights, for example, have been expanded. The peace accord signed in October 2020 by the transitional government and three influential militia groups has fueled hopes of an end to the conflict in Darfur and other provinces. Finally, as part of the government’s efforts to improve its foreign policy, Sudan’s new leaders have normalized relations with both the United States and Israel.

The minimal progress made in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) proved enough to bump both countries up into the “moderate autocracies” category. Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who came to power in the wake of the nationwide mass protests in October 2019, has introduced some positive change, particularly in terms of battling abuse of office. In the UAE, strict moral standards have been relaxed to the extent that issues related to family law are no longer judged exclusively by Shariah courts. In addition, so-called “honor killings” have become punishable as crimes for the first time.

None of the other countries in the region has undergone any noteworthy change, which is not good news given the fact that 11 of the 19 countries are classified as “hard-line autocracies.” The state of politics and governance has further deteriorated in Turkey, which has been classified as a moderate autocracy since the BTI 2020. Although President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to have consolidated his grip on power using repressive measures aimed at opposition figures, some former high-ranking party members have broken with him. And the fact that they have founded two new parties signals that the ruling AKP is bound to face increasing competition.

Lastly, developments in Iran during the period under review were characterized by severe political mismanagement. The mix of ignorance based on religious doctrine and disregard for scientific knowledge has made Iran one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19. But even without the pandemic, the last several years of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency have proved disappointing, as the de facto rulers in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s orbit simply have too much power to call the shots. Any interim hopes of improvements were dashed by the rigged election of Ebrahim Raisi, a radical who had heretofore headed the judiciary, as Iran’s new president in the summer of 2021.

Economic transformation

Warning signs, even in the Gulf

The region as a whole has hit a new economic low point. Since the BTI 2012 – that is, the situation at the beginning of the Arab Spring – this decline even amounts to an entire point on the BTI’s 10-point scale and thereby represents the strongest downward trend recorded in all BTI regions. 

This decline is also even becoming evident in the resource-reliant economies of the Persian Gulf monarchies. Both Kuwait and the UAE, which used to be the region’s only “highly advanced” economy, have each been downgraded by one category. Saudi Arabia saw minimal improvement, thanks primarily to the perceived gains in its environmental policies. After decades of boom in the oil sector, the shift to renewable energy sources is gaining traction in the Wahhabi kingdom, as well, even though per capita resource consumption remains very high. The country will need to change this – and not only for ecological reasons, as its overdependence on oil prices (which have been significantly lower in recent months) could lead to even greater problems down the road.

Qatar and the UAE have also demonstrated increased interest in alternative energy sources. However, while the UAE has drawn up concrete measures aimed at reducing CO2 emissions and accepted advice from international actors on how to do so, Qatar’s strategy remains unclear. Like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait has been impacted by the low price of oil and the negative economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bahrain and Oman have also suffered similar negative impacts.

In general, the effects of the coronavirus crisis have left the region reeling after the first year of the pandemic. Eleven of the region’s 19 countries have been downgraded in terms of their economic performance, and the ratings of Iraq and Lebanon in this criterion dropped by a full two points. There were also massive declines in the scores recorded for the monetary stability (seven countries) and fiscal stability indicators (six countries). Equally alarming is the fact that only three countries (Algeria, Morocco and Oman) were able to improve in terms of their social safety nets, which is essential for combating the pandemic, while four countries (Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and the UAE) actually recorded lower scores.

In other words, even as the pandemic weighs heavily on the region’s economies and poverty is rapidly rising in some places, most governments have not introduced any or only insufficient measures to cushion the impact of the additional burdens on their citizens. Those most affected are the precariously or informally employed as well as the sick, elderly and women. The bargain struck between the citizens and governments of the MENA states, which entails an acceptance of autocratic governance in return for the state’s safeguarding of the basic necessities of life, has come under increasing pressure as subsidies for gasoline and staple foods were cut back before the pandemic. Combined with the pressures placed on household budgets by rising prices pre-dating the outbreak, this indicates a high potential for tremendous unrest in the years to come.

In terms of economic transformation, Lebanon has lost the most ground of all BTI countries, suffering the largest economic downturn during the period under review (-1.43). This decline can mainly be attributed to the country’s system of confessionalism, in which religious affiliation rather than merit determines staffing decisions made in government administration. Consequently, expertise and experience play no relevant role here, while monitoring and evaluation are neglected. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that the explosion at the port of Beirut has still not been adequately investigated.


No more excuses for Lebanon’s elite

The collapse of the state in Lebanon is also reflected in the declines registered in a whopping nine governance indicators. Frequent changes made at the very top of government were an expression of the elite’s general lack of will to bring about any structural changes. The rigid corset of confessionalism, which determines and organizes the elite’s access to both power and power-sharing, has even survived in the face of growing mass protests. But political actors have not been the only problem here, as even the country’s genuine technocrats, such as those at the central bank, have engaged in blatant misconduct and obviously opposed reforms.

Many in Lebanon have been quick to point to the heavy burden associated with the influx of refugees from Syria and Palestine. However, the past several years have made it abundantly clear that the failure of the elite is the much bigger problem. The influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah should also be seen in this light. After all, Hezbollah was only able to become a “state within a state” because the Lebanese state authorities did far too little to counter it.

Developments in Turkey have also experienced a sharp decline, and the former model of reform now ranks below Saudi Arabia in the Governance Index. The behavior of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been characterized by presumptiveness, unpredictability and abrasiveness. In terms of foreign policy, this was most recently evident in Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria, its posturing in Cyprus, its purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles (a transaction that was not coordinated with its NATO partners), and its interference in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Nonetheless, the region also saw some significant improvements, particularly in terms of international cooperation. Key developments include the establishment of diplomatic relations between some Arab states and Israel beginning in August 2020, which came as a result of the Abraham Accords, as well as the end of the Qatar diplomatic crisis in January 2021. Furthermore, since the demise of the Inqaz regime, Sudan has become a more credible actor on the international stage and is using the aid it receives more efficiently.

Overall, however, a decade after the Arab Spring, the sobering assessment is this: The quality of governance in the MENA region has eroded continuously since the BTI 2012, when it recorded only 4.15 points, falling to 3.91 in this year’s edition. Shortcomings in resource efficiency and a lack of consensus-building are responsible for much of this decline, and the level of popular resentment is correspondingly high. It was no coincidence that the slogan “The people want to bring down the regime,” which can be traced back to the Tunisian revolution of 2011, was heard again on the revolution’s 10th anniversary.

Egypt, the second beacon of hope in the Arab Spring, has already turned its back on the future and taken several steps backwards. Its president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, continues to run the country with an iron fist, and the country’s security forces brutally suppressed protests held toward the end of the summer of 2019, even arresting health care workers for voicing criticism of the poor conditions in hospitals and health centers. In fact, Egypt now ranks significantly lower in the Governance Index than it did during the Hosni Mubarak era.


The crumbling pact of the autocrats

Given the large number of severe problems faced by the region, the lack of good governance represents an additional heavy burden for the states of the Middle East and North Africa – and all the more so in times when both competence and transparency are more important than ever. To make matters worse, the pandemic has hit a region in which living conditions have long been deplorable, especially in the conflict-ridden states of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, but also in Egypt, Iran and even Tunisia. Stagnation, if not regression, has now taken hold of these countries. This also applies to Turkey. Shortly before the 100th anniversary of the republic founded in 1923, which presented itself at the time as modern and reform-minded compared to the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, the country has clearly abandoned its former path of reform.

However, even the region’s resource-rich states have had to cut back on their generous social benefits. By mid-2021, only a handful of MENA states had introduced socioeconomic support measures designed to cushion the impact of the pandemic, and most of the populations in the region’s other states have more or less been left to fend for themselves. The tacit bargain struck between autocratic rulers and their populations is increasingly teetering.

The slogans heard during the 2011 protests calling for “bread, freedom and social justice” have lost none of their relevance. While living conditions in the MENA region have become more difficult, the repressive grip of the region’s autocrats has grown tighter. COVID-19, climate change and shifts in geopolitical power continue to exacerbate the difficulties associated with existing problems. None of this bodes well for the region’s future.