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Book Review: Looking Beyond the Arab Uprisings: The Recovery Path of Conflict-affected MENA Countries

Makdisi S. and Soto R. (edited by) (2023), The Aftermath of the Arab Uprisings. Towards Reconstruction, Democracy, and Peace, New York, Routledge, ISBN 9781032383026.


By Ottavia Arestia, former intern at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)


 

After more than a decade, the revolutionary flame Arab revolts of 2011 has left popular demands mostly unanswered, and the region continues to face historically-rooted political and economic weaknesses. While new threats are currently jeopardizing the stability of the Middle East, some regional countries (Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya) still struggle with the fallout of long-lasting civil wars, fuelled by external actors and geopolitical interests. Against this backdrop, options toward peace-building and recovery are urgently required.


A book that paves the way towards this direction is The Aftermath of the Arab Uprising. Towards Reconstruction, Democracy and Peace (2023), which is edited by Samir Makdisi – Professor of Economics at the American University of Beirut – and Raimundo Soto – Associate Professor of Economics and researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. In addition to investigating the causes of the widespread popular grievances of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the volume looks at country-specific civil wars to suggest due premises and potential prospects for democratic transition and economic stabilization.


The book is structured in two main parts. Part I, consisting of a comprehensive introduction and three contributions, sets the stage for understanding peace-building opportunities and challenges in the Arab region, and does so by presenting a pre-2011 historical background compounded by consistent theoretical pointers. The following chapters of Part II are individually devoted to four case studies: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, countries where civil wars have determined the most evident political instability and humanitarian crisis.


In the Introduction, exploring the overall roots of civil turmoil, Samir Makdisi and Raimundo Soto recognize a common denominator in the weakness, if not failure, of institutions, and assume that any democratic breakthrough cannot be achieved straightforwardly. Strongly related to the attainment of freedom and democracy is the economic recovery scheme analysed in Chapter 1: here, the authors detail macro- and micro-economic reforms to be implemented on the basis of three crucial premises, namely socioeconomic inclusion, renewal of economic institutions and restoration of the ‘social contract’.


In Chapter 2, Cristina Bodea and Christian Houle return to the origins of conflict and shed light on the leveraging role of popular grievances (fuelled, for example, by socioeconomic inequalities or political exclusion) with specific regard to oil-rich countries. In this chapter, on the one hand, there is evidence that growing popular discontent multiplies the likelihood of conflict. On the other hand, it emerges that the strategic allocation of oil revenues (on repression or cooptation, for instance) by national governments can minimize the outbreak of civil wars – which is contingent on the oil market’s fluctuations.


The stabilization of post-conflict settings through the adoption of power-sharing institutions is at the core of Chapter 3, authored by Nicholas Sambanis. After investigating the determinants of arrangements able to appease intra-group hostilities, several points are made. Interestingly, there is evidence that a certain degree of regional autonomy (within power-sharing arrangements) might reduce the risk of war recurrence. Conversely, pro-rebel external intervention is assumed to weaken the positive outcome of power-sharing institutions. Yet, the debate remains open for further investigation.


Moving to Part II, the first case study, described by Nader Kabbani and Alma Boustati, concerns the longstanding Syrian crisis, arising from the state’s loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the population, and opportunities for reconstruction. The latter calls upon foreign assistance to fund financial and physical recovery, even though the end result is by far conditional on the government’s willingness, as it retains full control over the process. Overall, if some agreement can be reached between external donors and Bashar Al-Asad, priority should be addressed, according to the authors, to national agriculture and high-value-added industries.


If the Syrian civil war is mainly related to the disruption of the earlier social contract, the Iraqi case stands out differently, as illustrated by Bassam Yousif, Rabeh Morrar and Omar El-Joumayle in Chapter 5. Here, it was two military ventures – against Iran (1980-1988) and Kuwait (1990) – and international sanctions that plunged the country into chaos proving the weakness of Iraqi institutions. Additionally, the post-2003 dismantling of the Baʿath regime engendered sectarian hostilities and violence. In the aftermath, attempts for reconstruction have not succeeded; yet, the authors advocate for short-term measures based on a new model of power-sharing, able to represent ordinary citizens and compounded by a fair distribution of oil rents until diversification is achieved.


Chapter 6, authored by Mahmoud Al Iriani, Hiba Hassan and Irene Martinez, is dedicated to the Yemeni case study. Starting from a detailed historical background before turning to post-conflict rebuilding strategies, the authors analyse the reasons behind the failure of the transitional process so far and the detrimental intervention of several international actors. Faced with two different authorities such as the Houthis, based in Sanaʿa, and the legitimate government temporarily set in Aden and strong local leaders, restoring a centralized government is not considered a viable option. Instead, a federal system is assumed to be more suitable to appease the current state of Yemen, as it could combine political power-sharing and some degree of regional autonomy.


Similarly, a bipolar governance structure characterizes the post-2011 Libya, discussed in Chapter 7 by Amal Hamada, Melike Sökmen and Chahir Zaki. In this case, peace-building attempts cannot succeed unless political reconciliation and unification are reached between the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity headed by Abdelhamid Dabeiba, and the Tobruk-based Government of National Stability established by the House of Representatives. Also, the demilitarization of the myriad of local groups is the pre-requisite for a new effective, while inclusive, political settlement. Such analysis is complemented by a set of considerations about economic reforms necessary for reducing, among others, the diversions of Libya’s oil-dependent economy.


The final remarks by Samir Makdisi and Raimundo Soto shift the perspective back to a regional point of view by recognizing very few cases where democratic steps were taken (e.g. the initial years of post-2011 Tunisia). Elsewhere, especially within war-affected Middle Eastern countries, no effective recovery path has been undertaken until now, while any attempt at national peace is assumed to be viable only by setting up a new social contract based on political and economic inclusivity and accountability. 


By offering a comprehensive outlook of the Arab region in the aftermath of the 2011 revolts, the book successfully contributes to “the design of political and economic reform agendas that would eventually support the reconstruction of conflict-affected Arab economies, provide for democratic change, and hopefully, achieve national peace” (xxii). At times, a neoliberal approach seems to emerge through the outlined country-specific recovery prospects that, interestingly, rather than being idealistic, acknowledge realistic challenges and short-term viable options while lying on abundant, well-informed theoretical literature.


If some criticism must be made, one may argue that, although the need to reduce state interventionism and to strengthen the private sector within the MENA region is widely advocated by western leaders, the existing strong reliance of most poor families on social welfare may have been underlined more in the discussion. This would help contextualise to a greater extent the historically-rooted role of social public spending within the prospect of post-conflict economic reconstruction in the region.


In conclusion, the book rightly points out that eradicating the root causes of conflict must be at the heart of the recovery phase centred on the “domestic readiness and the ability to learn the lessons of the civil conflict as the countries concerned prepare to move forward” (222); yet, it remains to be seen whether this will really be the case in the near future.



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