Austerity and food prices will help keep extremists on top

By John R Bradley, December 27, 2012

Tunisian President Munsif Marzouqi was forced to abandon a public speech this month in Sidi Bouzid. He had been intending to celebrate the Arab Spring at the place where it began two years ago.

Thousands of protesters, angry that their impoverished region remains blighted by high inflation, unemployment and poverty, instead gathered to call on him to resign. A pragmatic secularist, Mr Marzouqi pleaded that the Islamist-run government did not have a “magic wand” to fix the country’s problems. The protesters, of course, did not want to listen; but the president was stating an obvious truth.

Its few remaining champions in the West still see the Arab Spring as having been a popular outcry for political freedom, Western-style pluralism and democratic representation. Remarkably low participation in elections held in Tunisia — and everywhere else — has proved that interpretation to be false. The motivation of the majority of those who poured on to the streets was the belief that sudden and radical change would mean affordable food and plentiful employment.

Both Tunisia and Egypt, the only two Arab countries that could (charitably) be said to have experienced popular revolutions, are today in much worse economic shape than before the uprisings. Unemployment, inflation, crime and poverty are soaring; direct foreign investment is at near zero; the crucial tourism industries have been decimated; and the central banks are fast running out of foreign currency reserves. And things are about to get much worse.

Prices for maize and wheat soared this year by 50 per cent in the wake of the worst drought in America in living memory. A humanitarian disaster looms this coming spring.

Poverty is soaring and things are about to get worse

At first glance it therefore seems like political suicide on the part of both countries’ Islamist regimes to prepare, as they are, massive cuts, in compliance with IMF conditions on proposed aid packages. However, there is method to their madness.

The Islamists sought to take the reins of power not to address economic problems but to purge state institutions of secular influence and provide impunity for their more radical allies to impose cultural fascism. They are the equivalent of the more extreme right of the Republican Party in the US, who are fanatically pro-free market and against big government.

Meanwhile, the conflict in Syria shows no sign of anything other than a cataclysmic conclusion.

History teaches us that, in times of economic crisis, the masses turn not to voices of reason but to extremists. Anyone who believes the disorganised, unpopular secular and leftists groups will benefit politically from the economic downturn this coming year is living in cloud-cuckoo land.

John R Bradley’s latest book is ‘After the Arab Spring'

Last updated: 8:46pm, December 27 2012