Economic development and the rise of islamist parties is the focus of this year’s ERF Annual Conference, which kicked off with its first plenary session this morning. The session was dedicated to address the “causes of the Arab uprisings and the rationale for the rise of Islamist parties to power”, thus framing the discussions that will be further explored over the next two days.
Following the opening remarks by Ahmed Galal, ERF Managing Director, and Abdlatif Al-Hamad (Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development), Ishac Diwan (Harvard University) provided a glimpse on the roll back of the Egyptian state in the 1980s. He highlighted that instead of a political opening, the State adopted a balancing act of repression and cooptation with less political rights, a rise of private investment levels and subsidies. According to him, two reasons lay behind the disturbance of this precarious balance: the rise in education boosts aspirations for democracy by richer and more educated people and the increase in grievances especially among the poor and middle-class to a lesser extent; and youth bulge variations and instability. While the poor were most concerned about inequality, the middle class emerged as main champion for democracy.
Jean Philippe Platteau (University of Namur and University of Oxford) discussed the origins and roles of Islamist movements. He highlighted the circumstances in which Islamist movements rise and the historical depth of the phenomenon. According to him, Islamist movements are typically born in three types of circumstances: when there is a pressing need for political unity, or when a leader wants to accede to, or consolidate, political power; when elite is corrupt and dominant ulema keep silent; when there is an external aggression.
Finally, Samer Shehata (Georgetown University) addressed the causes of the Arab uprisings and the reasons for Islamist political success. For Shehata, there isn’t one single factor behind the Arab uprising, but rather multiple economic, political and social factors. Corruption, authoritarianism, the rule of one family, and political repression emerged as political incentives of the uprising in Egypt.