Chaired by Noha El-Mikawy (Ford Foundation and ERF), the third and final plenary session of the ERF Conference focused on lessons emerging from the experiences of Arab countries in transition. Four speakers, Gouda Abdel-Khalek, George Corm, Paul Salem and Zafiris Tzannatos addressed key issues surrounding the concept of social justice, each offering penetrating insights and unique perspectives on prevalent economic and social conditions in the Arab world and wider MENA region.
Social justice: the cornerstone of equitable development
Gouda Abdel-Khalek (Cairo University), presented on Social Justice: lessons of experience for Egypt. Seeking to elaborate on the meaning behind ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ – a slogan now widely recognised as articulating the desire for change in many Arab countries – Abdel-Khalek’s message was that building foundations for social justice in times of political turbulence is a tricky task; and one beset with challenges. He cited the steady increase in wage related protests before and after 2012 as evidence of the link between social unrest and the poorly performing Egyptian economy.
Indicators of social injustice were featured, including falling wage share to GDP, rising unemployment (youth unemployment over 30%), rising poverty levels, and an increasing urban/rural divide. The latter, he argued, was one of the preconditions of rising support for Islamist parties. Other indicators included undernutrition in children, poor access to water, and falling levels of social mobility. Against this backdrop it appears very little has been done to achieve the slogan of the revolution.
On measures to be taken to address social justice, Abdel-Khalek underlined the need for widespread reforms including subsidising agricultural producers, increasing taxes on speculative dealing, and creating a progressive taxation system. Urban bias was also highlighted as a particular problem. He also recommended that Upper Egypt be treated as a special region by policymakers due to its serious levels of underdevelopment and poverty.
MENA transitions and the need for a new social contracts
Paul Salem (Middle East Institute), gave a presentation on the subject of ‘Situating Social Justice within the Broader Context of MENA transitions. Political transitions are often presumed to be towards democracy, but in the Arab world this is not always the case. Salem explored how transition can often mean transition to state failure and autocracy. In many cases the outcomes of such transitions have resulted in situations where social justice has taken a back seat.
In theory, a transition to democracy should improve social justice, but as Salem emphasised, it might and it might not. Democracy can easily be captured and diverted to serve narrow interests. It can even be offered as a substitute or compromise for not having social justice. Democracy’s link to social justice is problematic and should not be assumed.
In the broader context of MENA transitions, the breakdown of the old social contract fuelled calls for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’. However, following the Arab uprisings, some regimes settled back into dynastic security or presidential states with an accompanying rhetoric or facade of democracy. Salem’s wider message here is that these were uprisings with no vision of a new social contract. This absence of a clear message is even visible amongst thinkers, with no public intellectuals being associated with the vision of the uprising.
Problems defined by Salem included the issue of leaderlessness, a situation that hindered the movement’s transition to parliament and politics in Egypt. Again, Salem highlighted the fact that transition trajectories were highly divergent; some led to glimpses of democracy, others to civil war. Country cases were examined including Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt.
Overall, Salem concluded that the social justice picture across MENA does not look too promising. There is a long way to go before the Arab transitions start to achieve stability and growth. In some cases social justice been overtaken by sectarian issues. A lack of political leadership combined with economic and social vision, he argued, marked the current climate in MENA as very different from the revolutions of the 1950s. Without a new social contract, it is unlikely policy makers will be able to offer the necessary solutions; indeed they may not even care in an atmosphere of non-politicisation.
In conclusion, many speakers suggested that ERF should play a leading role in generating robust evidence and using it in concert with others to inform and frame the debates that are necessary to lead to alternative development models for the region.
You can find each of the speaker’s presentations online on ERF Slideshare account.