North Africa: limits of social and political sustainability
The situation all across the countries of the southern shore of the Mediterranean is critical. Although it is true that the insurrection of the Tunisian people against Ben Ali’s corrupt regime has inspired their sisters and brothers in all North African countries, the Tunisian example is not the ’cause’ of what has happened and what is continuing to happen in Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. The process we are witnessing – in all of its dramatic immediacy as it unfolds hour after hour, yet from the safety and comfort of our homes and through the numbing mediation of television and internet – is only superficially similar to a spreading contagion. What causes generally peaceful, all enduring and home loving populations to rise in anger and risk all, even their lives, is not an example, not even one as heroic as that of the Tunisian people. The causes are always to be found in the concrete conditions of each of the societies concerned. Some of these circumstances are common to all of these countries, others are specific to each.
Certainly one thing is clear. What yesterday we accepted uncritically, today sounds increasingly hollow. Our own (Maltese) experts of Libyan affairs – in both the academic and business worlds – assured us in private and in public that there was “No fear of domino effect on Libya from Maghreb revolts” (Malta Today 5 February 2011). Ranier Fsadni, lecturer at the university’s Mediterranean Institute, said that Libya had in the past experienced internal discord, but it was common for an oil-rich Arab nation to “reach into its deep pockets” to quell revolt ( http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/news/national/no-fear-of-domino-effect-on-libya-from-maghreb-revolts ). Even Maltese business-persons with decades of experience of doing business in and with Libya failed to understand what was and is going on in Libyan society. All were unanimous in asserting that Tripoli is immune from the earthquake that is shaking the East of the country. They all quote friends of cousins of friends to confirm their views. But that is part of the problem. None are familiar with the real country outside of these networks. The situation so far has proved their conventional wisdom to have been built on shifting sand. But it’s a fluid situation, and it is a highly inflammable fluid.
Other, more ‘Western’ models have also shown themselves to be unsustainable. Only recently, we were impressed by the Tunisian authorities’ boasting that in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Tunisia “ranks 32nd in the world in terms of competitiveness out of 139 countries involved in this report, achieving the best performance, compared with the top forty countries and coming ahead of several countries members of the European Union […], of Asia and Latin America”. Today, the following words sound hollow: “The economic and financial policies that Tunisia has pursued have shown their effectiveness in achieving stability over the years and have proven their worth in the recent period by effectively shielding the country from the fallout of the global economic and financial downturn” (http://www.investintunisia.tn/document/554.pdf ). It is not that international competitiveness rankings such as the Global Competitiveness Index are based on unreliable data, but rather that what they measure may systematically ignore and underestimate the limits of the social and political sustainability of certain models of development, and of their corresponding models of distribution of power and wealth.