What can Turkey learn from the Arab Spring?
By: James Bieszka
Edited by Dr. Hafez Ghanem, “The Arab Spring five years later: Towards greater inclusiveness” was presented at the Brookings Institution on January 15, 2016 and provides insight into the critical pre-Arab Spring Middle East’s social and societal conditions which undoubtedly fostered the widespread uprisings in 2010-2011 . While observers often cite standard economic and/or political grievances to explain the rapid societal changes that swept over the region in 2011, Dr. Ghanem outlines a far more lucid narrative in addressing the conditions that predated and likely fostered the Arab Spring . As panelists, Dr. Masood Ahmed, Director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department; Dr. Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings; and Dr. Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President of Leadership, Learning, and Innovation at the World Bank, addressed the implications of Dr. Ghanem’s findings in their own lines of work . Furthermore, the panel’s discussion has implications for Turkey, including on issues of economic mobility, political division, gender equality , and national education.
Dr. Ghanem outlines three major factors that he and his research team identify as the major criteria preceding the Arab Spring. First, contrary to some understandings of the Arab Middle East pre-2011, relative economic growth was common in many areas of the Middle East. Syria was certainly modernizing quickly under Bashar al-Asad and countries like Egypt and Tunisia enjoyed increasing technological growth and interconnection. Yet, the central concern is that the middle-class in many countries, certainly including Egypt, experienced stagnation and dissatisfaction rather than overall economic growth. This phenomenon was quantitatively displayed by the fact that a large majority of people in the Middle East were “dissatisfied” and/or “not happy” with their economic situations, regardless of the overall national economic growth (Figure 1). Despite national economic growth, Middle Eastern Arab citizens were becoming disconnected and excluded from their central governments.
Source: Ghanem, Hafez. The Arab Spring Five Years Later: Toward Greater Inclusiveness. Brookings Institution Press, 2016.
The second factor that Dr. Ghanem argues preceded the Arab Spring was the most central: inclusion vs. exclusion. Regardless of overall economic growth, large groups of the population, often the middle-class, were excluded in many Arab countries. Specifically, female unemployment – especially among the youth population – was a major factor in overall societal alienation. While reasons for high female unemployment may vary, leading up to 2011 this was a common reality in the Arab Middle East as a whole. On female youth unemployment, Dr. Ghanem discussed the importance of the informal sector, the section of the economy that most often deals with personal and lower-skilled jobs. He suggests that female youth in the Arab Middle East are less likely to take or pursue jobs in the informal sector, jobs often held by young women in Europe and North America. Both an increasing yet stagnant middle-class and female/youth economic exclusion go a long way in explaining the preconditions of the Arab Spring.
Third, Dr. Ghanem and his team cite rural development and education as valuable indicators of overall economic growth and stability. Especially in Syria, for example, urban growth and modernization grew while rural growth and stability became increasingly threatened and disconnected from the state (1). Education played a huge role. While primary school enrollment had in fact been increasing in the region, Dr. Ghanem argues that the quality of education, especially in rural areas, declined. There is no panacea for such economic issues, but every panelist argued increased transparency and monitoring of institutions were necessary. However, where exactly does Turkey fit into this discussion and how can Turkey learn from the Arab Spring?
To begin, Turkey can certainly use the three major factors presented by Dr. Ghanem. While Turkey deserves to celebrate the economic growth it has enjoyed in recent years, it should not neglect the growth of the middle-class and youth sectors, female employment, and national education issues . For example, a 2013 OECD report indicates that the rate of youth “not in employment, education, or training” in Turkey is the highest among all OECD member states (2). Likewise, according to 2011 reports, more than half of women in Turkey do not earn their own income and the unemployment rate for women with higher education degrees is double that of men with higher education degrees (3). In education, religious schools (Imam Hatip Lisesileri) and the conservative religious education encouraged by the AKP (4) have increased dramatically, raising questions about how well education prepares young people for future jobs. While Turkey may still enjoy relative economic superiority in the Middle East, Dr. Ghanem and the panelists’ presentations highlight that economic growth alone does not preclude instability. Given worrying trends in Turkey’s middle class and youth populations, female unemployment, and national education, how can the Turkish government ensure that it escapes the socioeconomic ditch that many Arab states have already fallen into?
- Hinnebusch, Raymond & Zintl, Tina. Syria From Reform to Revolt. Syracuse University Press, 2015, p. 292.
- OECD (2016), Youth not in employment, education or training (NEET) (indicator). https://data.oecd.org/youthinac/youth-not-in-employment-education-or-training-neet.htm.
- Tolunas, Ozlem. Women in Erdogan’s Turkey. New Politics, Winter 2014 Vol:XIV-4. http://newpol.org/content/women-erdo%C4%9Fan%E2%80%99s-turkey.
- Captagay, Soner. Kemal Erdogan’s Second Revolution. Politico, 2016. http://www.politico.eu/article/turkeys-erdogan-revolution/.