Pete Moore, Associate Professor of Political Science at Case Western Reserve University, presented his paper, “The Bread Revolutions of 2011 and the Political Economies of Transition,” which argues that building state fiscal capacities and investing in human capital are the challenges that the new Arab leadership is facing in order to create productive development and break with the old regimes’ failed economic policies. This meeting was the fourth in a series of five joint meetings with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) assessing the new dynamics reshaping the Middle East.

On April 30, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and USIP hosted a meeting, “The Bread Revolutions of 2011 and the Political Economies of Transition,” with Moore. Holger Albrecht, Jennings Randolph Senior Research Fellow at USIP, commented on the paper. Steven Heydemann, Senior Adviser of Middle East Initiatives at USIP, moderated the event.

Moore stated that the arrival of new leadership in the Arab world after 2011 was not enough to address the people’s socio-economic discontent that fueled the 2011 revolutions and were the result of “decades of failed economic policies and the failure of the former regimes.” Trade openness and the expansion of the private sector through investments, real estate development, and consumption stimulated “uneven and sometimes stagnant growth” in the Arab world’s neo-liberal era of the 1980s. While these policies laid the foundations for poor economic development and growing inequalities, they were also part of the regimes’ efforts to secure their socio-political interests and authority. Moore argued that while socio-economic stagnation is likely to continue and fuel more tensions as the new leaders seek to insure their short-term survival, strengthening state fiscal capacities and investing on human capital would boost development.

However, Moore stated that the resource-poor Arab states had been experiencing declines in public revenue and applying low levels of direct taxation that led to waning state infrastructures, poor education and welfare programs, and weak financial systems. Similarly, in spite of quantitative improvements, the Arab world has been qualitatively stagnating at the human capital level. For example, primary school enrollment in Jordan is on par with some top-performing Asian countries, though test scores pale in comparison to international standards. Moore added that amid regional security concerns, new leaders will unlikely lead long-term complex economic reforms; rather, they will continue to rely on international lenders and aid despite continued socio-economic discontent. In conclusion, however, he noted that protestors in 2011 “wanted their state back in their lives,” adding that domestic social activism paved the way for new economic processes that had been shaped exclusively by external demands in the past.

Albrecht commented by saying that the 2011 protests were not solely based on economic grounds as not all Arab countries with similar economies had experienced a revolution. In addition to “bread,” he noted that people were also fighting for their dignity – karama in Arabic – in the face of corrupt institutions and the elite. Disagreeing with Moore, he added that the “liberal model has never been tested in the Middle East,” with no formal liberal market economies and continued market distortions that, in the case of Egypt, led to the country’s current budget crisis. He said that no single “recipe” could fix the very different economic situations of the post-uprisings countries, but that he agreed with Moore that a wider tax base and direct taxation, although difficult to implement in transition states, was key to economic development. Albrecht concluded by saying that he still had “hopes with the Islamists,” saying that their plans for reforms may be hindered thus far by internal struggles between the various political factions.

By Valérie Guillamo, Middle East Program