“My issue is cooking oil,” Dya Alawa, a 37-year-old Turkish woman said on the day of Turkey’s historic July election, which saw the Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerge with a resounding victory. “That’s why I’m voting AKP,” she told the Washington Post. For her, the election was simple: the economy has improved under AKP stewardship since 2002, her husband has less fear of layoffs at his textile factory and she can buy cooking oil at reasonable prices.
Indeed, Alawa is not alone. While the Turkish elections grabbed headlines and raised questions about the country’s “secular soul”–as the AKP, a party with its roots in political Islam, won the presidency and retained the premiership at the same time–many ordinary Turks paid more attention to bread-and-butter issues of jobs, prices and the economy. Herein lies the irony of the AKP victory: it was not a victory of Islamists over Ataturk, nor was it a repudiation of Turkey’s secular inheritance, as suggested by alarmed members of the secular establishment. The AKP victory was one of sound economic policy, amid an environment largely untainted by corruption, that made people like Dya Alawa feel secure about their future.
It’s a lesson that the next US administration ought to learn well as it searches for a grand strategy for the Middle East and for the developing world. Far too often (and especially in the past six years), Washington has failed to listen closely enough to the voices of people like Alawa, instead preferring the urbane intellectuals who turn up in fellowships in Washington or visiting professorships at Harvard (and are granted meetings with the President and the Secretary of State). When we listen to the Alawas of the developing world, we hear a familiar refrain: we want jobs, decent wages, hope for the future and governments untainted by corruption.
These sentiments–which turn up in global polls of developing countries, and especially the Middle East–fuel the rise of populists from Latin America to Africa as well as “social justice” utopian Islamist movements from Morocco to Egypt to Indonesia that challenge the plutocratic elites often supported by Washington. The key words and themes used by the Islamist parties–justice, development, jobs, corruption of the ruling elite, the dangers of globalization–ring familiar to anyone who listens to the speeches of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela or Evo Morales of Bolivia.
In the Middle East/North Africa region–which has one of the youngest populations in the world and is awash in frustration at the status quo–this populist-versus-plutocrat dichotomy can be a winning card. The trouble is that most populists are good at sloganeering against the ruling elites but bad at governing. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has governed as a probusiness moderate, not as a chest-thumping populist. Still, it was popular anger at the ruling elite amid the ruins of Turkey’s 2001 financial crisis that spurred Erdogan to power.
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also played the populist card in the 2005 elections. At that time, the reformist wind had died down, as President Mohammad Khatami had been outmuscled by the conservative establishment. Iranians–gripped by an economic unease fueled by inflation, stagnant wages and anemic job growth–were either frustrated with the reformers and thus sat out the elections or were more concerned with the price of meat and onions than with abstract notions of civil society and dialogue among civilizations. Ahmadinejad exploited that latter sentiment well. He delivered a populist message and railed against corruption (and said nary a word about Israel or the Holocaust). It proved to be a winning card in Iran’s admittedly limited elections. Unlike Erdogan, however, Ahmadinejad has not managed the economy well (in fact, he has proven disastrous) and will likely face in 2009 a skeptical voting public frustrated by soaring inflation and unemployment (only a US-led attack on Iran might save him now).
Then there is, of course, Hamas. The only surprising thing about the Hamas victory was the surprise that it caused in Washington and London. Should it have been any surprise that long-suffering Palestinians, impoverished and underemployed, battered by years of Israeli occupation and wounded by the corruption and nepotism of the Fatah elite, would vote for Hamas, which has become to many Palestinians the symbol of resistance and provider of social services? In the Gaza Strip, where even before the postelection international embargo on Hamas, unemployment stood at 44 percent, nearly 80 percent of all Gazans lived below the poverty line and nearly 50 percent were under the age of 18, there were a lot of justifiably angry Gazans searching for redemption and not finding the right answers in Fatah, Israel or the prospects of a peace deal.
In many Middle East/North Africa countries, 67 percent of the population is younger than 24. The World Bank estimates that the region needs to create 100 million jobs by 2020 simply to keep up with its growing labor force. Right now, the region’s unemployment rate, hovering at 12 percent despite steady economic growth in the past four years, is the highest in the world, higher even than sub-Saharan Africa. Demographers do not agree on much, but they tend toward unity on this: large youth bulges coupled with high unemployment is a recipe for instability. And in today’s Middle East, middle-class unemployment and, more important, underemployment (most jihadis are middle-class, not poor) swell the ranks of extremist recruits in small numbers and Islamist populists in larger numbers.
With few exceptions (most notably in the smaller, more nimble Persian Gulf states), the region is plagued by corrupt state-dominated economies, excessive regulation and bureaucracy, and poorly constructed legal and regulatory frameworks that hinder private-sector development, foreign direct investment, small and medium-sized business growth, and job creation. Places like Egypt–the potential regional powerhouse–have shown signs of improvement, winning plaudits from the World Bank, but they have still failed to achieve that critical mass that would spur significant job creation and affect ordinary Egyptians’ lives.
As a result, the region is full of distressed populations–who consistently rank jobs and finances among their top concerns–and a younger generation susceptible to the simplistic exhortations of antidemocratic radical Islamists and the new populists. Free elections across the region tomorrow would produce more Islamist victories, but candidates wouldn’t win because they are Islamist; they would win because they are populist. With high unemployment and stagnant wages amid an environment of crony capitalism that has, with a few exceptions, failed to deliver widespread prosperity, any would-be candidate in a future election would logically take a populist stance.
While Al Qaeda may seem like a more immediate threat to US interests, the rise of chest-thumping anti-American populist leaders–in Latin America, the Middle East and soon in sub-Saharan Africa–might be the longer-term danger. The next administration will need a strategy to meet the challenge of these new populists, who for the most part will likely worsen the economic conditions of their people while repressing their rights in the process.
Here is where Washington and its wealthier Persian Gulf Arab allies can step in. The more populous, poorer states like Egypt and Morocco could use upgrades in infrastructure that would bolster their business development while creating immediate jobs on the ground. The next administration should take a low-key leadership role in working with its Persian Gulf allies to direct some of their abundant cash flow toward building roads, schools and ports in the Arab regions. Like the United States in the mid-nineteenth century–when large infrastructure projects put Americans to work and built the foundation for future growth–the Arab states could benefit from state-funded development.
Pursuing a strategy of economic development that would create immediate jobs on the ground would defertilize the soil for chest-thumping populists. This, however, must be coupled with substantive steps toward growing regional middle classes, since most jihadis tend to come from the parts of the middle class that are underemployed, marginalized and disaffected. It can be profoundly disorienting to emerge with a college degree or a master’s, only to find yourself driving a taxi or selling fruit at a street stand. It’s even more disorienting to make it to Europe only to find yourself jobless or struggling in menial jobs in an Arab ghetto in Marseilles or Madrid, groping for answers as radical imams seek to scoop you into their world.
As the next administration pursues a Middle East strategy, no issue will be more important than economic development. Widespread unemployment is an enormous human tragedy and a destabilizing social force, but it is also the largest obstacle to democratization. The transition to democracy is more feasible and sustainable when a country has a vibrant middle class, a healthy employment market, a dynamic and independent entrepreneurial community and vigorous economic development.
We should help governments in the region develop mortgage markets and financial institutions that would support small and medium-sized enterprises; then, homeowners and small-business owners would form the core of a middle class that prizes stability and just might pursue a greater voice in government. The new President of the United States should let it be known loudly that America cares about the economic future of the region, and not just with free-trade agreements. Indeed, he or she would do well to borrow some populist language from the Islamists and then back it up with serious policies. This strategy of economic development would also bolster the long-term goal of democracy promotion–a goal that the next administration should pursue with far more subtlety and long-term thinking than the current one.
Economic development ought to be pursued vigorously not only because of its democratic implications but simply because it’s the right thing to do: the dignity of work and economic opportunity ought to be considered a fundamental human right. A true embrace of the project of spreading prosperity would simultaneously expand America’s soft power in a world where fewer people and nations trust Washington’s motives than ever before.
Dya Alawa, it must be remembered, will vote for the party that lowers the price of her cooking oil, whether it be Islamist, secular, democratic or mildly authoritarian. In authoritarian states (as in most of the Middle East and North Africa) where voting does not determine rulers, people like Alawa and her sons will be attracted to Islamist populist groups, many of which are banned from entering the political arena but which provide the only muscular alternative to the ruling elites. A strategy of economic development will portend a better future for her and the millions in the Middle East, Latin America and the broader developing world who are caught between corrupt ruling elites who underperform and utopian populists who overpromise.