Rewriting the Arab Social Contract: Toward Inclusive Politics


As the Arab uprisings have unfolded, the economic and social issues at their roots have received little attention and in some cases have been entirely overlooked by the transitioning countries themselves and the international community, notes a forthcoming report from the Middle East Initiative at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Compounded by four years of turbulent, often failed transitions, polarized politics, and deteriorating state institutions and capacity, these fundamental challenges have only grown more daunting while economic conditions have further declined, according to the authors of Rewriting the Arab Social Contract: Toward Inclusive Development and Politics in the Arab World.

Key findings:

  • Recent Arab uprisings can be understood as another phase of a longer historical process of modernizationand cultural adjustment in the Arab world, begun in the 19th
  • Prior to the uprisings, persistent economic underperformance, including the “market” reforms of the 1980s, undermined once robust social welfare protections– a key element of the “old social contract” – especially in non-oil exporting countries. This underperformance led to a breakdown in the old social contract and rising dissatisfaction in Arab publics, eventually triggering the uprisings.
  • During the transitions, many of the political, economic and social problems that triggered the uprisings have deterioratedand many countries’ political economies have not changed in meaningful ways. Key brokers in the old system were left in place and reforms needed to level the playing field and develop institutions never materialized.
  • People in the region want more than political transitions.Narrow-minded – often failed – political reforms pursued by the political elite during the transitions did not and cannot deliver the profound societal transformation needed to realize the political, economic and social ambitions of the uprisings.
  • Institutionalized social dialogue holds great promiseto facilitate the public debate and state-citizen communication essential to design and build consensus for the terms of a new and inclusive social contract.
  • The United States and Europe must support successful cases in the Arab world.Just as the Arab uprisings spread by example, the power of success stories, however modest, should be taken seriously as a driver for positive change. Certainly, failed transitions will shape perceptions of what is possible in the region. Even modest successes like Tunisia still have a long ways to go to deliver on the economic and social demands of the uprisings. External support can lend crucial assistance as countries move along the reform process.


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