BEIRUT – Revolution across the Arab world has forced the region’s peoples and governments to grapple with the need for change. Years of sclerosis have given way to a frantic push for reforms to match the aspirations and discontent of millions.
But reform momentum is tugging in two, quite opposite, directions. One push is for governments to provide for their people; the other calls for governments to stop restricting their people’s freedom, particularly their economic liberty. The first type of reform will likely only exacerbate the Arab world’s grave problems; the second offers hope for positive and sustainable change.
In several Arab countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, rulers have sought to quell popular discontent by providing a combination of cash, subsidies, guaranteed jobs, and free goods and services. Such largesse betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the causes of today’s discontent, because it assumes that these causes are purely material.
But any examination of the protesters’ slogans and demands clearly indicates otherwise. The protests are much more about political and economic freedom than about material needs, reflecting a keen awareness that such needs are merely a symptom and consequence of the absence of political and economic freedom.