Differentiated change in the Middle East and North Africa

February 28, 2011


By Mohamed A. El-Erian

For two months now, developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have taken most by surprise. What started as an isolated protest in Tunisia has developed into a regional phenomenon that has toppled some regimes and is threatening others. Indeed, every day seems to bring yet another new dimension to an historical event that is changing the region and impacting the global economy.

Governments across the globe have spent weeks playing catch up in the midst of previously unthinkable developments in MENA. They have organized emergency evacuations of citizens and constantly responded to new realities on the ground, including the brutal violence in Libya.

Understandably, many are wondering about what comes next; and, understandably, predictions are subject to unusually wide bands of errors and uncertainties. With this said, I suspect that we may now be entering a period of much greater differentiation among MENA countries.

If this is correct, the sense of an unstoppable and unpredictable tsunami of change may be replaced by a need to distinguish among different country dynamics. And should this materialize, the world will face a dual challenge — understanding and dealing with what may well be four distinct groups of countries within MENA; and comprehending a new set of regional dynamics which involves different interactions among countries. Let us address each in turn.

Post-regime change countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, are working hard to complete their revolutions and to ensure an orderly and complete transition to greater democracy and individual freedoms. Success lies in the following factors: defining a vision and associated action plan which command sufficient popular support; coordinating simultaneous progress on related economic, political and social issues; and implementing appropriate mid-course corrections as needed.

This is a doable but difficult task that must be undertaken primarily by domestic institutions (though each county will also need the timely support of friends and allies). It will not be done overnight; it will not be linear; and it requires a number of prerequisites, including the urgent and orderly resumption of normal daily economic and financial life.


Some other countries in the region (possibly Bahrain) could well join Egypt and Tunisia in experiencing some type of relatively peaceful regime change. Governments in these countries are already on their way to recognizing that basic change is unavoidable to accommodate the widespread demands of their people.

A third group of countries, including in the GCC, will likely avoid regime change. Governments have the willingness and ability to respond proactively and preemptively. They start with greater political and social legitimacy, as well as better means to help citizens deal with economic and social pressures. Indeed, some have already shown considerable skillfulness in understanding the dynamics in play and have reacted accordingly.

The final set consists of countries, including Yemen, is in the process of overthrowing their repressive governments but also risk becoming “failed states.” If they are not careful, fragmentation and chaos could result, with the risk of inflicting tremendous further pain on citizens and also threaten to undermine the stability of other countries.

It is imperative to recognize and understand the dynamics of each of these four groups, and to respond accordingly. It is also important to appreciate that the dynamics of the region as a whole will change, adding another element of complexity.

This is particularly relevant for institutions whose mandate is to promote regional integration, such as the Arab League. But the implications go far beyond.

Already, we are seeing massive movements of migrant labor within the region. Just witness the heart-wrenching scenes at Libya’s borders with Egypt and Tunisia. This adds to the challenges facing the region, as well as increases to the risk of illegal migration to Europe and elsewhere.

After years of under-achievements, MENA is in the midst of historic change that has caught much of the world both unprepared in analysis and slow in response. As the international system plays catch up, broad generalization about the region (and the initial sense of unpredictability) should give way to greater understanding and differentiation.

Getting this right is essential if governments, both within and outside the region, are to assist in constructively channeling the unleashed energy of MENA’s citizens who have courageously taken to the streets in order to improve their wellbeing, and that of future generations.

Mohamed El-Erian is the CEO of PIMCO. He spent part of his childhood in Egypt where his father was a professor of international law at Cairo University and then served as an Egyptian diplomat and was elected to the International Court of Justice in 1978. The opinions expressed are his own.

Photos: Top; Egyptian workers fleeing violence in Libya queue to board a bus after crossing into Tunisia at the border crossing of Ras Jdir February 23, 2011. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Bottom; Unidentified civilians make their last steps in Libyan soil before crossing into Tunisia as they flee the violence in Libya at the border crossing of Ras Jdir February 27, 2011. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the world’s largest disaster relief agency, said on Saturday about 25,000 people had crossed into Tunisia from Libya to escape the violence. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis


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Mr. El-Erian,

thank you for this article. I have question for you – would you be interested in joining newly formed Egyptian government if it becomes clear that country got it chance to move to “greater democracy, individual freedoms” and economic prosperity?

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Posted by El Erian om MENA (middle east north africa) | the trader | Report as abusive

Revolutions always promise a wonderful new world but not one of the great revolutions of history – The French – the Russian – even the US War of Independence, was accomplished without enormous bloodshed. The train of change never stays on the tracks because the tracks don’t actually exist.

Nothing in Mr. El Erian’s analysis suggests the purposely-destructive influences that will appear now that so many states are in disorder. But it has been mentioned in this paper and others. And revolutions can breed monsters. There would have been no Bonaparte without the French Revolution.

Although the news organs I’ve seen don’t say much about the prospect – the drain on men and resources caused by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not made life in Britain or the USA easier. If they have to finance even more military interventions in MENA, they too could face revolutions.

The attack of Charles and Camilla by British youth who are finding themselves priced out of higher education opportunities – and the social stratification that that makes so obvious, could be a symptom of a movement in the developed countries that could very well get much worse.

The developed world is not a superhero. It does not have magic strengths that it can unfold to make everything right. It is trapped in it’s own cracking social order as much as the regimes in MENA.

And I find it ironic that while the MENA countries are trying to embrace a democratic dream – the developed countries seem to be moving to political systems that only maintain the forms of democratic process while the fact is they are being dominated by the highest bidders and sophisticated specialists.

I don’t have a lot of faith in sophisticated specialists. It never matters how well they may think they know their specialty – it matters far more how well everyone else understands what the specialists think they know and that the general population not only understands but agrees with them. And how often does that ever happen? Specialists seem to need special conditions to function at all. They are almost a luxury: a very delicate bird that needs special handling.

BTW – it does seem that the more sophisticated and delicate a system, machine or study is, the easier it is to destroy or damage. And that may be why democracies have such a hard time surviving as long as monarchies and dictatorships. Those old systems tend to reflect human nature while the more sophisticated democracies need populations with a lot of self control, are literate and can count on a common understanding of how the government is supposed to behave. That common understanding is fraying even in the developed countries.

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