No Middle Road

The Arab Middle Classes' Moral Dilemma

Protesters from the pro-democracy ''April 6th'' group campaign in Cairo for the release of jailed political activists, April 2014. (Asmaa Waguih / Courtesy Reuters)

The violence gripping the Middle East has distracted the world from the seismic changes transforming almost all large Arab societies. These changes will confront the Arab middle classes with difficult choices and shape the future of the region.

This tipping point arises out of a relatively subtle shift in the governments' economic policies. In the past two years, several North African, eastern Mediterranean, and Persian Gulf countries have started to restructure their public sector compensation systems, curtail the welfare programs they introduced in 2011 (the height of the Arab uprisings), impose new direct and indirect taxes, and reduce their energy subsidies.

These changes will bring substantial economic pain to Arab societies. The most vulnerable social group, the poor, will likely try to fight back, through strikes and demonstrations. In response, the region’s regimes might attempt to rally their electorate with nationalistic rhetoric and by painting themselves as saviors pursuing tough but necessary measures. Before too long, many of these regimes will also resort to political repression against activists and groups that challenge their policies.

The resulting upheaval will force the Arab middle classes to take a stance. The more educated and mostly urban members of this group will generally benefit from the new reforms, which will improve their countries’ fiscal and monetary positions. As a result, large sections of the Arab middle classes might be tempted to back the state. They might also see the ruling regimes as necessary bulwarks against the violence and chaos that ensnarl much of the Middle East.

But the middle class can hardly ensure its security and good fortune in the long term by unconditionally casting its lot with the ruling elites. Gradually, the erosion of political and civil rights will breed resentment among key social groups: the poor, the civil society, and young, economically marginalized Arabs. Eventually -- sparked by some new social, economic, or political black swan -- that anger will erupt in a new wave of Arab uprisings. It will sweep seemingly stable Arab countries and unleash yet another cycle of uncertainty and violence.

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