The Arab Awakening: What it Means for the Philippines

Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Heydarian Carina Santos

Illustration by Carina Santos

The Arab Spring was the Middle East’s version of “People Power.” Does this mean countries like Tunisia and Egypt are going to democratize like the Philippines?

At the dawn of the 21st century, the West declared a Global War on Terror (GWOT) against Islamic fundamentalism, spawning an era of destruction, death, and despair across the Middle East. This was, however, a false opposition: While the former sought the re-affirmation of its global supremacy, spreading the message of democracy through the barrel of a gun, the latter, equally relying on sheer violence, was a mere reaction to centuries of imperial interventions.

Amid this surreal drama of ‘good vs. evil’, the true victim, however, was democracy and human rights, especially as Arab autocrats used the GWOT as a pretext to crackdown on opposition and re-constitute a dystopian “police state”—combining Orwellian Big Brother with Benthamite Panopticon.

Within a decade, however, the Arab people finally broke their silence. For the world’s leading thinkers, from British historian Perry Anderson (on the left) to French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (on the right), what followed was a “world historical event”–an epochal change in human history, unleashing a spring of hope in the world’s last autocratic fortress. At the heart of people’s protests lied three demands: bread, dignity and freedom. [i]

The End of Arab Exceptionalism

Unlike most regions of the world, the Arab world had managed to elude what American political scientist Samuel Huntington, best known for his “clash of civilizations” treatise, termed the “waves of democratization,” which swept across the post-colonial world in the latter half of the 20th century. From Latin America’s “pacted transitions,” to the much-celebrated “people power revolutions” in East Asia and Central-Eastern Europe, much of the 20th century was a universal, post-colonial flirtation with liberal democracy. Enter the Arab world and the palpable absence of a single functioning democracy: There is practically no single Arab country, which has managed to secure basic civil liberties as well as successively hold fair, competitive, and popular elections. And this is precisely where the so-called “Arab spring” assumes its historical relevance—and “fairytale” quality.

In The End of History, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama made a bold and consequential claim: that the defeat of communism (1991) heralded the emergence of Western ideology, combining liberal democracy and market economics, as the humanity’s ultimate political ideal. Given the deep influence of Fukuyama’s work on mainstream political discourse, with some of the world’s most autocratic leaders unabashedly ruling in the name of democracy and/or market reforms, the Arab spring was, unsurprisingly, packaged as the trans-historical culmination of the Western ideology’s triumph.

When millions of Egyptians, mobilized by a loose network of civil society organizations, labor unions, and even socio-religious groups, flocked to Egypt’s iconic Tahrir Square, calling for Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, Western pundits spoke of a “Facebook/Twitter revolution.” This was double-orientalism in action: The West was (mistakenly) not only describing the Arab spring as a call for establishing market-oriented liberal democracies, but they also (condescendingly) credited American social networking companies as the precursors/enablers of the Arab revolutions. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

In truth, the first wave of the Arab spring blossomed in the (Arab) region’s most liberal economy (Tunisia), and in the West’s most important ally (Egypt). Moreover, Internet access and Facebook/Twitter usage has been highest among countries, which have not undergone a revolution (yet)—namely the ultra-rich Persian Gulf Sheikhdoms. Not to mention, citizens in Tunisia and Egypt have enjoyed a relatively open socio-political atmosphere, whereby a vibrant media and civil society have always been a thorn in the eye of the authorities. A closer examination of the Arab spring, however, reveals a complex set of precipitating factors—completely overlooked by mainstream political discourse.

Neo-liberalism and its Discontents

As the Arab Human Development Report, a U.N.-sponsored series of reports compiled by the region’s leading experts across a wide spectrum of expertise, underscores, the Arab spring boils down to one thing: the failure of Arab leaders to provide democracy, development, and gender parity. The region is home to the world’s most autocratic regimes, highest rates of population growth and youth unemployment, and mind-boggling gender inequality. Despite relatively large investments in health and education, the overall state of scientific research and development is even incomparable with non-Arab neighbors such as Turkey, Israel, and Iran—suggesting high rates of corruption, inefficient fiscal allocation, and poor soft and hard infrastructure. Meanwhile, autocracies such as Singapore and China have been tremendously successful in integrating women into the workforce, and emerging as hubs of innovation, manufacturing, and growth. So, why have the Arab states so uniquely failed?

After almost three decades of “Arab socialism”, whereby populist-nationalist leaders provided welfare in exchange for political compliance, a toxic combination of repeated military misadventures (1948, 1967, and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars) and oil crises (1980s) reduced the region’s proudest states into pliable Western allies, and guinea pigs of International Financial Institutions (IFI), i.e., the IMF and World Bank.

Beginning in the 1990s, a series of Western-prescribed aggressive market reforms dismantled Arab socialism, supplanting it with a vicious form of crony capitalism: Regime insiders, both civilian and military, appropriated major state-owned corporations and large-scale industries, devoured the banking system through dubious lending practices, and engaged in speculative but highly profitable projects in real-estate, tourism, and services. Moreover, Arab autocrats instituted a serries of trade and capital liberalization schemes in tandem with a conservative economic policy, which single-mindedly focused on balancing the books and lowering inflation. There was no room for strategic industrial-trade policy. Thus, emerged a new bargain: Arab autocrats satisfied the IFIs by deregulating, privatizing, and liberalizing the economy in exchange for retaining power and enriching their cronies. The Arab street was merely a spectator under this new social contract.[ii]

Despite periodic macro-economic improvements, inequality and unemployment skyrocketed in some countries, while autocrats continued to focus on maintaining an iron grip on the society, despite facing a collapsing industrial and agricultural sector hammered by the onslaught of cheap, subsidized food and manufacturing imports from giant producers in Asia and the West.

As a result, no single Arab state was able to build a strong manufacturing base to diversify its economy and ensure sustainable employment-generation — a prerequisite for a large, independent middle class, so crucial to democratization.[iii]

There was also minimal effort to curb explosive rates of population growth, while an abysmal state of gender equality did little to improve maternal care, so crucial to responsible family planning. In addition, the whole region’s economy was still heavily-tied to movements in the oil markets, while non-oil economies such as Tunisia and Egypt heavily relied on tourism, merchandize exports to Europe, and remittances from oil-rich neighbors to get by.[iv]

In the absence of a developmental state to ensure inclusive, diversified, and sustainable growth, what emerged was a picture of structurally imbalanced countries, which were highly vulnerable to external shocks.

Enter the 2008 Great Recession and a series of food and commodity crisis (2008 and 2010), which sparked protests across the region.[v] Increasingly resource-poor, since much of the wealth was channeled into the security apparatus and regime cronies’ enterprises, autocratic leaders had little fiscal room to optimally arrest economic downturn and food inflation. When people’s desperation was met with crackdown and oppression, prompting Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohammad Bouazizi to set himself on fire in public’s view, the stage was set for a political meltdown. What ensued was popular outrage at corrupt, inept, and brutal autocrats, paving the way for Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, which, in turn, sparked uprisings across the region.

New Democracy and its Critics

Decades before the Arab spring, the Philippines had its own taste of democratic uprising, specifically the 1986 EDSA Revolution, which promised a new era of democratic consolidation and social justice. Similar to the Arab spring, the forces of democracy—a loose network of social movements, political elites, and ordinary citizens—coalesced around a single objective: toppling Ferdinand Marcos. Once the dictator was gone, however, deep fissures within the society were laid bare. Because the anti-Marcos elites were largely unified based on a tactical calculus, with little internalization of pro-democratic principles, which supposedly transcend parochial interests.[vi]

There were institutional factors in play too. In the absence of strong and disciplined political parties founded upon egalitarian policies, the country reverted back to the pre-Marcos cacique democracy. Yes, a minimalist form of democracy, overseeing generally competitive and popular elections, was re-installed—complemented by the 1935 constitution’s provisions on civil liberties and political rights. But a vicious form of crony capitalism remained intact, allowing the old elite to push aside, albeit temporarily, Marcos-era cronies and re-consolidate control over key sectors of the economy. Meanwhile, the Philippine state remained an arena for inter-elite jockeying, unable to craft appropriate developmental policies to secure the “national” interest and advocate radical redistributionary policies (i.e., land reform) so crucial to democratic deepening and socio-economic equity.[vii]

No wonder the Philippines shares similar structural economic problems with the Arab world. Despite impressive rates of economic growth in recent years, latest data on poverty and unemployment show little improvement[viii], while leading economists are warning about the awry state of agriculture and manufacturing in the country.[ix] Much of the recent growth has stemmed from low-end services, retail, tourism, and real-estate—none of which tend to provide stable and well-paying jobs on a large scale. Population growth is also among the highest in Asia, while—in a telling sign of the state of education in the country—no single Filipino university has been ranked in the latest survey of the top 100 universities in the continent.[x]

Reviewing major works on the Philippines, from Bello’s The Anti-Development State, to Hutchcroft’s Booty Capitalism, and Anderson’s Cacique Democracy, one tends to arrive at a sobering conclusion: The Philippines is an oligarchy, which lacks a autonomous state, capable of properly redirecting the animal spirits of the markets and society towards the creation of inclusive and sustainable development.

The middle class, the anchor of democracy, is small, largely composed of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), who have—through their hard-won remittances—sustained the country’s economy. With a large portion of the society living close to the poverty threshold, tens of millions are vulnerable to commodity shocks. Meanwhile, as the Persian Gulf monarchies show increasing vulnerability to political upheaval[xi], millions of OFWs—and their remittances—are also at risk.

Aside from living in a less turbulent region, our one crucial difference with the Arab world is the enduring presence of “democratic elections”, or some would say the “illusion of democracy”, which has provided disgruntled citizens constitutional means to vent out their frustration. But the question is, in the absence of a re-direction in the country’ development patterns, for how long will the Filipino elite continue to effectively instrumentalize elections as an “institutional leash” to keep the society in check?


  1. Lynch, M. (2011). The Big Think Behind the Arab Spring. Foreign Policy Magazine [November 28, 2011] (back to top)

  2. For instance see Beinin, Joel 2009. ‘Neo-Liberal Structural Adjustments, Political Demobilization, and Neo-authoritarianism in Egypt.’ The Arab State and Neo-liberal Globalization: The Restructuring of State Power in the Middle East. Guazzone, Laura and Daniela Pioppi, eds. Reading: Ithaca. (back to top)

  3. Habibi, N. (2009). The Impact of the Global Economic Crisis on Arab Countries: A Year-end Assessment. [Online], Available: [December, 2009] (back to top)

  4. Habibi, N. (2009). The Impact of the Global Economic Crisis on Arab Countries: A Year-end Assessment. [Online], Available: [December, 2009] (back to top)

  5. Saif, I. (2008a) Egypt and Jordan: Why Don’t the Benefits of Growth Trickle Down?, Carnegie Endowment (May 12, 2008); and Saif, I. (2008b) The Food Price Crisis in Arab Countries: Short Term Responses to a Lasting Challenge, [Online] Available: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (June, 2008) (back to top)

  6. Amado, Mendoza 2006. “’’People Power’ in the Philippines, 1983-86” in Civil Resistance and Power Politics. Eds. Roberts, A. and Timothy G. Ash. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (back to top)

  7. See Quilop, Raymond 2006. “Nation-state formation in the Philippines,” in Philippine Politics and Governance: An Introduction. Eds. Morada N., & Teresa Encarnacion Tadem. Quezon City: University of the Philippines; (back to top)

  8. See the latest report on poverty by the NSCB, indicating little changes in poverty rates in the 2006-12 period. (back to top)

  9. For instance see Asian Development Bank’s report “Taking the Right Road to Inclusive Growth: Industrial Upgrading and Diversification in the Philippines.” (back to top)

  10. See the latest Times Higher Education world universities ranking; for a research-based ranking, see Shanghai Jiao Tong’s annual survey Academic Rankings of World Universities. (back to top

  11. For an excellent analysis sees Davidson, C. (2013) Why the Sheikhs Will Fall. Foreign Policy Magazine. (April 26, 2013) (back to top)