David Linfield is a visiting scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is on research leave from the US State Department where he holds the position of a Senior Foreign Service Officer. Linfield recently wrote an article for the Carnegie Endowment titled “International donors are complicit in the game of Middle Eastern elites.”
Diwan interviewed him in mid-January to discuss his article, and to speak in general about the anti-elite sentiments that have infiltrated protests across the Middle East over the past year, particularly in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The views expressed by Linfield reflect his own view, and do not necessarily express that of the US government.
Michael Young: Not long ago, the Carnegie Endowment published an article entitled “International donors are complicit in the game of Middle Eastern elites.” What point of view do you present in the article?
David Linfield: My view is that the United States and other international donors have exerted great influence and devoted enormous resources towards pushing for economic liberalization in the Middle East, while they have shown reluctance to focus equally on political reforms. What I mean by political reforms is enhancing transparency, fighting corruption, and strengthening the powers of elected officials. The international parties justified their resorting to this approach by pointing out, among other justifications, that economic reforms are a better way to establish stability, and that they involve less risks compared to political changes. However, I believe that recent events in the region indicate that these policies increase the likelihood of sudden and violent change rather than reduce them.
When economic reforms, such as privatization, are implemented in the context of authoritarian political systems, these reforms usually benefit existing power structures, exacerbating economic inequality and tensions between citizens and the state. Currently, the Global Inequality Database ranks the Middle East region the worst in the world in terms of social inequality. Economic inequality has declined globally since the 1990s, but it maintains the same levels in the Middle East.
International donors have supported policies that unintentionally exacerbated inequality while neglecting political reforms, thus contributing to fueling the frustrations of citizens dissatisfied with their economic conditions, and at the same time leaving them without peaceful institutional means to express their grievances. All of this leads to instability, the opposite of what the donors want.
MY: You wrote that “the emerging solidarity between groups that previously competed with each other, and rooted in [economic inequality]” is a feature of the growing discontent with elites in the Middle East. Are you implying that we are witnessing, according to Marxist terminology, the emergence of a kind of class consciousness in some countries that may carry a revolutionary impulse?
Linfield: Most of the protests in the Middle East since 2018 have focused on economic inequality and corruption. While previous demonstrations in the region were usually composed of a single ethnic group, whether this group belonged to a specific religious sect, region, or group of tribes, the participants in the demonstrations have become more diverse in their affiliations.
Shared feelings of frustration with inequality seem to have led people in low-income societies to demonstrate in support of a common cause, albeit intermittently and reluctantly, in the face of what they see as a corrupt, multi-sectarian elite that has let them down. A good example of this happened in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.
Some of the slogans used in recent protests in the aforementioned countries indicate the emergence of a class consciousness. When the Jordanian Teachers Union threatened to strike in the summer of 2020, its suffering was placed in the context of the class struggle in the face of those who “plundered the country’s resources.” The Lebanese protests in 2019 raised slogans such as “Down with the rule of the lonely.” Iraqi protesters in 2019 and 2020 told the media that their struggle is to take back the country from “thieves”.
MY: In light of your assessment of the situation, what role have traditional fault lines played between peoples of the Middle East – and by that I mean sectarian, tribal, or regional divisions that regimes have fueled to retain power – in an environment you describe as changing?
Linfield: The traditional fault lines in Middle Eastern societies are still very present. The emerging class tensions have not completely replaced the divisions on the basis of ethnic, religious and tribal affiliations, but rather have become associated with them more than ever before. However, the trends I touched upon above indicate that the importance of class divisions will increase relatively, and will succeed in redrawing the contours of the existing political alliances and divisions.
In addition to the demonstrations that I referred to above, another indication of the strength of class solidarity is a study conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Lebanese Center for Studies in 2019. The study, which distributed hundreds of Lebanese to different discussion groups of various sectarian and class affiliations, found that the Lebanese support for sectarian politics It is significantly less when they meet people of the same social class.
It is still too early to fully assess how the interaction between emerging class tensions and long-standing societal divisions will take in the Middle East. One of the reasons why we should wait for a longer time and watch the situation unfold is that the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted focus in large part from political and economic challenges to a health crisis. But given that the pandemic has exacerbated economic inequality, with low-income groups bearing the brunt of the economic fallout from the epidemic, it is unlikely that long will pass before the class debate is restarted.
MY: If the problem is that economic liberalization has strengthened the elites, what do you think is the alternative approach that Western donors should adopt? Why should one say that this approach has a chance of success?
Linfield: An alternative approach that I recommend is for international donors to include measures to enhance transparency and fight corruption in existing economic liberalization efforts. These policy reforms are also conducive to business and economic growth, according to the IMF and World Bank reports I cited in my article. The International Monetary Fund’s recent insistence that the Lebanese authorities address corruption before obtaining additional loans is a positive step towards supporting its analyzes and opinions with practical and effective measures.
Another useful step is to push for strengthening the role of legislatures, many of which are weak across the region, so that their work is not limited to automatic approval of policies, as this would offer the angry masses an alternative to protests. If international donors use the same momentum to support good governance as they do in support of economic liberalization, they will enhance the prospects for peaceful and sustainable progress in the Middle East.
MY: Don’t you overdo it a bit about the impact of anti-elite solidarity? Ultimately, the experience of the countries in the region shows that they will resort to violence in order to preserve their survival, and that societies often remain silent again. Why do you think that will change?
Linfield: The ruling elites in the region have demonstrated that they are prepared to go to great lengths to preserve their gains. I am not saying that the elites will decide that they should think of others away from selfishness and begin to share resources with the rest of society. Rather, what I mean, which is implicitly understood from your question, is that the behavior of the elites based on the concentration of power and resources in the hands of elite groups is an unsustainable strategy that will ultimately fuel violence and harm everyone’s interests, including the interests of the elite.
Authoritarian regimes usually resort to violence when they feel they have no other options, but most of the time they rely on non-violent coercion and intimidation in order to maintain their daily control. And when regimes turn towards violence, this is a prelude to their loss of control, or they have reached a stage close to losing control.
The strategy adopted by international donors by focusing their influence and resources on economic liberalization instead of good governance has not succeeded in stabilizing the foundations of stability and strengthening relations between the citizen and the state. Rather, it has exacerbated class tensions and exacerbated the conditions that lead to unrest.
These trends are not consistent, as the demonstrations in the region against economic inequality and corruption have ebbed and flowed. The ruling elites remain determined to do everything in their power to circumvent the latest challenges to their own advantage. In addition, the old societal tensions based on sect, region and tribe are still simmering and remain vulnerable to exploitation by the elites. However, the overall trend of the region remains towards economic liberalization in the midst of the entrenchment of authoritarianism. As long as this is the case, solidarity against the elites will likely strengthen. Unwittingly, international donors are contributing to fueling these growing tensions between the citizen and the state, while they could have pushed for more permanent change that would give the region greater stability and prosperity that includes everyone.