I am normally very skeptical of financial analysis based on geopolitical considerations.For the most part, these circumstances are 10.000 years old news and, even if new technologies, political developments and so on can change in some ways power balances, it is rare when there’s a major shift so cataclysmic in nature that it will have an immediate effect in markets. Decades, rather than years, are the time unit to measure impact of geopolitics in the markets.
This said, some developments do change the way the world functions. All of the above probably still applies, so don’t expect to find information to run to your broker with here, but I think that in a relatively short time we will be looking back onto these days as a turning point in many ways.
What started as little more than a curiosity, interesting enough to give some variety to the newspapers’ readers but at the same time remote enough to keep them comfortably aloof, is steadily changing into a powerful tide that keeps on rising.
Risings in Tunisia, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Arab world (there has been unrest in Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and even Morocco) have been dilettantishly hailed as ” the first bourgeois revolutions of the Middle East”.
What do we know. Before we all get too carried away, let’s remember that Iran’s revolution started as a bourgeois movement. Then, in the absence of common goals uniting the movement other than ousting the Sha, a very motivated and well organized violent minority rapidly seized the power.
The situation is all too similar today to allow claiming a victory of democracy yet. It is tempting indeed to make a parallel between the return of Mr. Rachid Ghannouchi to Tunis and the return of Khomeini to Iran in February 1979. To be fair, Mr. Ghannouchi offers a much more moderate image, claims a democratic approach and is no violent activist. However, one sees how the situation may rapidly evolve with a more radical faction coming to the fore, with or without his being part of it.
Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood has been keeping a low profile in Egypt, but who can seriously think that Mr. ElBaradei is a match for their well organized networks, including social assistance for the poor and free schools? ElBaradei would be a fabulous outcome for Egypt and the world, but he might not last long.
Things could very well evolve towards democracy and moderation but given the situation (lack of any democratic experience, populations tyrannically oppressed for many decades, lack of sufficiently large middle classes, rampant misery and inequality…) it is very unlikely that stability can be spontaneously reached.
The US and specially Europe, should play an active role in supporting the nascent democratic movements, especially since intervention for much less palatable causes has not been sparingly used these years. To prudishly repudiate a colonial interventionist tradition now will amount to letting yet another strategic area fall to chaos.
In the opposite manner, a success story would give much needed hope to Northern African countries, impoverished and politically oppressed.
Physical proximity to a beehive of radicalism, misery and political instability is already very uncomfortable for Europe (although I don’t think this necessarily heralds doom for Europe by itself – the sea is a very powerful barrier which tends to be downplayed) However, there is another way in which establishing healthy societies South of its border is crucial for Europe.
European integration has been based on economic concerns with total disregard for democracy. Now, as accumulated debt seems to condemn many European governments to a protracted period of unpopular austerity, these measures will increasingly be perceived as an external imposition. Real economic union would require fiscal transfers and this is impossible without democratic political integration.
A resolute action in support of the democratic movements South of its borders and the consolidation of democracies could give much needed inspiration to Europe. It certainly offers an opportunity to purge its colonial sins in a useful manner.
On another front, demographic factors keep putting pressure on Europe’s economies and huge minorities have been gathered through immigration. Having stable democratic regimes and improving economies back home would help them integrate and feel closer to their host countries.
This is part of a larger effort that Europe has to do to reshape its sclerotic societies. In the past, Europe was able to prevail on technologically more advanced Muslim powers thanks to the transformation of its feudal societies, which started offering rights and opportunities to its citizens. Today, it needs to become more similar to the US in many ways in order to offer fairer opportunities to its business and citizens. It needs to do away with many barriers to assimilate its immigrant populations the way the US does and to reduce the power of its entrenched oligopolies to let innovation and efficiency thrive.
In 1956, a new world order was started when the US gave a coup de grâce to Europe’s colonial ways by frog-marching the UK and France out of Egypt (see here the long and the short of it). This could be Europe’s finest hour if it could rise to the challenge the US (and itself) seem to be dodging.
As for the US, the situation is no picnic, even if its economic effects are nowhere as big as for Europe (I will talk about the economic impact of the turmoil in my next post) One by one its Northern African Muslims allies are crumbling. Only Morocco stands still. Many say that the ironclad fist in which the King keeps religious opposition guarantees that such developments are impossible there.
It’s funny, I have the feeling of having heard this short ago. Let me remember… Yeah, it was being said about Egypt, right after Tunis’ events…