From Arab Spring to European Autumn

  • 11 November 2011
  • From the section World
  • comments

Several months ago we saw the start of the Arab Spring, when peoples in the Middle East rose up to get rid of unelected old men in favour of democracy. Now we have the European Autumn, which involves pushing aside democratic leaders in favour of unelected old men.

It feels like a dark comedy in which maybe the politicians from the opposing sides of the Mediterranean ought to meet up somewhere central like Malta or Cyprus in order to share tips for how to survive.

The common feature of these changes is of national populations unhappy with "business as usual", a discontent sharpened by falling living standards.

Before getting too carried away with the idea that the Arab world and Europe are heading in opposite directions, it is only fair to get the health warning out of the way first.

The decisions in Greece and Italy to find "technocrats" rather than elected leaders to guide through unpopular austerity measures and reassure the financial markets form part of a "trend" that only effects two of the European Union's 27 countries so far.

As for the Arab Spring it is a broader phenomenon, but it is only fair to point out that, to date, it has brought changes of government in just three out of dozens of Middle Eastern nations.

We do not know either with certainty whether the revolutions underway in Egypt or Libya will actually produce democracy, although the staging of Tunisia's elections gives hope that they might.

There are though some factors that we can see running through these events. Rising fuel and food prices were held by many to have been factors responsible for mobilising the masses in North Africa, and now it is the prospect of the first real fall in living standards for a generation that apparently paralyses many European politicians, who feel unable to tell their people just how bad it is going to be.

If they are frightened it is because globalisation and modern media have become potent tools for coalescing unhappiness.

Bond traders in their computer-linked trading rooms can show almost instantly that they are unimpressed with government reforms. Social media meanwhile can bring together the disenfranchised and angry to protest. News channels meanwhile offer a drumbeat of despair.

While these forces may be impressive at fomenting trouble for existing rulers, there is no sign that they can enable the happy resolution of a country's dilemmas.

People in Egypt are increasingly restive at being ruled by the military, and citizens in Tripoli have noticed that many of the gunmen who overthrew Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, far from going home, are still hanging around demanding money from passers by.

In Europe the idea seems to be that Lucas Papademos or Mario Monti can take over for a short time, becoming the focus for popular anger at austerity, and then stand aside in favour of the usual gang of party politicians.

But even before the current economic crisis, there was much talk about a "democratic deficit", low turnouts, and public unhappiness with politics.

Perhaps the most salutary lesson about the present impossibility of pleasing people, even with democratic accountability, lies with the progress of Barack Obama's US presidency.

Few people could have come to power with a greater surge of faith, reaching millions of voters who usually did not bother, galvanizing cynical commentators, and using social media to positive ends.

Yet today Mr Obama's approval ratings are rotten, and the narrative among many of his former supporters in the liberal intelligentsia is of disappointment and even betrayal.

In The Times newspaper this week David Aaronovitch gave a convincing analysis about why it had gone wrong for Mr Obama - alas the paper's pay wall prevents me linking to it. In short though, he argued that fickle voters, unable to grasp the messy compromises of democracy, had soon deserted the president, creating political gridlock once the Republicans bounced back in the mid-terms, gaining control of Congress.

So if Mr Obama cannot remain popular in these times of downturn who can? I would not put money on Mr Papademos quelling the Athens demonstrators or on a new Egyptian government being able to match the 6% economic growth rate achieved in the latter Hosni Mubarak period.

Perhaps the best we can hope for politically these days is an absence of complaint.