Friends surprised by my swift return from the Middle East with my wife, due to our inability to agree on contract terms with our employer there, seem even more surprised—and anxious—by our determination to head back as soon as possible (to a different employer, of course). Although we appreciate the concern, it results from blurring the crucial distinction between relatively poor Muslim countries, ripe for political upheaval, and other Muslim countries whose wealth apparently makes many of their citizens indifferent to the desire for an open, genuinely representative politics which has produced such dramatic events in places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
The CIA’s World Factbook (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ts.html) ranks Tunisia one hundred thirteenth in the world in per capita GDP, while Egypt and Libya rank one hundred thirty-sixth and eighty-third, respectively. Although the latter number may seem to place Libya among middle-income countries looking ahead to better days, unemployment figures in Col. Qaddafi’s fiefdom tell another story: contradicting his government’s official claim of twenty-one percent, more candid observers put the jobless rate at thirty percent or more, among the worst in the world. This implies grave problems in the distribution of wealth, which will surprise no one who has followed news of Libya’s anti-Qaddafi protests.
In contrast the United Arab Emirates, from which we just returned, and Qatar, on which we have our eyes, rank twenty-second and first (by a mile) in per capita GDP, respectively.
Economic felicity does not guarantee general satisfaction, as suggested by the case of Bahrain, twentieth in per capita GDP and also blessed with a jobless rate of under four percent. However, the island’s minority Sunni Muslims rule a majority of Shias who have long wanted a new constitution protecting free speech and establishing an independent judiciary, along with release of political prisoners and unbiased investigation of torture allegations.
In any case, events in the Middle East cannot help but raise the question whether the unrest might spread southward to the poor, and often poorly governed, countries of sub-Saharan Africa. John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in his blog earlier this month that in much of the region “a weak national identity means people are not ready to die for their country.” Elsewhere, he continued, “government is so weak, ineffective or irrelevant to most people that they prefer to rely on their social networks as the state withers away” (http://blogs.cfr.org/campbell/2011/02/04/will-the-revolution-go-south/).
But the prize-winning journalist Reuben Abati, writing from his home country of Nigeria about the fall of the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, insists that “there could be similar explosions in many of our countries” (http://www.osundefender.org/?p=11806). Abati notes that “Tunisia and Egypt are far more efficient states than Nigeria, and many other countries in sub-saharan Africa” and that the “quality of life and the economy in Egypt and other countries of the Middle East where protest is raging are also far better than what obtains in sub-saharan Africa.”
Sub-Saharan African countries are not cut from a single cloth, though, so I don’t worry that a political storm might wash out Karimu’s work in rural Tanzania, a nation whose elections last autumn provoked no major outbursts of violence. We will nevertheless continue our close watch of tragedies like the interfaith murders in Nigeria’s Plateau state, the recent deterioration of conditions in Darfur, and militia assaults on civilians in southern Sudan, as well as farces like Yoweri Museveni’s insouciant march toward president-for-life status in Uganda.—Don Stoll