The Vulgar Marxism of Middle East Analysts

November 29, 2018 | Steven A. Cook
About the author: Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Matte senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2017).

If economic growth and development can take hold in the Middle East—goes an argument heard often from policymakers, pundits, and even casual observers—the region’s problems will evaporate. To Steven A. Cook, this argument is simply a variation of Karl Marx’s belief that there is “an underlying economic cause for every political phenomenon.” Cook notes that the Egyptian protestors who began the 2011 uprising did not simply demand bread, but “bread, freedom, and social justice”:

Despite mounds of evidence [to the contrary], the U.S. policy community has been generally slow to recognize the shortcomings of [its] half-baked economic determinism. The reasons for this are both obvious (there is a glaring need for economic development in the Middle East) and mundane (foreign-service officers have a fairly good sense of what they need to do to help countries develop their economies). . . . U.S. officials have devoted resources to economic development in friendly countries in the region . . . because they tend to believe in the “fat and happy” theory of politics. If people benefit from the system, they are unlikely to rise up against it. [But] this is not always true. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are cautionary tales of countries that experienced (uneven) growth and [then] became unstable. . . .

Take, for example, the case of Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been successful for so long because he . . . has a vision that encompasses a broader spectrum of issues in addition to prosperity. And, of course, it helped that Turkey clocked high economic growth for a good portion of the 2000s. But the other components of AKP’s transformative agenda—allowing people to live their religious identities more freely, the establishment of Turkey as a regional power with broader ambitions, and an uncompromising nationalism, to name a few—were also critical to the party’s longstanding success. . . .

The counterexample to Turkey is Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. . . . From the perspective of U.S. policymakers at the time, the fact that Mubarak appointed an economic policy team of self-declared reformers who were empowered to pursue neoliberal policies was a positive development that would finally put Egypt on track for sustained growth and stability. [But] Mubarak’s failure to articulate a positive, moral, uplifting future that Egyptians could believe in meant it was hard to rally anyone to his defense at the first sign of trouble. The folks who tell you that the economy is paramount would have predicted a different outcome.

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