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Events in the Middle East

March 31, 2011

Would Mohamed Bouazizi have thought that the result of setting himself on fire on December 17th in Tunisia would be the demonstrations and sweeping changes that we are seeing across North Africa and the Middle East?  The reason for his protest?  He was a street vendor protesting at the confiscation of his wares by a municipal official and her aides.

As futurists, we did anticipate the effect of pent up resentment, and the comparison between the lifestyle experienced and the images on satellite television and through the internet and social media.  And we certainly flagged the pressures from a population dominated by young people, often with much more education than their parents.  But anticipating trigger events, and hence the timing of change, is much harder.

Can we look to analogies with other periods of change to improve our ability to ask the right questions about the future of the Middle East?

Events of 1989 –  The events began in Poland in 1989, and continued in Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania.  One feature common to most of these developments was the extensive use of campaigns of civil resistance demonstrating popular opposition to the continuation of one-party rule and contributing to the pressure for change.  Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country to overthrow its Communist regime violently.  The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 failed to stimulate major political changes in China.  However, powerful images of courageous defiance during that protest helped to spark a precipitation of events in other parts of the globe.

The adoption of varying forms of market economy resulted in millions of people joining the global market economy practically all at once.  Generally all countries saw rises in living standards, but the countries with fastest transition to market economy performed much better.  Political reforms were varied; in many countries communists and security service officers perpetuated in power.

However, 20 years later, many of the counties are part of the European Union and adopting the euro: so a 20 year revolution?

Events of 1848 –  The European Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, Springtime of the Peoples or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe.  Described by some historians as a revolutionary wave, the period of unrest began in France, with the French Revolution of 1848, and soon spread to the rest of Europe.

Although most of the revolutions were quickly put down, there was a significant amount of violence in many areas, with tens of thousands of people tortured and/or killed.

While the immediate political effects of the revolutions were largely reversed, the long-term reverberations of the events were far-reaching.  The middle and working classes shared a desire for reform, and agreed on many of the specific aims.  Their participations in the revolutions, however, differed.  While much of the impetus came from the middle classes, much of the cannon fodder came from the lower.  The revolts first erupted in the cities.

It could be said that the Second World War ended the “European Revolution”, a century after it started.

The Protestant Reformation –  The Protestant Reformation, also called the Protestant Revolt or simply The Reformation, was the European Christian reform movement that established Protestantism as a constituent branch of contemporary Christianity.  It was led by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants.

The efforts of the self-described “reformers”, who objected to (“protested”) the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Catholic Church, led to the creation of new national Protestant churches.  The Catholics responded with a Counter-Reformation, led by the Jesuit order, which reclaimed large parts of Europe, such as Poland.  In general, northern Europe, with the exception of Ireland and pockets of Britain, turned Protestant, and southern Europe remained Catholic, while fierce battles that turned into warfare took place in the centre.

The largest of the new denominations were the Anglicans (based in England), the Lutherans (based in Germany and Scandinavia), and the Reformed churches (based in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scotland).  There were many smaller bodies as well.

The most common dating begins in 1517 when Luther published The Ninety-Five Theses, and concludes in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia that ended years of European religious wars.  This is 130 years for a very similar type of transition from an autocratic religion to a more open society.

Conclusions –  While there are arguments that change is much faster today as communication bandwidths increase, culture change is always slow.  So it might be prudent to think of the Middle East as in the first months of a process which will take decades, rather than expecting changes to a western style form of economy and society in the short term.

Written by Gill Ringland, CEO at SAMI Consulting

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