People throughout the Middle East have long contended with political systems that neither represent them nor serve their interests. With the advent of neoliberalism as the world’s defining economic trend, however, governments and citizens alike in the Middle East are now subject to a global economic regime impervious to local needs, aspirations and limitations.
Legions of economists and policy makers ceaselessly tout the benefits of open markets, free trade and privatization. Clothing their message in the indubitable raiment of science, advocates of neoliberalism insist that liberal free-market economies inevitably engender democracies. As this issue of Middle East Report indicates, however, neoliberal reforms implemented in Middle Eastern countries by international financial institutions (with generous and politically motivated incentives from influential Western governments) have neither encouraged social equity nor advanced democratization. As Tim Mitchell notes in these pages, “neoliberalism is facilitated by a harsh restriction of political rights” and the erosion of social contracts that limit elites’ acquisitiveness while offering some protection, however limited, to the poor and powerless.
States and societies throughout the Middle East are grappling with the global Darwinism that is undisciplined worldwide capitalism. Throughout the region, people are beginning to suspect what millions in Thailand and Korea already know: that the “market miracles” of the 1990s were nothing but mirages. When the bills of bubble economies come due, it is the local people, not international marketeers and banksters, who must pay the price.
Although the Middle East’s inefficient economic systems needed extensive reform, the cure prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank may inflict as much harm in the Middle East as it did in East Asia and Latin America. Critics of neoliberalism question the imposition of a “one-size-fits-all” free market solution for the entire world. They call instead for the active participation of local communities in devising sustainable development programs and equitable market arrangements to serve local rather than global needs. But effecting such changes in the Middle East will require the very democratization that proponents of neoliberalism blithely assumed would accompany open markets. This issue of Middle East Report clarifies the nature of the economic challenges confronting the region and attempts to further the dialogue between political economists, policymakers and activists confronting the dilemmas of economic development in the Middle East.
We never thought we would see the day: A MERIP publication, Political Islam, edited by Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, appears on a list with Nabokov’s Lolita, Judith Krantz’s Scruples and the venerable Kama Sutra. These books, alas, are not on the current bestseller list. Rather, they appear, along with novels by Naguib Mahfouz, translations of the Qur’an, and a book with the intriguing title No Bath, But Plenty of Bubbles!, on the index of titles banned by the Egyptian censor’s office since May 1998. Political Islam, published in 1997, came to the attention of censors when the American University of Cairo bookstore ordered it as a text for a course.
The first quarter of 1999 has witnessed significant changes at MERIP. We recently bid farewell to Judy Barsalou, who served ably as executive director since early 1996. During her years with MERIP, Judy introduced innovative programs, most notably translation projects and interdisciplinary conferences. One such fruit of Judy’s efforts, a conference entitled “The Arts in Arab Societies: Culture in a Transnational Era,” was taking place at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies as this issue went to press.