Martin Wolf explores the repercussions of the Middle East's protests from an economist's standpoint.
What might the Arab uprising mean for the world? No one knows the answer to this question. But this should not prevent one from making a guess at the range of uncertainty.
As an economist, I find one aspect of these events peculiarly heartening: they demonstrate that the forecasting ability of experts on politics is at least as limited as that of economists. All such events are inherently unforecastable. This is not because they are “unknown unknowns”. They are rather “known unknowns”: thus we know that many countries are vulnerable to such upheavals, but no one knows when or even whether such an event might occur. We do not even know the probabilities of such events. As Hamlet says, “the readiness is all”.
What, then, can we say about the political consequences? One conclusion is that the notion of an “Arab exception” to the appeal of freedom of expression and political participation is dead. Yet we also know that the road from repression to stable democracy in poor countries with weak institutions and histories of repression is long and hard. The difficulties of post-Ceauçescu Romania, in spite of its engagement with the European Union, indicate the scale of the task.
Beyond this, a big question is how far the unrest might spread, not only within the Arab world, but also outside it. The assumption had been that the ability of oil exporters to spread wealth internally would protect them. After Bahrain and, still more, Libya, this is no longer convincing. Geographic and cultural distance from the epicentre should give some protection, as should economic dynamism and competent governance. But these events show how universal is the yearning for a political voice. The idea of cultural immunity to these allegedly western ideals looks less credible. This wave may dissipate; others will follow.