Major protests against totalitarian regimes have been sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. Whether these movements can achieve long-term democratic development has yet to be seen, however, changes in the political landscape are expected. The Middle East and North Africa region, (MENA)* has long been characterised by authoritarian and totalitarian governance.
The lack of functioning democratic mechanisms and respect of fundamental human rights is often pointed out as reasons for the region’s underdevelopment, particularly with regard to the poor position of women, at all levels of society. Women are deprived of many of their rights, both formally and in reality. Groups and individuals in all the countries are actively working towards democratic change and for the rights of vulnerable groups. In many cases domestic and foreign criticism has forced careful reforms.
Since January 2011, there is a slow development towards greater respect for human rights in the region. The establishment of more democratic governance is underway in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, in which human rights are respected to a greater extent than before. However, there is a risk that the development represents a return to previous form of governance that induce restrictions on freedom of expression and women's rights.
The main risks and challenges in the region are the different influences of political chaos, change of social structures and power (re)distribution which is currently taking place. While the development may bring along a fresh start in a number of countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, the situation in Syria is worrying. The situation in Syria has already affected neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, which have received significant streams of refugees.
Recent protests have highlighted the importance of new information technology and the government’s attempt to control this has failed. Besides rapid and transparent communications, the use of internet and mobile phones has facilitated the exchange and supply of products and services and it will continue to be an important channel for development and change.
Economic development is also vitally important as it strengthens democratic processes by creating more job opportunities and increased regional integration of markets and trade. Up to one-third of the MENA population is between15 and 29 years old, giving the region one of the youngest populations in the world. The large proportion of youth and women without work therefore poses great social, financial and political dilemmas.
MENA is considered a middle-income region. There are, however, several areas within the region where poverty is widespread, such as in Yemen. The financial crisis has, together with climate change, contributed to increased food prices and reduced oil revenue, and a continued over-use of limited water resources. The lack of water is a particularly great hindrance to the region’s development, as it causes land degradation and desertification, reducing food production and job opportunities.
* The region includes 18 countries, occupied Palestinian territories and Western Sahara.