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Opinion

30 Mar 2021

Author:
Ahmad Awad, General Director, Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies

A new and just social contract is still possible in the MENA Region

Ten years have passed since the Arab Spring - a wave of protests which broke out in several Middle Eastern nations, calling for better living conditions and improved relations between communities and political authorities. Calls for new foundations to end tyranny and implement frameworks that recognise and respect the interests of all national components were heard across the region.

These protests sparked hope among their supporters for the development of a new "social contract". But as Arab Spring protests took hold, those in positions of political, economic, and social power fought tooth and nail to defend their interests, continuing to practice all forms of tyranny. Ultimately, the momentum for change was temporary pushed back.

In some countries, the politically powerful dragged their people into protracted civil wars that rage on, feeding on the fragility of the societies they control and their prevailing tribal and sectarian divisions. In other countries, those in power held tightly to their positions and profited from the vulnerability of the transition that took place. They employed military force to regain control, restoring the same old social contract. The trade-off between security and stability came at the expense of people’s basic rights, which conversely should represent the essence of such a contract.

So-called “counter-revolution” forces regained their political control in some Arab nations, drowning their countries in bloodbaths and destruction. Meanwhile, the old, broken social contracts which violate the basic human rights of people in those countries remained, some even growing more oppressive and tyrannous.

Ruled by different levels of political authority, nations saw unelected officials refuse people’s right to participation and impede efforts for change through several practices; including hampering the activities of unions while bolstering the social and political power of national and multinational companies. Labour laws that put significant limitations to the work of unions, shrinking civic space, limiting freedom of speech through cybercrime laws that can be invoked to incriminate activists who criticise or expose ill practices of the multinational companies.

COVID-19 has further exacerbated the social crises across the region, and exposed the instability of social protection systems, pushing millions to the brink of poverty and others to starvation.

The short-term goals of the private sector, which too often seek to secure a quick profit with little regard for human rights standards, have clearly contributed to widening social disparities and economic inequalities in the region, leading to mass protests across the region.

The active forces of the private sector have adopted a two-fold approach, to securing and defending their interests and profit gains, consisted of 1) Infiltrating the political authority and adopting legislations and policies that serve their interests; 2) Abusing their powers to conceal any evidence of laws and policies violated through their activities.

Thus, laws and legislation in most Arab countries continue to allow for considerable abuse of workers’ rights which many stakeholders, including companies, continue to benefit from – such as unjust tax policies, investment laws, and labour policies. These make way for indecent working conditions and restrict the rights of workers and consumers to remedy negative repercussions.

Moreover, some International Financial Institutions that fund hundreds of projects in both public and private sectors have overlooked the extent to which governments or companies respect human rights principles and standards, as well as International Labour Standards. For instance, the World Bank's safeguard policy, the "Environmental and Social Framework ESF" allows for the application of national labour standards to workers in the projects it funds, even if such standards are inadequate or go against international standards for labour rights. This leaves workers vulnerable, and represents a huge neglect by the World Bank.

Additionally, even international organisations which are intended to uphold and defend the rights of labourers have sometimes been known to turn a blind eye to violations committed by private institutions and government in the MENA region – particularly towards labour unions and unionists. By instead focusing only on technical issues allowed by governments, these institutions limit their capacity to create real change in the lives of labourers.

With this tragedy comes an opportunity to build a new social contract, particularly in relation to human rights in business. To ensure respect for human rights principles, the social contracts of Arab countries must be rebuilt: they must respect civil, political, social, and economic rights, and eliminate all forms of discrimination.

The private sector can also be urged to expand the scope of its investments, based on rules that take into account respect for human rights, promote social and economic well-being, and invest in human capital. This path towards reform can pave the way for the sustainable and rights- based expansion of the private sector. It would break the trend for social and economic violations triggered by unjust policies, which have caused widespread unrest and halted the development of business and investments.

There is a moral and economic imperative for a new social contract, to drive economic and social progress.

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