Cite as:

Yaneer Bar-Yam and Alexander S. Gard-Murray, Framing a complexity theory solution to the Middle East crises, New England Complex Systems Institute Technical Report 2011-2-02 (February 24, 2011).


February 24, 2011 - The cascading crises in the Middle East are being seen as a democratic transition and yet are raising concerns about social stability. One concern is the possibility of a transition to Iranian type theocracy. More generally, widespread violence has begun in some countries and may spread. To develop a solution to the risks of social unrest and violence we need to frame the question properly, both historically and with an understanding of the complexity theory principles that underly revolutions.

Modern revolutions that enhanced democratic institutions, such as the "people power" revolution in the Philippines (1986), transfer of power in Argentina (1983) and Brazil (1985), the breakup of the USSR (1989-91) and repeal of apartheid in South Africa (1994), seem to set a precedent for peaceful and constructive government change.

The transitions in the Middle East may not fall into this category.

The underlying dynamics of the Middle East today are more similar to the food crises that triggered the "revolutionary wave" that engulfed Europe in 1848. In those revolutions, autocratic governments were threatened or deposed, but after large scale violence, similar governments were restored.

The reason for these dynamics can be understood. Central control structures that are not able to cope with the demands of economic conditions may be defeated by an enraged populace. However, the establishment of order requires a new structure to be accepted. Without an established structure that can make decisions, how can a new structure be established? Given the large number of decisions that have to be made to set up a new governance structure, the ability of a collective to agree on specific choices presents an insurmountable challenge when there is no organization at all. As a result of this limitation, order is eventually reestablished by force, and the exercise of this force is, almost by definition, a new autocratic system. The greater the change in the structure that is demanded, the more it is unlikely that the change can be accomplished when there is no trusted organization to carry it out.

This is different from modern democratization processes, in which the existing structures provided a basis for expanded democracy, avoiding the need to create those structures from scratch. A more radical change from dictatorship without the time to create adequate governance infrastructure is unlikely to succeed.

Is there an alternative to widespread violence and new autocracies today?

There are two potentially significant differences from the 1848 revolutions that are playing a role in the Middle East.

The first is the existence of a very strong military in Egypt, which is secure financially and draws its members from the population. The military has been able to stabilize the conditions there, at least up to the present time, without exercising the force it is capable of. The difficulty remains that in a confrontation with the public, the final resort of a military to achieve stability is large scale force. In other countries of the region, weaker militaries are already resorting to lethal force.

The second difference is globalization, which expands the scope for external interventions. This raises a fear among some of colonialism that would reduce freedoms. But what form should constructive interventions take?

In order to consider this we need to understand the fact that an important driver of the current crises is economic. This is not trivial, as a common reason for crises in this region is often religious confrontation, i.e. between secular and religious, or between moderate and more extreme religious groups.

The current crises, however, are triggered by rising global food costs, and more fundamentally by a lack of economic opportunity for young people. In Egypt the unemployment among youth is reported to be around 20%.[1] Among other consequences, it has been noted that young men are culturally unable to marry because of lack of economic prospects.[2] The lack of a future can readily be understood as a source of social unrest.

The motivation for change in government is then clear: Both economic conditions and social injustice of dictatorships play an important role. It should not be assumed that governmental change alone can solve the economic problems. The food price increases have to do with increasing grain prices in the global markets. Moreover, in the post economic crises period, unemployment is a problem in the US and other democratic countries.

For an economic solution to an economic problem (rather than a religious or military solution), there is need for a source of money and a plan for its investment. The unrest is causing threats against those who exercise power and collect revenues in the Middle East, particularly the wealthy countries including Saudi Arabia, which would be a natural funder of major economic interventions. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has begun to indicate its willingness to help, at least in the neighboring country of Bahrain. Whether support will be equally extended to a monarchy as to a fledgling democracy remains to be seen, but the need to support stability over widespread disorder should motivate such economic programs.

The natural recommendation for economic interventions in the Middle East would be similar to programs to overcome unemployment in the West: a major jobs program. Such a program could be in part similar to Depression-era infrastructure-building, though effective programs should be based upon complex systems science concepts.[3] and the programs would have to be customized for their context.

In addition to the funding of such a program by wealthy countries, there is need for effective organization. Here western countries, including the US, might play a major role. Among the specific organizations, the US Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) has particularly relevant capabilities today: Rapid development of large engineering programs. Historically, it was very involved in New Deal projects.

Global interdependence in the financial crisis resulted in global interventions in banking. Our analysis suggests that even though development is highly non-uniform, unemployment and food shocks in the aftermath of the economic crises is a global problem requiring global action.

[1] R. Roushdy, A. Elbadawy, M. Sieverding and C. Krafft, “Chapter 4: Employment” in “Survey of Young People in Egypt, Final Report.” Population Council, (2010) 87-104.

[2] R. Assaad, C. Binzel, M. Gadallah, “Transitions to Employment and Marriage among Young Men in Egypt.” Middle East Development Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, (2010) 39–88. DOI: 10.1142/ S1793812010000162.

[3] Y. Bar-Yam, "Chapter 14: International Development" in "Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World." Knowledge Press, (2005) 201-216.