People's discontent will continue to spill onto the streets in 2014

Andrew Hammond cites legacy of financial crisis and rise of social media

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 7:40pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 1:44am

December 17 marks the third anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. This tragic event, and his subsequent death in hospital on January 4, set off a wave of protests which within weeks led to the unseating of the country's long-standing president, and also helped spur wider political change across North Africa and the Middle East.

Three years on, much optimism about what has become widely known as the Arab spring has turned into scepticism and uncertainty. In the context of this unpredictability, it is clear that significant political volatility will probably continue in the region, and indeed across much of the rest of the world, into 2014.

For, as well as North Africa and the Middle East, there has been major political instability, internationally, in recent years. In the European Union for instance, millions have taken to the streets and administrations in more than half of the 27 member states fell or were voted out of office from spring 2010 to 2012 alone.

Most eye-catching, however, have been the political revolutions and popular uprisings in emerging economies. This spans the present protests in Ukraine (the most significant since the 2004 orange revolution there); June's demonstrations in Brazil (the largest in the country for two decades); and the remarkable developments in North Africa and the Middle East, including the civil war in Syria, revolutionary changes of power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, transfer of power in Yemen, plus demonstrations and uprisings in Turkey, Iran, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman.

Despite the diverse nature of this political instability, it has reportedly been described as "a revolutionary wave, like 1848" by Sir Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Others have compared the situation to 1914, 1968 and 1989.

Whatever the validity of these historical analogies, it is clear that the current "wave" of volatility has been driven by a broad range of economic, political, social and technological factors. In the EU, for instance, the role of the economic downturn and austerity measures since the 2008 financial crisis has been key. Unrest, however, has also tapped into pre-existing disquiet with established European political parties and systems.

In the Middle East, by contrast, protest has often stemmed primarily from deep-seated political and socio-economic discontent that has existed for many years. Post 2008, however, factors including liquidity crunches, increased food prices and unemployment spikes have exacerbated these grievances.

A key question is whether international political instability will tail off in coming years, especially if economic recovery takes hold in much of the world. While this is possible, protest and uprising are likely to continue for at least two reasons.

Firstly, there are some factors completely unrelated to the post-2008 financial crisis that will endure, if not intensify. This includes the disruptive role of social media. Secondly, even if the worst of the financial crisis has passed, its consequences endure, especially for the many young people who are unemployed. This puts many at risk of long-term damage to their earnings potential and job prospects, fuelling discontent.

Though it is premature to claim, as some have done, that we have entered a new era of global revolution that is here to stay, there remains significant prospect of political volatility. Instability will potentially be fuelled not just by the legacy of the financial crisis such as higher youth unemployment, but also longer-standing political and socio-economic discontent, which social media is giving new impetus.

Andrew Hammond was formerly a geopolitical analyst at Oxford Analytica, and a special adviser in the UK government of Tony Blair