Ghaffar Hussain: Anger over inequalities is easily exploited by extremists

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's bombing of a cafe in Marrakech is a reminder that the "Arab Spring" will not solve the Middle East's problems overnight. Although the sight of pro-democracy protesters of all religions and backgrounds pouring on to the streets of Egypt, Syria and elsewhere to topple the region's dictatorships has been heartening, such protests will not in themselves instantly cure the region's many deep-seated problems.

The challenges facing the Arab world are significant. Many of the countries of the Arab world have among the lowest literacy rates in the world. In Egypt, up to a quarter of the population is illiterate. Across the region, unemployment rates often exceed 20 per cent. Nepotism and corruption is endemic. Throughout the Middle East, individuals born into poor backgrounds are likely to remain poor for the rest of their lives.

This inequality is the root cause of the recent protests, in which demands for jobs and "dignity" were just as prominent as demands for democracy. All too often, anger at this inequality has also been exploited by extremists and helps explain the waves of religious and political extremism that have flowed across the Middle East for the last three decades. Both the pro-democracy movements and jihadists groups like al-Qa'ida feed off a deep discontent with an order that benefits the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary people. The bombing in Marrakech was an outcome of these frustrations – as well as a symptom of the extremist ideologies and intolerant world views that have taken root in many parts of the Middle East. It is the outcome of a stagnant political, economic and social environment that breeds resentment and frustration that extremists can all too easily capitalise on.

In the long run, the creation of successful democratic systems in the Middle East can relieve some of this pressure by creating a political and non-violent outlet for people's frustrations. But democracy alone can only resolve some of the protesters' demands, namely for an accountable government selected by the people. Corruption that siphons money from the poor to the rich needs to be tackled. Without such reforms, it will remain easy for extremists to argue that democracy has not delivered real results and that an Islamist state – brought about by violence – is the only solution.

Ghaffar Hussain is head of training and outreach at Quilliam, a counter-extremism think-tank