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Ricardo Laremont testifies before Congress

Analyzing the Arab Spring

Ricardo Larémont says youth will be key to new democracies

Harpur College scholar Ricardo René Larémont says it's hard to overstate the impact of the Arab Spring: Everything that we thought we knew about the region has been upended. Larémont, a professor of political science and sociology, has been an advisor to the U.S. and European governments on political Islam in North Africa and the Sahel.

He has drawn several key conclusions about the revolutions that spread from
Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and beyond:

  1. Youth in North Africa and the Mideast will be the most important players in these new democracies.

  2. Conservative, non-violent Islamist parties will win the support of about half the population in these new democracies.

  3. The new Islamist parties will have to learn to negotiate with secularists to govern effectively.

  4. Declining fertility rates and improving levels of education will result in increasing stability for the region.

  5. The United States should welcome the growth of democracy in northern Africa and the Mideast.

A unique expertise

To download a transcript of Professor Laremont's testimony, please click here (.pdf, 142kb)

Several years ago, Larémont received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S.Navy Office of Naval Research to study political and religious ideologies in North Africa and the Sahel, a region that lies between the Sahara and tropical Africa.

It is in part his understanding of this region that distinguishes him from other analysts, says J. Peter Pham,director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "There aren't that many people out there in the field who work with a more holistic understanding," Pham says.

He points to an essay Larémont coauthored in 2006 for Military Review,the U.S. Army's professional publication and obligatory reading for high-level officers. The 11-page academic article, titled "Political Islam in West Africa and the Sahel," reminded everyone of the relevance of the Sahel. "What's unique about him is not only a great sensitivity to the context and nuance of what's going on, it's also research that's grounded in practical implications,"Pham says.

New governments

One question that interests Larémont is whether moderate and Islamist youths can work together as they did in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"What we're seeing emerge is that the

narrative of al-Qaida, which was used to recruit people to engage in violent activities, has been undermined by both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that were peaceful,” he says.

Larémont’s view is that the hardest of the hard core have been swept away. Moving forward, the moderate Islamists and the secularists are going to have to negotiate for the construction of the new democratic state, he says. The question that lies before us, then, is can they actually negotiate and form a society and a state that embraces two tendencies that are somewhat oppositional?

He sees the beginnings of that in Tunisia. There’s hope on the leadership level, Larémont says. What we don’t know yet is what’s happening at the grassroots youth level.

Looking to the future

Some of what Larémont sees is encouraging, particularly his demographic analysis of North Africa. While we are in a period of crisis now, what I predict is that 20 years from now this will basically pass, he says. Fertility rates are dropping rapidly in the region.

For example, Tunisia’s fertility rate — the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime — is 1.8, below the replacement rate. If the fertility rate is 2.8 and higher, the economy simply can’t catch up with a burgeoning population, Larémont says. If the fertility rate drops to 2 or 1.9, that means that as long as the economy continues to grow, it will be able to satisfy demands.

In addition, levels of educational achievement are rising in North Africa, particularly for women, which enables them to exercise more control over their fertility. Larémont predicts stability in most of these countries except for Egypt. The large population and troubled tourist economy there will pose serious challenges to its new government.

The U.S. perspective

Larémont sees the Arab Spring as a positive development for the United States and its interest in democracy around the world. These are movements that were initiated by ordinary citizens who are basically saying they have had enough of authoritarianism, he says. It looks a lot like the Eastern European revolutions of 1992. In that way, it’s a very good thing for us.

There will be challenges as American analysts work to understand the dynamic between the secularists and the more moderate Islamists, Larémont says. The assessment that has to be made is whether you’re going to yield more results working with these democratic movements or working to sustain authoritarianism, he says.

Larémont worries that domestic crises will prevent U.S. leaders from focusing on the situation in Africa and the Middle East. "But even while we focus on this home front, we have to realize that there are things happening overseas that may affect our security." Larémont says.

— Rachel Coker

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Last Updated: 3/1/17