• January 19, 2011

The Thrill and Consequences of Tunisia

The Thrill and Consequences of Tunisia

 Two great questions loom after the overthrow of the Tunisian regime of former President Zein el-Abedine Ben Ali: How smoothly and how quickly will the Tunisian people transition to a more democratic form of government that can address their grievances and improve their life prospects? How much, and what kind of, impact will the Tunisian popular revolution have on other Arab countries? Both of these questions will require some time before we have clear answers, but several important points already seem clear.

The two most important are that both the popular grievances and political governance system in Tunisia broadly mirror the same realities throughout most Arab states. Widespread popular economic distress and political indignity, alongside security-based autocratic rule and top-level corruption and profligacy, make the entire region potentially vulnerable to political turbulence. Tunisia exposed exactly how thin was the police-based rule of the Ben Ali regime, which crumbled rapidly when it met sustained domestic resistance. Some other Arab leaders, whether monarchs or life-long presidents or something in between, would not flee the country so quickly, but instead would put up a fight to stay in power, partly because they have stronger organic links to major constituencies in society that Ben Ali did not.

The third point is that the 22 Arab countries are not a monolithic entity that behaves in a single manner. Each country has its distinct local conditions, socio-economic development level, patriarchal governance, and political culture (i.e., secular, Islamist, tribal, nationalist, pan-Arab, etc.). Moreover, we are really speaking about two distinct Arab worlds – the wealthy oil producers who are governed by paternalistic welfare states that take care of their citizens’ material needs, and the rest of the Arabs who are defined by low-income conditions, widespread un- and under-employment, and political autocracy.

Polling data by Gallup from the entire Arab world, recently published by the Silatech group in Doha, highlights the very strong divergence in worldviews among youth in the rich and the poor Arab countries. It shows, for example, that 15-29-year-old young Arab men and women have a strong desire to migrate permanently in quest of a job and a better life, but this desire is very uneven; it reaches 40-45% in some countries like Yemen, Morocco and Tunisia, but only 5-6% of youth in the Gulf states. Confidence in their government and judicial system is relatively low among Arab youth – around 50% on average, and reaching down to 34% in poorer Arab societies – while in the oil-producing states it is 90%. A few desperate young men have turned themselves into human torches in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritania, but we are unlikely to see any such thing in Kuwait, Qatar or the UAE.

The fourth point that is most immediately relevant is that we have virtually no experience in the two exciting and historic phenomena now taking place in Tunisia: Arab popular self-determination, and transition from autocracy to democracy. The Arab countries have provided a novel form of modern nationhood in which they enjoyed independence without real self-determination (because their citizens for the most part never really had an opportunity to define governance systems and state ideologies), and most of them experience statehood without full sovereignty (because they depend on external powers to keep them in place and solvent). We are fortunate that Tunisia is the first example of self-determinant Arab populist governance, because it is a relatively secular society with a range of ideological views — from the Marxist and labor left to the Islamist and tribal right — that neatly captures the pluralistic character of the Arab world.

Local and international observers who wonder how Tunisia mirrors the rest of the region would do well to note the core grievances that Tunisians articulate during this transition, because these grievances are widely shared across the nearly 90% of all Arabs who are poor – and thus they point the way to needed reforms across the region. They are about corruption, lack of political and fiscal accountability, non-credible electoral and political systems, absence of democratic principles, abuse of power, and excessive reliance on unchecked police power. Consequently, heading off similar revolts in other Arab countries would seem to require that long-serving rulers reflect on the need to make real changes in four principal areas: freedom of press and expression; more honest political representation of the citizenry in parliament; greater accountability in government budgets (including ruling and royal family spending); and civilian oversight of the police, security and intelligence services. These changes will not come easily or quickly.

Tunisia’s ongoing transition will have continuing impact around the Arab world, especially with the massive television coverage from Jazeera-led satellite services. What a thrill – what an absolute, exhilarating thrill – it is after half a century of mass Arab citizen degradation and dehumanization to watch one self-determinant Arab citizenry start to make a transition to something more noble, or simply more normal.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

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