By Ronald Meinardus
CAIRO: After the downfall of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the gradual consolidation of the political situation on the ground, international attention is shifting to possible implications the unprecedented Tunisian events may have for the region as a whole.
“Domino effect” and “tipping point” are catch phrases used by analysts and policy experts who predict the Tunisian upheaval may herald the beginning of the end of authoritarian rule in this part of the world. Journalists draw a parallel to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe some twenty years ago and even compare the self-immolation of Mohamad Bouazizie that kick started the Tunisian revolt with the sacking in 1980 of the Polish shipyard worker Anna Walentynowcz, which led to strikes and eventually the founding of the independent trade union movement Solidarnosc.
The parallels are obvious. In both cases, individual complaints about economic grievances led to the protests; in both cases, insensitive governments were unable to solve the problem and prevent it from spinning out of control. Today, the Arab world in toto may be characterized as similarly undemocratic as the Eastern block before the demise of communist rule. However, one important difference should be mentioned: In those days, the democratic oppositionists in Eastern Europe enjoyed the backing of the West. This Western support is not available to that extent for the Arab opposition. One could even argue the opposite is happening: Western support for authoritarian Arab rulers has become a major factor of their resilience.
The overthrow of Ben Ali is remarkable also because it was achieved without input or intervention from outside: it was a purely Tunisian affair. It has been noted that this is proof that political change in the Arab world may well originate in the midst of Arab societies without external involvement. “It doesn’t have to be an invasion like in Iraq. It’s a big lesson for autocratic regimes in the region,” Egyptian analyst of the Carnegie Middle East Center Amr Hamzawy said.
Meanwhile the media is full of discussions about which Arab government could be next in row to be driven from power by disgruntled masses. Protests and demonstrations in various Arab countries add fuel to these scenarios and speculations. While we have become accustomed to pictures of demonstrations in Algeria or Egypt, the same happening in places like Libya, Jordan or Yemen still needs getting used to. In all cases the recent protests had similar causes that sparked the Tunisian uprising: rising prices, lack of jobs and governmental accountability.
The scenario of a Tunisian bacillus infecting the entire Arab world is nourished by the perception that — with a few deviations here and there — the region is governed by rulers who lack democratic legitimacy.
One more thought on the analogy with Eastern Europe: In the years of the Cold War, Western governments supported dictatorships all over the world as they considered them bulwarks against communism. After the demise of that ideology, the commonly perceived threat has become radical Islamism. The region’s autocrats offer their cooperation in the fight against this peril and, in return, Western governments are expected to close their eyes to such issues as democracy and human rights. It is a fallacy to assume that supporting undemocratic regimes in an effort to contain radical Islamism is a reasonable strategy. One could even argue that Western support for illiberal regimes has played into the hands of the radicals as it has undermined the credibility of the West (and importantly also Western values) with large segments of the population.
This time around, the US government seems to have adapted to the changing circumstances – at least regarding the rhetoric. In a widely noted speech just a few hours before the flight of Ben Ali from Tunis Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the peoples of the region “have grown tired of corrupt institutions”. She went on to say that “in too many places the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand” and that “those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a while but not forever.” Mrs. Clinton put her finger in an open wound as she basically called today’s authoritarian regimes political phase-out models.
Mainly two structural chances have occurred in the recent past that — seen from a historical perspective — constitute a deadly threat for the status quo: the growth of an Arab civil society and the uncontrolled proliferation of modern electronic media. These two developments have effectively — and probably irrevocably — terminated the monopoly of power of the ruling regimes.
The past 10 to 15 years has seen the rise of a vibrant civil society in many Arab states. The proliferation of non governmental groups is also a response to governmental deficiencies: Most civil society groups are self help organizations with a clear social and economic agenda. Others have a distinctively political approach and tend to play a role similar to that of political parties in advanced democracies.
Arguably, in the Tunisian uprising the media has had a larger impact than civil society organizations. Media are not in the position to create revolutions or uprisings, they are however capable of fostering a rebellious disposition among large groups of people. Once more, this has become clear in Tunisia. Al Jazeera’s persistent broadcasting, again, electrified the Arab masses in a manner similar to the broadcasts two years ago during the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Add to this the never ending stream of news and commentary on Twitter and Facebook. As a result the government lost control of the media agenda. The mix of uncensored pictures on satellite television and the proliferation of social media usage contributed to the loss of legitimacy of government thereby paving the way to open revolt.
The sudden fall of the Tunisian president is a warning signal for authoritarian rulers in the Arab world and also a wake-up call for Western governments. Their first priority, at this stage, should be to do what is in their power to assure fair and free elections in Tunisia. The Tunisian uprising will only qualify as a political revolution if such true elections push through. In this case, we should expect more and more people in the Arab world demand that the same should happen in their own countries.
Dr. Ronald Meinardus is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF) for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in Cairo. You may send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.