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Revolt in Tunisia and potential effects in the Arab world

January 19, 2011 6:31 PM
By Dr Ronald Meinardus

Revolt in Tunisia and its possible affects on the Arab world

By Dr Ronald Meinardus, Regional Director for the Middle East in Northern Africa, Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit.

After the fall of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the gradual consolidation of the political situation with the formation of a transitional government, attention focused on the question of the impact of the unprecedented Tunisian development on the current environment in the Middle East.

Various speeches focus on a domino effect, and 'tipping point', in which analysts evoke the beginning of the end of authoritarian rule.

Journalists draw parallels to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and compare the suicide of the Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, which initiated the Tunisian revolt, with the protest of the Polish worker Anna Walentynowicz, whose sacking in 1980 in the wake of the formation of the independent trade union movement Solidarity.

The parallels are obvious: in both cases there were complaints about economic inequalities, and perceived discrimination caused the protests, with the inability of the governments to channel the anger or to bring it under control.

Further, the Arab world today is similar to the undemocratic one of the Eastern Bloc countries at that time. An important difference should be mentioned: the Eastern opposition groups enjoyed at that time strong support from the West. Today, in relation to the Arab world, such support is not recognisable. On the contrary: The assistance of the West is an important factor for the resistance of the autocrats.

The remarkable thing about the fall of Ben Ali is then that he went without the assistance of the foreign countries. This is a sign that political change can take place in the Arab world from the centre of society, and without foreign involvement.

"There must be no invasion as in Iraq. This is a great lesson for the autocratic regime of the region," says the Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy.

Meanwhile there is a wide discussion as to what Arab regime is probably next to be hunted from office by the angry masses of the people. There are protests in number of countries, the speculation is at its height.

Pictures of demonstrations in Algeria and Egypt are now news, and we are getting used to reports of protests in Libya, Jordan and Yemen. In all cases, this was and is - as well as first in Tunisia - about economics.

After the heroic suicide of the Tunisian Bouezizi similar activities have taken place in the Arab world - in Mauritania, Algeria and Egypt.

Momentum unimaginable

If it were up to the comments in the blogosphere these days, Egypt would be the next country to which the Tunisian sparks would spill over.

"What happened in Tunisia, gives the demand for political change in Egypt an incredible momentum," said the Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat. In terms of its political and strategic importance that Egypt plays, as the most populous Arab country, it is in another league in this respect. Not least in the peace process with Israel, Cairo has for years a played a key role in the Nile delta, and would therefore have very different ramifications to what happened in Tunis.

What is in Tunisia and in Egypt is an army of millions of unemployed young people - without any prospects of a better tomorrow - a potential explosive device. The economy is to not creating appropriate jobs each year for the 700,000 Egyptians entering the labour market.

Politically, the Egyptian regime is petrified, similar to Tunisia under Ben Ali. The 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak ruled for more than 30 years; there is some indication that he will compete again in the presidential elections this autumn.

The tentative steps towards democratisation in the middle of the last decade have been largely reversed and the parliamentary elections last autumn were designated by observers from abroad as a farce; in fact, Egypt is now a one-party state in which party political pluralism serves as a facade.

On the other hand, Egypt is not as authoritarian as Tunisia under Ben Ali. On the Nile, there is an active and militant civil society (the Islamists play an important role) and it plays a remarkable role in the Arab world with freedom of expression and press.

An inflated police and security force is protecting the regime, but today they have not already applied the brutality of the Tunisian police. Although Egypt's frustration over lack of democracy and economic grievances is huge, the scholars argue over whether a popular uprising such as that in Tunisia is possible in Egypt.

If you ask the Egyptian foreign minister, this scenario is "nonsense". "Every Arab country has its own circumstances," says Ahmed Aboul Gheit; he is right with this statement. At the same time the minister warns for second time against foreign interference in domestic affairs, where he implicitly has in mind interventions in favour of democracy and human rights and not the billion dollar inflows from the West, which are mainly the military benefit and are an important pillar of the government.

A hotbed of political freedom

When we speak about the fact that the Tunisian "germ" infesting the entire Arab region it is so mainly because the region is a hotbed of political freedom with national variations here and there. The international community has not always been wise in the current situation. It is difficult to justify some clumsy attempts to explain the efforts of an alleged incompatibility between Islam and democracy with the given situation and the promotion of a status quo policy.

One relevant questions that remins not fully clarified question concerns the Islamists? The boycott of the Palestinian Hamas after its election victory in 2006 has brought many Arabs to feel that in this part of the world the West only accepts the democratic votes if it likes the result.

In the years of the Cold War, the West has supported dictatorships, because it considered them bulwarks against communism. Today the common enemy is Islamism. Nevertheless, it proves increasingly a fallacy to contain it in tandem with undemocratic rulers. The strategy is counter-productive: there are emerging signs that Western political support for autocratic governments plays into the hands of the Islamists and the credibility of the West (and its values) is undermined by the public.

This time the USA seems to have been faster than the Europeans in recognising the signs of the times - at least in the rhetoric: a speech by Hillary Clinton has been much publicised in the Arab world, given only a few hours after Ben Ali fled Tunis, that in this region "in many of these countries the fundaments will sink in the sand".

The time had come, Clinton continued, when civil society cannot be seen as a threat but as a partner: "Those who cling to the status quo, can prevent trouble for a while but not forever."

With these clear words, Mrs Clinton put a finger into the open wound. It is no exaggeration to describe authoritarian Arab states as models of the past. There are two main structural changes that threaten the status quo: the rise of Arab civil society and the uncontrolled spread of modern mass media. These two developments have destroyed in the long run the monopoly power of the authoritarian governments.

Despite all the obstacles and harassment in the last 10 to 15 years in many Arab countries, an active civil society has emerged. The strength of the non-governmental groups is also a consequence of widespread government failure. The self-help groups often worry about social and economic issues; especially there are strong groups with a religious agenda. But there are groups with an explicitly political approach. These often play a role that political parties play in developed democracies.

Modern media mix and loss of legitimacy

To explain the political unrest, the media probably has a greater importance than the civil society.

While the media cannot cause revolutions, it can significantly contribute to the mass distribution of subversion. It has once again become clear in Tunisia that the accurate reporting of the TV station Al Jazeera electrified the Arab masses, as it did two years ago with the images of the Israeli invasion of Gaza. There has also been a never-ending stream of messages and comments of so-called citizen journalists. There are also short commentaries on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

This modern media mix has contributed to a dramatic loss of legitimacy for the authoritarian rulers - and it paves the way for open revolt. The fall of the Tunisian President is not only a wake up call for Arab autocrats, it should be a wake up call for Western governments.

This is a good opportunity for course correction. First, one must pursue vigorous work and efforts towards having fair and free elections Tunisia. At the same time, the West may no longer be afraid to demand similar approach from other Arab governments. The lip service has to come to an end.

* This report has been translated from the original German.