Tunisia and the Arab house of cards

It is three weeks today since Mohamed Bouazizi lit the flame in Tunisia. How are we to regard the events since then? How should we characterise them?

Writing for the Guardian last week, I used the word "uprising", though I can't say I gave it a lot of thought at the time. Based on what I knew then, "uprising" seemed the obvious choice – and it still does if you need to boil it all down to a single word. 

Yesterday, writing for Le Temps, French journalist Christophe Ayad gave a slightly longer description: "Pas encore une révolution, mais plus qu’une révolte" (Not yet a revolution but more than a revolt.) That, too, seems a fair summary.

But note the "not yet" bit. What we are seeing now may not be a revolution in itself, but its precursor. Personally, I do think a revolution of sorts is coming and will be surprised if the Ben Ali regime is still in place two or three years hence – for the simple reason that it's incapable of adapting. The protesters' grievances cannot be addressed in any meaningful way while it remains in power, and the clear message from the Tunisian people is that they have had enough.

This may seem a difficult point for the world outside to grasp – especially the Americans. How do the events in Tunisia mesh with the "forward strategy of freedom" (militarised and heavily overlaid with international politics) that George Bush used to talk about? They don't – and that's their beauty.

Also, Tunisia isn't a case of Tsvangirai versus Mugabe, Yushchenko versus Yanukovych or Ouattara versus Gbagbo. Organised political parties are irrelevant here, as they are these days in most of the Arab world. Nor is there a charismatic figure that the media can easily latch on to, like Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma or Lech Walesa in the Polish shipyards. In that respect, Tunisia 2011 looks more like Paris 1968, with a random assortment of students and trade unionists in the vanguard plus – to bring it up right to date – a collection of Twitterers, Facebook users and tech-savvy cyber warriors.

Will it be suppressed like Paris 1968? Somehow, I doubt it. For one thing, the protests are more widespread and the grievances more deeply felt. Others are less sanguine about that. On the Arabist blog, Issandr El Amrani suggests Ben Ali is unlikely to be dislodged without a strong diplomatic push from the EU, and he quotes several articles that are considerably more sceptical than I am.

But let's turn now to another description. Writing in Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch talks of "Obama's Arab Spring" (with a carefully-placed question mark after it) and links the developments in Tunisia to others in Jordan, Kuwait and Egypt. (We might also include Algeria where there are reports of Tunisian-style disturbances too.)

Why Obama has to be brought into it, I haven't the faintest idea. The Tunisian protesters aren't doing it for Obama's sake and as far as I'm concerned the longer he keeps his nose out, the better. American support at this stage is more likely to hinder than help, though I wouldn't object to a final nudge from the White House when Ben Ali is on the brink of toppling.

But, setting Obama aside, consider the idea of an Arab Spring. The sentiments and long pent-up frustrations expressed by Tunisians during the last three weeks are shared, to a very large extent, by Arabs throughout the Middle East. They complain endlessly amongst themselves – and yet they feel there is little, if anything, they can do about it.

The Tunisian uprising is beginning to change that. It is giving Arabs a glimpse of possibilities that were unimaginable just a month ago. It is profoundly empowering and its psychological effects are not to be underestimated. It is the opposite of the gloom that settled over the Arab world from 1967 onwards and may prove to be no less important.

Could this mean that we are about to see the crumbling of Arab regimes, one after another, as happened in Eastern Europe? In the short term, probably not. But suppose – and this is by no means an implausible scenario – that as resistance in Tunisia continues the regime's support gradually ebbs away, until eventually Ben Ali's position becomes untenable. Elections follow and the country emerges as a sort of East European style democracy (or better, Latin American style): far from ideal, but something that can be built upon.

That would be significant for the whole region: regime change of the home-grown variety, not imposed from outside in the way that Iraq was, or from above to give an existing regime the appearance of legitimacy. It would be something unique in the Arab Middle East: democracy by popular demand.

But could it be replicated in other Arab countries? That is a more difficult question. To a greater or lesser degree, all the Arab regimes present similar problems: a lack of legitimacy, a lack of accountability and transparency, corruption, authoritarianism and elderly leaders (for the most part) governing a frustrated, youthful population.

Some of the regimes, though, are more resilient than others. While it's tempting to suggest that Egypt could be next – the Mubarak era is plainly coming to an end – the regime itself, unpopular though it is, does have an extensive patronage base that may be enough to keep it in power for some years yet. And the same could be said of several other countries.

The Tunisian regime, on the other hand, looks especially vulnerable because it has relied so heavily on fear and repression as mechanisms for control. Other Arab regimes do that too, but they also have more subtle and diverse weapons in their armoury. Once the fear barrier is broken in Tunisia though (as seems to be happening), there is little left to protect Ben Ali.

So, I don't expect Tunisia alone to bring down the entire Arab house of cards. What it will do is intensify the pressure for change that exists already in other countries and encourage people to look to themselves, rather than outside, for solutions. It will also help dispel the idea that the long-surviving regimes we see in place today are permanent fixtures. They are not, and one day they will be history.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 Jan 2011.