Posts Tagged ‘tunisia ben ali’
Following the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali by street protests last week, some have suggested that other authoritarian regimes in the Arab world may soon meet a similar fate.
Certain trends do suggest that the status quo in some of these countries is untenable in the long run. But those expecting some kind of domino effect anytime soon shouldn’t hold their breaths, both because of the unique nature of Tunisia and the particular circumstances that had to happen before the so-called Jasmine Revolution occurred.
Tunisia is in many ways an exception compared to other countries in the Middle East. Of the members of the Arab-speaking world, Tunisia is arguably the most European and influenced by European customs. Its first president, Habib Bourguiba, established rights for women unmatched even today by most Arab nations, where in some cases women are still subject to public intimidation about what they wear.
Since it is not endowed with many natural resources, Tunisia’s economy is also much more diversified and liberal than some of its oil-rich counterparts like Saudi Arabia or Iran, where the petroleum sector constitutes 80-90% of export earnings and the government controls economic activity with an iron fist.
A large percentage of Tunisia’s population is classified as middle class, unlike other parts of the Arab world like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia where the middle class is shrinking due to a yawning gap between the rich and poor. All the recognized opposition groups in the country are secular and progressive since Islamic parties were banned decades ago, thereby reducing the oft-cited ‘fear’ of a radical Islamic alternative to a myth.
And while there is some censorship, repression and human rights abuse, the regime’s security services are not nearly as nasty as many in the region and eschew assassinations and systematic torture commonplace in Iran, Algeria Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. A more liberal, active population, secular opposition, and less coercive and controlling state made a “Jasmine Revolution” much more likely to occur in Tunis than other Arab capitals.
Also consider the particularities that made the Jasmine Revolution a success. In the face of popular uproar, Mr. Ben Ali vacillated between coercion and concession, dismissing the demonstrations as “terrorist acts” and imposing a curfew on one hand but announcing a series of reforms on television on the other. He seemed weak and indecisive, much like the Shah of Iran overthrown by the revolution in 1979.
One would expect most other Arab regimes to be much more resolute in their response, and even more so now given this lesson. Compare this, for instance, with Syria’s decisive response when a revolt broke out by the Muslim Brotherhood in the town of Hama in 1982. Over 12,000 troops were deployed, parts of the city were bombed for weeks and mass executions were carried out, killing up to 40,000 people and breaking the back of the Islamic insurrection in what is still known as the deadliest single act by an Arab government against its own people.
Tunisia’s professional but small army also seemed to operate as an independent actor. General Rachid Ammar, the country’s top military official, allegedly refused orders to shoot demonstrators and the army had clashed with elements of the security forces loyal to Mr. Ben Ali.
Such a loss of control of the military by the regime would be more difficult to fathom in a country like Saudi Arabia, where the portfolio of the Ministry of Defense Aviation has been held by the same member of the royal family since 1962, or in other Arab nations where other more stringent checks have been built into the system in order to ensure strong military loyalty.
So, while the citizens of the Arab world may have been glued to their television screens witnessing the nail-biting scenes in Tunis, I suspect Arab leaders may have been much calmer than we think.