Posts Tagged ‘tunisia revolution’
Starting this week, The Asianist will also be featured on Wednesday in a weekly op-ed column for Tufts University’s newspaper, the Tufts Daily. Columns will be posted here once they are published. The first column is below, and the original link is here.
As protests rocked Egypt and reverberated throughout the Arab world in the past weeks, I asked my Yemeni friend at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Hazim, why his countrymen seemed to lack the revolutionary zeal to overthrow their strongman−president Ali Abdullah Saleh. “Khat,” he replied, mimicking the softball−shaped bulge that forms in one’s cheek when chewing wads of the leafy narcotic commonly found in the Horn of Africa and the Arab world.
His response wasn’t as facetious as you might think. While khat is popular in many countries, in Yemen it is a chronic national addiction. Chewing these tender oval leaves for at least three to four hours daily is a basic form of socializing for over 80 percent of Yemenis. As the leaves gradually break down in their mouths and flow into their bloodstreams, the country’s myriad problems — which include a bloody separatist insurgency in the south, an inefficient and corrupt government and a resurgent al−Qaeda presence — are either fiercely debated or relegated to the attic of their memories in evening khat ceremonies.
In Yemen, it is said, nearly everything stops for khat. Up to 50 percent of all household income, 60 percent of the land cultivated for cash crops and nearly 30 percent of groundwater is devoted to satisfying this oral fixation. Even the fierce protests that engulfed the nation’s capital, San’a, over the past few weeks reportedly fizzled out every day before 2 p.m., when most Yemenis begin their khat−chewing sessions.
Even if the drug isn’t the main cause of Yemen’s revolutionary fatigue, its pernicious effects have been well−documented. The World Health Organization does not classify khat as a “seriously addictive drug,” but chewers can still experience physiological repercussions including persistent hallucinations, disrupted sleep cycles and high blood pressure.
Socially, khat can break down families, as men and women chew in separate groups while their children are left to run astray (or, worse, chew as well, since — shockingly — up to 20 percent of children under 12 consume the drug daily). The hours spent chewing khat and the land used for cultivating it are a severe drain on Yemen’s economic productivity and dwindling water supply. Getting high on a drug that costs around $5 per bag per day is also a costly habit in a low−income country where slightly less than half the population lives below the poverty line.
Yet rehabilitation remains a pipe dream for now. Farmers are highly dependent on cash generated from khat because while food crops take a year or longer to harvest, khat leaves sprout within just a month and generate five times as much revenue as fruit. Even if some sort of crop substitution plan were possible in theory, the country’s powerful landowners would oppose it vigorously in practice because khat sales line their pockets. A government ban on khat would also be inconceivable because the government sees the drug as a vital source of social order.
But some basic regulation is clearly necessary in the longer term. McKinsey & Company projects that Sana’a will run out of water by 2025, partly because poor water resource management results in most of groundwater wells being used for khat, which requires nearly 50 percent more water than wheat and consumes twice the amount used by the city’s citizens. Khat irrigation must therefore be made much more efficient. And while an outright ban may be too extreme, a combination of public awareness campaigns to educate vulnerable groups and limits on the drug to certain hours of the day could mitigate its social and economic effects.
In trying to khat it out, however, the government could end up biting off more than it can chew. “Ironically, one of the few things that could cause a revolution in Yemen would be trying to regulate khat, because it is viewed as such an intrinsic part of society,” Hazim said only half−jokingly.
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.