I want to thank Bob Kall for pointing out the fact that in my analysis of the Arab Spring (No Revolution In the Arab World -- December 22, 2011) I left out Tunisia. The omission, while not deliberate, was based on the fact that Tunisia's uprising was very different to that of Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. So I will now deal with the Tunisian action and its place in the present political situation in relation to the so-called Arab Spring or Uprising.
The Tunisian revolt has its roots in the disenfranchisement of ordinary people, high unemployment among young people, and the endemic and systemic corruption of a ruling cabal long past its usefulness. This revolt has been brewing for sometime and was systematically and sometimes brutally crushed by the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali Administration.
He had ruled this North African nation for 23 years and over that time was elected by massive votes, sometimes as high as 90 percent, in what many international observers saw as rigged, fraudulent elections. On January 14, 2011 Ben Ali was ousted after a month of violent protests triggered by a 26-year old setting himself on fire. The ousted president now lives in Saudi Arabia and was recently sentenced in abscentia by a Tunisian court to 35 years in prison.
But besides the emolument of an unemployed man fed up with the situation what else sparked the Tunisian revolt and is it a Jasmine Revolution as many are claiming?
First, it is important to take a look at Tunisia and compare it to other Arab nations in the Arab Spring. Like all of these nations with the ouster or killing of a hated dictator and despot there is a leadership void at the political level. This is so because these dictators outlawed political parties, jailed or killed their leaders, and created conditions that were so oppressive that it was near impossible for any political party -- save the one organized and led by these leaders -- to operate.
Now that these leaders are not around their old parties are finding it very difficult to operate because they are not trusted by the people and are seen as part of the old, repressive regime. There is no figure of legitimacy or authority to lead the protests or to turn these demonstrations into popular people's political parties and movements. The result is that these countries are trending towards polarization that could lead to social violence during these difficult socio-economic and political transitions.
Tunisia had all the contradictions inherent in the Arab world that stretches from Rabat to Damascus. Leaders are either called King or Colonel and politics often is about stifling dissent, killing off rivals and opponents, and developing an entrenched kleptocracy. All of this makes for violent political and social distortions with the remnants of the old regime(s) doggedly clinging to power -- sometimes cloaking themselves in newfound progressive robes -- and inviting a few opposition leaders to form hybrid "unity governments."
It is worth noting here that no regime in the Arab world has ever been toppled from below, that is by, mass agitation and activism. True, they have won concessions and limited changes but that in no way translates to revolution. But Tunisia's situation is different from that of its Arab Spring neighbors. It is one of the richest nations in the area (leaving out the petroleum producing nations). Tunisia's per capita income is twice as high as neighboring Morocco, more than Egypt, Jordan and Syria. It is more urbanized than either Morocco and Egypt and more educated than most Arab nations. Its trade and exportation puts Tunisia in the league of European nations.
In the end the Tunisian revolt was the product of the social and political contradiction between the political regime and a disenfranchised people who did not share in the wealth produced by their labor. It was about the fight between the ossified corrupt and violent superstructure and the base.
And it was this condition that allowed Ben Ali and his cronies to remain in power for way too long. The point is that Tunisia's long suffering poor, like Egypt's or Yemen's, had neither the time or motivation to engage in politics. Cultural backwardness, a lack of education and the skills necessary to participate in the political structure have left Tunisia and the countries in the Arab Spring unable to organize and articulate their demands. Moreover, there is no benchmark with which to measure the misery of poverty and its effects.
So even with the Tunisian Example I don't see a domino effect of kingdom after kingdom simply crumbling. There is also an inherent danger that while the old system was orderly, corrupt and brutal the alternative replacement will be a messy, incompetent, violent democratic-looking new hybrid that will take years and years to mature. When people have been locked out of the political process for so long the easy part is taking power the hard part is holding on to it and making it work for everyone. This is true in Tunisia's case.
Western nations are only too eager to step in to help. Neocolonialism has not gone away -- only reengineered and repackaged under the disguise of globalization. So I am not counting on the Tunisian revolt -- even as a catalyst for other revolts -- to miraculously transform itself into a Tunisian Revolution.
Again, social, class, economic and political relations have not been dismantled or redefined. There is still massive inequality in the society. There has been some accommodation between elements of the old regime and the new body politic that is a necessary pre-condition for progressive development. The hitherto disenfranchised masses and beaten down opposition just do not have the management experience, talents and skills to run new governments. So the least evil members of the old regime are used to keep the government and other institutions functioning.
Tunisia's revolt is the first of its kind: the toppling of an autocrat in the Arab world who was till the end backed by Western powers. The Tunisian experience should serve as a wake-up call, not only for other autocrats in the Middle East, but also for the West which has backed these tyrants while turning a blind eye to the way they have been quelling popular movements and the media. The west, including the United States, looked the other ways as Tunisia's dictator killed, jailed or exiled political opponents, stifled the media and instutionalized corruption. The dividends of any and all economic progress remained in the hands of a chosen few.
The reality of today, even with the baby steps taken by Tunisians to democratize their country, is that unemployment sits at 18 per cent. Among those under 25, it is 30 per cent, even though young people are highly educated. What jobs there are pay poorly. Tourism has tanked and Tunisia has yet to receive much from the $80 billion in aid and loans promised by the likes of the G8 and the World Bank to Arab countries that toppled their regimes. All of this makes for a very rocky time for Tunisia after the euphoria of kicking out a hated dictator and holding free and fair elections for the very first time.
And the police are back on the streets in very large numbers. The revolution is yet to come.