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What Happens in Tunisia Stays in Tunisia

[Tunisia's President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali is greeted by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak , July 13, 2008: Image from Reuters] [Tunisia's President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali is greeted by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak , July 13, 2008: Image from Reuters]

Hope is in the air—or so it seems. The overthrow of (now) former Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali has created some guarded optimism among close observers of Arab politics inside and outside the region. The people of Tunisia have rid themselves of 23 years of Ben Ali’s rule, paving the way for an opportunity for meaningful political change in a region that once seemed so resistant to democratic development. The events in Tunisia also tempt us to ask whether what we are observing in Tunis is a prelude to similar developments elsewhere in the region: Is Ben Ali’s regime the first domino to fall in a series of Arab autocracies? There are many reasons to believe that optimism on both questions—democratic prospects in Tunisia and ‘Jasmine revolution encores’ in the Arab world—is hardly justified.

Political change or “upgrading autocracy”?

On the question of Tunisia’s democratic prospects, it is important to note that incumbent turnover and regime transformation are not one and the same. Ben Ali came to power under similar circumstances of unrest, promising far-reaching reforms. A couple of decades later, it is fair to say that the ousting of one autocrat did not result in any significant openings in a fairly closed political system. Furthermore, most reports seem to agree that the Tunisian military is taking a lead role in managing this political transition, and militaries tend to have a low tolerance for unpredictability in civilian politics. This is not to say that officers could not put up with a relatively competitive political process run independently from the military. It’s plausible. Yet how much deference they are willing to award free political contestation is largely a question of what options they will confront in the upcoming months: What political forces will emerge on (or return to) the political scene and how adventurous will their respective stances sound on issues central to national security? How will the street greet them? What agendas will they attempt to advance? In other words, the outcome of Tunisia’s ongoing turmoil will (in part) depend on the (in)actions and (mis)calculations of various political actors.

Beyond the agency of Tunisian leaders and activists, I think there are some conditions that will probably attenuate the likelihood of a democratic outcome in Tunisia in the near future and that will make any efforts to advance a democratizing agenda challenging. Compared to his fellow Arab autocrats, Ben Ali, a partisan of coercive means, has left very little political space for organized opposition in the country outside the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). While opposition parties did in fact exist and competed in successive elections under Ben Ali’s rule, their role was extremely limited and their organization highly constrained compared to their counterparts in the rest of the region. This raises the question of whether Tunisia’s expanding political arena has what it takes to handle peaceful alternation of power; most importantly, sufficiently organized political parties that have the capacity and stamina to contest elections and to translate the basic demands that instigated street protests into coherent political platforms. Some analysts believe that the long absence of any real form of political contestation in Tunisia, as is the case in Jordan, Morocco and Egypt, contributed to Ben Ali’s downfall on grounds that state-managed dissent often helps defuse and mitigate the type of mass anger that could bring down dictatorships. Ironically, the same conditions that (allegedly) ended Ben Ali’s rule are the same ones that may very well limit the democratizing potential of the current political transition. Specifically, the negligible role that opposition parties were allowed in whatever limited politics Tunisia enjoyed in the past two decades suggests that political contestation in the country may remain vulnerable to single-party dominance, personalism and identity politics—the sorts of dynamics that make democratic development extremely difficult.

Are the country’s political groups ready to transition from ceremonial to competitive politics? Statements by opposition figures that holding a presidential vote in two months—as called for by Tunisia’s constitutional authority—is ‘too soon’ suggest that this may not be the case. Strong and organized parties capable of presenting Tunisian voters with real political alternatives could in fact emerge in the future, but one cannot take this possibility for granted. Nor can we ignore the reality that this transition remains in the hands of the same ruling elite that supported Ben Ali and that may feel tempted to capitalize on the weakness of organized opposition in order to engineer a new political process that ensures their continued dominance through a more liberal and subtle form of authoritarianism. After all, the Jasmine Revolution is as much an opportunity for advocates of the status quo to reconfigure and “upgrade” Tunisian authoritarianism, as it is an opportunity for partisans of political change to advance a democratizing agenda.

Finally, even if the Tunisian elite were able to beat the odds and advance meaningful democratic change, the question remains whether elections, political rights, and unrestrained participatory politics alone can succeed in addressing the social inequalities and injustices that brought the Tunisian people to the streets in the first place. The Jasmine Revolution is not a mere revolt against autocracy, but also a backlash against an exclusionary economic order that Ben Ali’s monopoly of political power preserved—an order that, to the disappointment of many, may prove more robust to democratic reform than it seems.

Can “Jasmine” bloom outside Tunisia?

On the question of whether events in Tunisia mark the beginning of similar uprisings in the rest of the region, I think it is important to consider the uniqueness of the conditions that allowed for sustained anti-regime mass protests in Tunisia. Of course, accounting for “why Tunisia” (and not elsewhere) is not something that could be addressed adequately in a single post (a number of people have already started this discussion; see Laurie Brand’s piece on The Middle East Channel), but a few leads are worthy of consideration.

In some respects, observers are correct in pointing out that the grievances that moved the street against the regime in Tunisia are not uncommon in most Arab countries. The global economic downturn, and efforts by many autocrats in the region to reorient their economies toward crony capitalism, have greatly constrained the ability of non-oil rich states to deliver the same benefits they had once been able to guarantee their citizens: social services, employment, price controls and various subsidies. The same kind of discontent that the Jasmine Revolution brought to our attention has been highly pronounced for quite sometime in countries that are at least as poor as Tunisia: Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Algeria and Jordan.

However, there is something different about politics in Tunisia that made political action around these grievances much more feasible than it currently is in the rest of the region: the limited space that Ben Ali has awarded identity conflicts in Tunisian politics. The ideological divide between Islamists and ‘secular’ (or more accurately, non-Islamist) activists on questions of national identity and state-mosque relations has traditionally provided many Arab autocrats with access to a host of divide-and-rule strategies that kept challengers to the status quo fragmented and weak. Zine El-Abidine was not one of them. By excluding and marginalizing Islamist activists from the political scene, most notably Al-Nahda movement, since the early 1990s, Ben Ali has effectively eliminated the threat posed by his Islamist challengers. Yet in doing so he also eliminated access to the political resources that make divide et impera a viable strategy for many Arab autocrats, namely the ideological differences that often pit Islamists against their non-Islamist counterparts within the opposition, including liberal, leftists and nationalist activists. Islamist ideologies may hold some appeal among Tunisians, but, given the absence of Islamist groups from political life, collective political action in the country is not hindered by the same ideological differences that seem to limit political oppositions’ opportunities for effective collective action elsewhere in the region.

For example, in response to falling wages, increasing prices and shrinking state subsidies, Egypt has witnessed an explosion in protest efforts in recent years, and yet such efforts remain largely fragmented and uncoordinated, according to many local observers. In fact, some of these protests deliberately maintain a politically agnostic tone, by avoiding explicit criticism of President Hosni Mubarak, and instead appeal to him to address their grievances. Even if their demonstrations feature harsh words about the president and his family, many of the groups that are suffering the costs of economic adjustments (inside and outside state bureaucracies) are reluctant to overpoliticize their grievances, knowing that advancing their demands through oppositionist politics would trap them in the ideological disputes that continue to divide the opposition and hinder its action—not to mention the political stigma that come with associating their effort with any of the major opposition groups. It is one thing to gather in front of parliament for a sit-in or organize an isolated strike in order to pressure the government to raise your wages or release your pension check. It is another thing to turn your demands into a platform for national political action and start building coalitions with similarly disgruntled groups, and coordinate joint activities with opposition political groups. The second choice seems to be the exception rather than the rule for many discontented constituents and groups in Egypt, arguably because this path puts them in more battles than they had initially bargained for. ‘Which political groups should we cooperate with? Who would we alienate if we invite/allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate? And if we do, would they try to steal credit for our efforts and spin our message? If we were to accept the Brotherhood’s support would this alienate leftist activists who do not want to march alongside “shady fundamentalists”? If we appeal to the Left do we shun Islamist activists who refuse to cooperate with “Leninist nutcases”?’ Stated differently, advancing distributional demands through national political action is simply more trouble than it’s worth. “Why advance our demands through a national political arena that is engulfed by ideological conflicts and differences that have little to do with distributional claims,” opposition activists might ask. [Amr El-Shoubki provides a very eloquent discussion of some of these problems a recent piece in Al-Masry Al-Youm] Equally importantly, taking these demands seriously, aggregating them and orienting them toward coherent political platforms, has not been a priority for Egyptian opposition groups, including the Brotherhood. [For more on this, see my previous post]

This mode of politics—one in which ideological conflict crowds out and splinters distributional demands—is not orthogonal to autocrats’ political engineering strategies. Many autocrats in the region (including Egyptians, Moroccans, and Yemenis) have deliberately maintained a safe haven for Islamist activism in political life for this very reason—keeping the opposition divided across ideological and identity lines limits their opportunities for collective action around distributional demands. [A Jadaliyya co-editor observes similar problems in the Jordanian opposition’s coordination efforts during recent protests against “failed economic policies”].

Ben Ali and his repressive state, on the other hand, could not play the same game of pitting Islamists against their ideological rivals within the opposition, simply because there were no Islamists to empower or turn to when he needed to undermine collective action among his challengers. He could not exploit the presence of Islamists to stir the fears of secular activists and other adversaries of the Islamist agenda within his opposition and among his allies (inside the regime and abroad). By repressing Islamist activism, Ben Ali may have averted an Algeria 1991, but at the hefty cost of depriving himself of the divide-and-rule strategies and fear mongering tactics that allow other Arab autocrats to carry the day whenever faced with conditions similar to the ones that led to his own demise.

The economic woes that drove Tunisians to the streets are widespread in other countries in the region, including Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Morocco. While there is no doubt that activists throughout the Arab world are drawing inspiration and hope from the Jasmine Revolution, it is important to recognize that those countries have something that Tunisia did not have on January 14: Islamist groups and their divisive impact on collective action inside an ideologically diverse opposition. The absence of Islamists and their divisive agenda from Tunisia’s political scene has structured the country’s politics in such a way that permitted (though did not determine) broad and sustained collective action against the regime when serious mass grievances arose—a scenario that can hardly be replicated elsewhere in the Arab world where Islamist/non-Islamist ideological divides continue to hamper regime adversaries. This difference may explain why the ‘seeds’ of the Jasmine Revolution are not likely to grow outside of Tunisian soil. It’s reasonable to assume that whatever happens in Tunisia will probably stay in Tunisia.

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3 comments for "What Happens in Tunisia Stays in Tunisia"


Nice piece, Hesham. Probably right on point, unfortunately.

Rachid C. wrote on January 20, 2011 at 04:02 PM

The rest of your analysis is certainly true if the Tunisian revolution is smothered in its cradle, but already the Tunisian people have accomplished something that no one would have expected of them just two months ago.

Reports from the ground are promising in that citizens are not waiting for their self-appointed elites, but rather are taking things into their own hands in the form of neighborhood defense committees, and an outpouring of popular expression in daily life.

Tunisians seem to have woken up and are determined never to go back into a coma. If they can translate this over the next few months into a government and media that truly represent their aspirations, it will be a living model for the citizens of other Arab nations as well, and the game will never be the same.

eatbees wrote on January 21, 2011 at 07:01 AM

great analysis. i agree with most of it. but is this author ever optimistic about anything?

sarahc wrote on January 21, 2011 at 09:05 PM

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