A Domino Effect in the Arab World After Tunisia?

Wednesday, January 26, 2010 

The Tunisian revolt has created high hopes in the Arab world, which has long since been weaned from freedom and democracy. Will Arab countries experience a domino effect as a result of the demise of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime? In his opinion editorial, Errachid Majidi, a researcher at Paul Cézanne University in France, delves deeper into the specificities of the Tunisian revolt and explains why such a revolution is not likely to spread to other Arab countries in the near future.

After the Tunisian revolt that brought down the Ben Ali regime, renewed enthusiasm has been injected into Arab populations, who long for freedom and hope that the winds of change that blew across Tunis continue their course to affect the whole region. Some observers have drawn a parallel with what happened in Eastern Europe, resulting in the collapse of communist dictatorships. But will the fall of the Ben Ali regime serve as a trailblazer that could eventually bring down the region’s dictatorships?

The specificity of the Tunisian case

The Tunisian revolt arose as a result of the accumulation of several factors which, if isolated, could not produce the same effect. The country experienced its first attempt at modernization in the second half of the 19th century with its Keiredinne Pasha reforms, which promoted educational reform and the development of a draft constitution. But whilst the political component of this reform was aborted, the educational component was the first step in a process that was continued, after independence, by both the Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes. The literacy rate in Tunisia, as a result, is among the highest in the Arab world: 78 per cent overall (and 94.3 per cent among the 15-24 age group). This factor could explain the high level of political consciousness among the youth; the determined and peaceful nature of the revolt; and both its organization and decentralization, facilitated by the use of Internet social networks.

Following its independence process, which was to a high extent controlled and less violent in comparison to what took place in Algeria, Tunisia has witnessed the emergence of an educated and moderate urban middle class. Unlike in Morocco during the 1970s and 80s, Tunisia remained immune to "revolutionary" temptations, and was relatively less attracted by the wave of "political Islam," as was the case of Algeria during the 90s. The dynamism of the Tunisian society contrasted with the level of freedom allowed by Ben Ali, arguably the most restricted in the region, in a backdrop of a margin of freedom allowed by Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, in order to enable citizens to channel their protests.

On the other hand, the Tunisian setup in which the army played a decisive role — in the ousting of the Ben Ali regime — seems less applicable to other countries in the region. Indeed, solely depending on the police, the regime had deliberately chosen to neutralize the role of the army, a strategy that proved fatal to its survival. The Algerian army, for example, has a much better incentive to block any political change that might affect its interests due to oil revenues. In this context, the lack of natural resources in Tunisia could indirectly explain the surprising speed with which Ben Ali left office.

The current state of affairs in Arab countries does not share anything in common with Eastern European countries before the fall of the communist bloc. First, the Arab world is far from the kind of bloc formed by the largely homogeneous satellite countries of the former Soviet Union. The latter shared the same political-economic configuration: a one-party system and a planned economy. In the Arab world, every country has its own trajectory. There are monarchies and republics. Some of these regimes tolerate a level of pluralism and others a one-party system; there are centrally planned economies and open economies; and finally, an element that was conspicuously absent in Eastern Europe: the existence of natural resources, an incentive that incites ruling dictatorships to block any institutional change.

Moreover, the dictatorships of Eastern Europe were guided by a central oppressor in Moscow. And the weakening of the Soviet regime and its inability to provide effective support to communist dictatorships facilitated the movement of political liberation, especially in East Germany. These countries were part of a vast empire: their collapse was precipitated when the core of this empire was shaken. However, this core does not exist in the Arab world.

Furthermore, the support of Western countries was instrumental in the downfall of Eastern European dictatorships. This is not the case in the Arab world, where the status quo is largely backed by Western democracies, as was clearly shown by France’s reaction on the eve of Ben Ali’s demise.

Thus the "little enthusiasm" of western countries vis-à-vis a possible political change in the Arab world could be explained by the former’s objective to maintain a political status quo (in the Arab world) which would, first of all, serve as a "bulwark" against radical Islam, and, secondly, as is the case of countries like Algeria and those in the Gulf region, ensure a continued access to natural resources.

Reasons for optimism

Finally, for a domino effect to work, the Tunisian revolt must lead to real political change: a change that is still not guaranteed. The failure of a democratic transition in Tunisia, especially if accompanied by political instability, would render the cost of this "attempt" much too high in the eyes of people in the region. However, the Tunisian case proves that there is no authoritarian Arab fatalism, and that a conjunction of factors explains the political deadlock.

While it is difficult to imagine the immediate departure from dictatorial regimes, it is not impossible eventually, after certain conditions are met, that political change is emerging in the region, be it gradual or sudden.

This article was originally published in French on Afrik.com in cooperation with www.UnMondeLibre.org