Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Tunisia Precedent

Major change can come from the places you least expect. Tunisia is one of the wealthier (non-oil producing) Arab countries, relatively liberal/secular constitution and no recent history of major conflict/civil strife.  It is also one of few Arab countries where Israelis could travel to as tourists, despite of lack of formal relations between the countries.

The context of the recent events is as follows: Tunisia has been ruled by strongman president Zine el Abidine bin Ali for the past 23 years. Prior to his ascent to power he was a protege of sorts to former president Habib Bourguiba, the former stepping into the latter's shoes. Between the two, Tunisia has been ruled by the same autocratic regime for some 54 years.  

Like in many autocratic regimes, an unwritten agreement between the people and the government has existed. The government was required to sustain a relatively happy and prosperous middle class. In exchange for stability and growth, the middle class agreed to give up on certain freedoms and liberties and turn a blind eye to the ruling elite's vast nepotism and corruption.

Recently, like much of the world, Tunisia has been facing an economic crisis. Economic slowdown, rising food prices and decline in European tourism has shattered the old unwritten clause. Meanwhile, bin Ali has been reelected to a 5th term in office with a whopping 89% of the vote in 'Free and Democratic Elections' (long after his self imposed 3 term limit has surpassed ). 

The country's youth, who are facing high unemployment and are unhappy about their future prospects, decided that all bets are off and decided to take to the streets. After about two weeks of turmoil, president bin Ali has declared that an emergency election will take place within 6 months. The protesters, who have become disillusioned with the country's sham democracy were emboldened to press on the advantage. After his attempted compromise fell threw, bin Ali fled to Saudi Arabia by way of Malta, after France has refused to grant him asylum.

Meanwhile, the speaker of the parliament has been sworn in as interim president and the military is in control of the situation.

Much speculation is filling the web on whether real change has come to Tunisia and how this event will impact the rest of the Arab world. Abu Toameh reports that revolutionaries longing for regime change are salivating all over this. In the west it has been already dubbed as the 'Jasmine Revolution' or the first 'WikiLeaks Revolution'. Of course we all remember how all the 'Colour Revolutions' panned out, don't we?

Barry Rubin predicts that Tunisia is heading towards restoring the old balance between the ruling elite and the middle class rather than real democratic reform as the bin Ali's regime has been pretty succesful at keeping the media and organized opposition under his thumb, there is no real alternative. 

Regardless of whether these events can 'spread' to other countries, I am sure many Arab rules took notice. A long time autocratic ruler had to flee the country over what has allegedly started due to the suicide of the owner of an unlicensed vegetable stand after his scuffle with the authorities.

Can real, democratic change come from the Arab street? I haven't seen a precedent that suggests so. Somehow, I don't think that this is it.

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