THE TUNISIAN REVOLT & THE NEAR/MIDDLE EAST: SOME PRELIMINARY THOUGHTS
"We all know this region faces serious challenges, even beyond the conflicts that dominate the headlines of the day. And we have a lot of work to do. This forum was designed to be not just an annual meeting where we talk with and at each other, but a launching pad for some of the institutional changes that will deal with the challenges that we all know are present. For example, a growing majority of this region is under the age of 30. In fact, it is predicted that in just one country, Yemen, the population will double in 30 years. These young people have a hard time finding work. In many places, there are simply not enough jobs. Across the region, one in five young people is unemployed. And in some places, the percentage is far more. While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reform to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open. And all this is taking place against a backdrop of depleting resources: water tables are dropping, oil reserves are running out, and too few countries have adopted long-term plans for addressing these problems.
Each country, of course, has its own distinct challenges, and each its own achievements. But in too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand. The new and dynamic Middle East that I have seen needs firmer ground if it is to take root and grow everywhere. And that goal brings us to this Forum....So to my friends, the leaders of these countries, I would say: You can help build a future that your young people will believe in, stay for, and defend. Some of you are already demonstrating that. But for others it will take new visions, new strategies and new commitments. It is time to see civil society not as a threat, but as a partner. And it is time for the elites in every society to invest in the futures of their own countries.
Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever. If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum. Extremist elements, terrorist groups, and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence. So this is a critical moment, and this is a test of leadership for all of us. I am here to pledge my country’s support for those who step up to solve the problems that we and you face. We want to build stronger partnerships with societies that are on the path to long-term stability and progress -- business, government and civil society, as represented on this panel, must work together, as in our new regional initiative called Partners for a New Beginning. We know that what happens in this region will have implications far beyond".
American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "Forum for the Future: Partnership Dialogue Panel Session," Doha, Qatar. 18 January 2011, www.state.gov.
"Like the eastern European revolutions of 1989, the collapse of Tunisia’s autocracy serves as a reminder that no nation will forever endure political repression, denial of civil liberties and rampant corruption among its rulers. Tunisians deserve warm praise for their courage in effecting what promises to be the most positive change in their country’s system of government since it won independence from France in 1956....The US and the European Union have no reason to fear the consequences of Tunisia’s “Jasmine revolution”. For many decades, their default stance has been to prop up Arab autocracies lest something more sinister emerge. But Tunisia differs from other Maghreb and Middle Eastern countries. Though Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims make up most of the population, European influences shape Tunisia’s economy and urban culture. Islamist agitation played next to no part in the uprising against Mr Ben Ali. There is little to suggest that Tunisians will vote political or religious fanatics into power. That said, Tunisia’s upheaval will reverberate in other Arab countries where a sudden political opening might generate unpleasant radicalism. It is late in the day, but Arab autocrats and their western supporters must think now about how to chart a controlled path to freedom for societies too long denied their rights".
Leader, "The Jasmine Revolution," The Financial Times. 17 January 2011, in www.ft.com.
"In the second half of the 20th century we cannot hope to maintain our position in the Middle East by the methods of the last century. However little we like it, we must face that fact. Commercial concessions whose local benefit appears to rebound mainly to Shahs and Pashas no longer serve in the same way to strengthen our influence in these countries, and they come increasingly under attack by local nationalist opinion....In most of the countries of the Middle East the social and economic aspirations of the common people are quickening and the tide of nationalism is rising fast. If we are to maintain our influence in this area, future policy must be designed to harness these movements rather than to struggle against them."
Anthony Eden [British Foreign Secretary], "Egypt: The Alternatives," 16 February
1953, PREM 11/48 XC14350, PRO, Kew.
The dilemmas point out almost sixty years ago by the future Earl of Avon are still with us (by 'us' I mean of course the 'West': AKA Europe and America). If nothing else the recent events in Tunisia: 'Jasmine Revolution' or merely political musical chairs `a la Algeria or Burma in 1988-1989 (or for that matter Tunisia itself in 1987), highlight the fact that the region is filled-up with aging autocrats of one type or other (Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia) or younger dynasts (Jordan, Morocco, Syria) or indeed countries where there is already some degree of ongoing turmoil and division (the Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian territories). Except for the Gulf States, which oddly enough are both the least 'indigenous' and 'organic' entities in the entire region (AKA were ruled by the British until the mid to late 1960's), and the most pluralistic and closest to some version of representative democracy and Parliamentary rule. With all that being said, what is the likelihood of the recent events in Tunisia, real or imagined, spilling over into the rest of the region? In short an Arab / Near Eastern version of 1848 or 1989? According to some like Rami Khouri, Tunisia: "is a herald of change," in the Arab world . And the downfall of the Ben-Ali regime, can be replicated, sooner or later in the rest of the Arab world 1. How likely is this to happen? To my mind, the events so far in Tunisia, as well as the now defunct Ben-Ali regime were so sui generis , as to almost make any larger influences on the Near and Middle East to be slight at best. Why?For the following reasons: the corruption of the Ben-Ali regime and indeed the nature of the regime itself was (for lack of a better term to describe it) 'personalist', rather than institutional. Unlike say in Algeria or Egypt, there is no 'deep state', no military hierarchy which is in essence an imperium in imperio. Hence, when the regime in Tunis, faced mounting popular discontent in the first two weeks of this year, the military felt quite able and willing to step aside and allow Ben-Ali to fend for himself. Something which would on the surface at any rate be rather unlikely to occur in say Algeria, or Egypt. Added to which, as Professor Joshua Landis of Syria Comment, has pointed out: Tunisia is a homogeneous country, both in terms of religious affiliation and nationality. Therefore an upheaval like that which took place last week, can in essence occur without sectarian or nationality conflicts rising quickly to the surface. In that respect making Tunisia a perhaps isolated example of the model of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. Unfortunately, this is not something which can be said in the rest of the Arab world. As Landis notes in the case of Syria:
"In Syria, because the military elite is dominated by the Alawite minority, it is unlikely to split. Members of the Syrian elite will look at what happened to the Sunnis of Iraq or the Christians of Iraq and close ranks. The sad history of sectarian violence in the region acts to enforce elite solidarity. Members of Syria’s Sunni elite are also chastened by the sectarian fighting that followed regime collapse in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. The wealthy Sunni elite does not want civil war. The fear of civil war based on religious affiliation is the greatest legitimizer or bulwark of authoritarianism in Syria" 2.
Similar remarks as they pertain to the dangers of sectarianism and civil war, can be made of course about Egypt, most of the Gulf States, the Lebanon, as well of course about Iraq. Au fond, the real problem with the using Central & Eastern Europe circa 1989 as a model for the current Near and Middle East, is that in the case of the former, all of these regimes were puppets of Sovietskaya Vlast. And accordingly as soon as Sovietskaya Vlast withdraw its support for the same, the regimes accordingly collapsed. Now in the case of almost all of the current regimes in the Near and Middle East, with the exceptions of the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, all are without exception the legatees of Arab Nationalist regimes of the fifties and sixties. From Egypt's July 1952 coup d'etat to Qadaffi's coup in 1969 in Libya. And this fact in turn explains the pitfalls that will occur if Western policymakers endeavor to try to pressure the existing regimes in the region to liberalize and democratize in a uncontrolled fashion. Not have the positive variables that Tunisia has, most will either ignore the pressure silently, or worse endeavor to play the xenophobic, anti-Western, anti-Zionist card for all its worth in order to rally the domestic opinion at home. And certainly in the case of Egypt, any such action and response could be quite dangerous given its proximity to Israel, and, Tel Aviv's dependence upon a pacified if not very friendly Egypt in the regional, military balance. Which is not to deny the possibilities of Democracy emerging in the region in the years ahead. After all, if say the Philippines or Indonesia are democracies, there is certainly some hope that some if not all of the countries of the Near and Middle East may perhaps also follow this route of political development 3. The issue is that this state of affairs can only emerge organically and not via Western fiat. We cannot unlike say Sir Miles Lampson, surround the Presidential Palace in Cairo with tanks to force a change of government, as he did back in February 1942 with King Farouk. In short, nothing much has changes since a member of the Eastern Department of the Foreign Office noted back in March of 1952:
"It is true that we cannot now put the clock back and that we can only hope that the sham democracy of to-day which by the passions it arouses is more dangerous than and as reactionary as the oligarchy or autocracy of yesterday, must eventually become a true democracy which will lead to government in the interests of the governed: but I do not think anything we can do will seriously advance the date" 4.
1. Rami Khouri, "Tunisia is a Herald of Change", The Financial Times. 17 January 2011, in www.ft.com. For similar thinking, see the article by the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Claire Spencer, who is Chatham House's director of its North African programme, also in the Financial Times: "A Stark Lessons for Aging Autocrats," 13 January 2011, in www.ft.com.
2."Why Tunisia is unlikely in Syria," 15 January 2011, in www.syriacomment.com. On the 'personalist' corruption in Tunisia as opposed to the more institutional variety in say Algeria or Egypt, see: Jon Marks, "Nationalist policy-making and crony capitalism in the Maghreb: the old economics hinder the new," International Affairs, (September 2009), pp. 960-961.
3. One must point out though that both the Philippines & Indonesia, under respectively Marcos & Suharto had, like Tunisia under Ben-Ali, 'personalist' regimes, with high degree of corruption centered around the President and his family. Institutionally, none of these countries resemble either Syria, Egypt or Algeria, with its 'deep state' apparatus and or its sectarian alignments and divisions.
4. Christopher Gandy, "Minute: Observations on Mr. Fellowes' Paper 'Nationalisation and Policy in the Middle East," 20 March 1952. FO 371 / 98244 XC14185, PRO, Kew.