The Arab world is not about to experience a 1989-style democratic contagion. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution is a one-off event, writes Arun Kapil, (left) a political science professor at the Catholic University of Paris (Institut Catholique de Paris-FASSE). He is skeptical that the regime’s old guard could yet make a comeback, but believes prospects for successful democratization hinge on the behavior of the Islamists and the shape of the pact negotiated by the major political actors.
1. What are the prospects of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution deteriorating into another Tulip Revolution – a power shift within the elites rather than a genuine democratic transition? In other words, what factors suggest that Tunisia is well-placed to effect a sustainable democratic transition or, conversely, what factors are likely to diminish that prospect?
Tunisia has long been considered, on paper at least, to be the Arab country that offers the most favorable terrain for democracy, or at least a system more democratic than the other states in the region. The country is confessionally and ethnically homogenous, and thereby not riven by sectarian, ethnic, regional, and identity conflicts that poison politics in so much of the Arab world (and that have offered guaranteed bases of support for dictatorships present and past; think Syria and Iraq).
It has a relatively liberal economy not based on natural resource extraction or other rents, and with a productive sector geared toward exports and linked to Europe. The society is relatively well-educated and around half speaks a European language—French—at varying levels of proficiency (the elite fluently), thereby giving it ”an opening to modernity” (as francophone Maghribis like to say). Income inequality is significant but not off the map à la Latin America (or even the United States). The country has a long urban tradition and its cities have not been inundated by rural migration to the same extent as Algeria or Egypt.
Tunisia also has a state tradition going back centuries—and which was not upended by the French, whose colonial rule was rather more benign than elsewhere in its empire (as in neighboring Algeria). Independent Tunisia was not born in violence (unlike Algeria) and the country indeed has little history of violent conflict. The country achieved independence via a peaceful movement led by a political party comprised of members of the educated, urban elites.
Tunisians like to say that they are a gentle, moderate people and don’t have experience with violence, which is true when it comes to politics (and despite the history of authoritarianism; the Tunisian people were not going to forgive the regime for the several dozen killed over the past month).
And the military in Tunisia is small and has never been a major actor in the country’s politics (again, in stark contrast to Algeria), which is quite an anomaly in that part of the world.
The instrument of repression and control of the now ancien régime was the police and ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), which determined access to state employment, distributed patronage, and kept a close eye on the population. The RCD is a real political party (not an empty shell like the Algerian FLN) and has had a political base, as did communist parties in post-1989 eastern Europe.
With Ben Ali gone and all that has happened over the past month, it is hard to see how a strongman from the RCD or the police could emerge and impose another authoritarian regime. None of the RCD members of the new government, or any RCD personality outside the former ruling mafia, seem to fit the bill and the security apparatus needed to impose a repressive order has withered considerably over the past week.
So the prospects of Tunisia effecting a sustainable democratic transition seem reasonably good. But this does not preclude the possibility that such a transition could go off the rails, that it could begin to resemble the Kyrgyz Tulip Revolution or other such disappointments.
Independent Tunisia has had only two strongmen leaders in its 55-year history (one, Habib Bourguiba, enlightened; the other, Ben Ali, much less so) and with not a single free and fair election. Tunisians have no experience whatever with a liberal, democratic polity. This is not a fatality, of course; there’s always a first time. But in the case of, e.g. Romania and Bulgaria, they were in Europe and with the prospect of membership in the EU. Tunisia is embedded in a part of the world that is hostile to liberal democracy and is bordered by countries that may not wish a democratic Tunisia well (e.g. Qadhafi’s Libya).
Moreover, the Tunisian secular opposition is weak, bereft of parties that could credibly win an election and govern the country. Opposition party leaders are either aging and/or display some of the behavior patterns that one observes in opposition circles in Arab states: dogmatism and intransigence combined with a willingness to be co-opted into the regime.
If the upcoming parliamentary elections are genuinely free and fair, one may expect that the Islamists—a reconstituted Al-Nahda, with Rached Ghannouchi (right) playing a role—will emerge as the strongest party presently in the opposition. The key to the success of the transition will thus be the behavior of the Islamists and the nature of the political pact that will presumably be negotiated by the major political actors. If a reconstituted Nahda resembles the Moroccan PJD and Turkish AKP, and seriously, sincerely commits itself not to impose Shari’a law or alter the family code (a red line), then the transition could work. But if the Islamists overplay their hand or adopt a more radical rhetoric, then the bets are off.
2. Will Ben Ali’s ouster lead to a 1989-style democratic tsunami?
The notion of a democratic tsunami in the Middle East was first bandied about in early 2003 by supporters of the Iraq war. Well, we know how that turned out.
Tunisia, for the reasons cited earlier, is a sui generis case in the Arab world and whose experiences of the past week are not going to be replicated elsewhere.
Some in Algeria have heady notions of doing to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika what the Tunisian people have just done to Ben Ali, but this is more than unlikely. Bouteflika has been president of that country for twelve years—which is not that long in Arab world time—and enjoyed a significant measure of popularity for a stretch. Even if the scores of his election victories were fixed (and they were), he would have won even if they hadn’t been.
Riots by youngsters are banal events there, as are clashes with the police over corruption on the part of local authorities. Algeria has been through a nasty civil war, which wreaked mass terror and death, but also enabled the army to modernize and perfect the means of repression. A repeat of the events of October 1988 would be easily contained.
Most importantly, the Algerian economy is in excellent macro-economic shape. The regime has in excess of $100 billion in foreign currency reserves, which will no doubt increase in the coming years. In the event of serious unrest, Bouteflika can simply inundate the country with cash.
The authoritarian regime in Algeria, it should also be said, has become increasingly soft. The press is the freest in the Arab world outside Lebanon and maybe Qatar (and definitely more than Morocco). Anti-regime Islamists excepted, one can basically say what one wants there.
In the case of Morocco, a mass uprising (and that would include the middle class) against the King is not conceivable. A Tunisian-style movement in Syria or Saudi Arabia would be cause for alarm rather than celebration, as a sudden vacuum at the summit in those countries could only lead to an outcome worse than the status quo. The only country where the Tunisian events have relevance is Egypt. But given the weight of the Islamists there and the growing confessional divide between Muslims and Copts, among other things, it is hard to imagine such a scenario.
The Tunisian Jasmine Revolution is a one-off event. The demonstration effect will be minimal to non-existent.
3. Is there a threat the region’s rulers will conclude that Ben Ali made the mistake of capitulating like the Shah in 1979 instead of intensifying repression like the Islamic Republic in 2009?
Ben Ali did indeed show himself to be like the Shah in 1978-79: indecisive, weak, and with feet of clay. But the two men were also alike in another respect: when pushed to the wall by a mass popular movement, they had no political base to call upon. They were utterly devoid of support. No sector of Iranian society came to the Shah’s rescue.
In Ben Ali’s case, his regime’s popular base of the 1990s withered away in the past decade in the face of the massive corruption of his family and in-laws, and of popular anger over the regime’s sheer draconian repression. When the army told him last Friday to leave, Ben Ali had nothing left but a few thousand thugs in the RCD and police, who are now either on the run or being neutralized.
Contrast this with Iran in 2009. Ahmadinejad may have in reality lost the election but he could still call upon a part of Iranian society (in addition, of course, to the basij and Revolutionary Guards, who may be thugs but are far more consequential than their Tunisian counterparts). In the (unlikely) event of Tunisian-style movements in other Arab states, the leaders there will find themselves more in Ahmadinejad’s position than the Shah’s (or Ben Ali’s).
4. What should be done – by the Obama administration, Western democracies, by democracy assistance groups – to help Tunisia’s democratic forces/civil society push through to a genuine transition?
The US and EU—and particularly France—need to forcefully assert that Tunisia enjoys their total support as it effects a transition to democracy and that they will be attentive to any requests for assistance the Tunisians may make (the French may even be asked to make good on their offer of security assistance, which wouldn’t be a bad thing). Western democracies also need to (a) implicitly make clear that moderate Islamists must be brought into the game but that their behavior will be closely monitored and with red lines, and (b) explicitly make clear to Libya that any meddling on its part will absolutely not be tolerated. The stakes are too high—for both Tunisia and the West (and particularly Europe)—for Western democracies to adopt a passive attitude on this matter.
As for democracy assistance groups—should Tunisian democratic forces be receptive—the key area where their help could be useful is in drawing up the right electoral system. As we know, the wrong electoral system can lead not only to perverse results—e.g. Turkey and its 10% threshold—but catastrophic ones, the most obvious case being Algeria and its aborted legislative election in 1991-92. I can personally attest that there was practically no one in Algeria at the time who had any knowledge of electoral systems, of the different formulas, how each one worked, and what outcomes they would possibly yield. In my more recent experiences in sub-Saharan Africa, I have observed that political actors, both governmental and opposition, don’t understand electoral systems very well (e.g. the various PR formulas—D’Hondt, largest remainder, STV, etc).
Democracy assistance in this area could be vital.