Change of paradigm in the Arab world (1)

Haizam Amirah Fernández. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

9 March 2011

Tunisia has triggered spreading unrest in the Arab world, revealing a growing movement against totalitarian regimes that have ruled hitherto unquestioned.

Ben Ali has been the first leader of an Arab state to abandon his position and flee from the country because of spontaneous popular revolts. The other autocratic Arab leaders have taken note, as have their populations. Despite the different social models and political systems of Arab countries, many of their inhabitants share a profound indifference towards the representatives of power. The lack of opportunities for progress, rampant corruption and the growing shortage of basic commodities are causing frustration and anger that are becoming more and more difficult to contain. There are those who prefer to see events in Tunisia as a one-off. However, it could well be a reflection of a more profound movement that will make the current forms of government in the region untenable, since they are based on authoritarianism and oppression.

At the end of 2010, very few would have ventured to say that the first totalitarian Arab leader to lose his throne would be the Tunisian President Zine el Abidin Ben Ali. The revolts that have taken place in Tunisia have several new facets. It is the first time an Arab population has got rid of its governor without one of the three traditional ingredients: a military coup, foreign interference or religious extremism. Neither the politicians nor the intellectuals were the base of the mass demonstrations that involved Tunisians from every class and of every age. The demonstrations were not driven by Islamist, Marxist or even nationalist ideology. However, the demands were the same: to bring Ben Ali´s kleptocratic regime to an end, create equal opportunities and employment, guarantee citizens´ rights and ensure respect for freedom.

Ben Ali seemed to dominate the political stage in Tunisia. To do so, he had two key factors that had worked well for him for more than two decades: a police state that exercised an iron-rod control over the population and the unconditional and acritical support of Western countries. It is true that some indicators of human development, such as education and per capita income, were somewhat better in Tunisia than in some of its neighbouring countries (even so, they were some way below the society´s potential) and that it had a larger middle class than other Arab countries. However, the causes that led the Tunisian people to rise up against Ben Ali are present in one way or another in the other Arab countries.

As with other Arab societies, Tunisia was immersed in a "crisis of lack of expectation". The protests appeared not only because of economic reasons, such as unemployment and underemployment (both actually higher than the official rates) or the unceasing increase in the prices of basic products, with the consequent impoverishment of the population, which becomes unsustainable. The protests were caused by the malaise generated by the widespread and not particularly well disguised corruption of the governing class that predated on the country´s wealth, by the absence of social justice and by the lack of guarantees of respect for individual liberties and human rights.

60% of the population is in the region are under the age of 25 years and their current life expectancy is probably the highest in Arab history (in the Maghreb, it is around 75 years). However, their hopes of living without fear of power and with opportunities for prosperity are very low indeed. It should come as no surprise, since it is the result of the exercise of power without control and without counterweights by regimes whose raison d´être is to remain in control at any price. Holding absolute power for a long time is blinding for authoritarian leaders and does not let them see something that is very elementary: growing pressure leads to an explosion.

The model imposed by Ben Ali in Tunisia had achieved the support of Western leaders. The country was presented as an oasis of stability in a convulse region, while its economic behaviour was praised from outside. The counterpart was that Western democracies did not criticise the fact that Ben Ali had turned his country into a family fiefdom. The lack of institutionalised controls led to the blurring of public and private, and the interests of the state and the interests of the regime. The level of corruption and the abuse of power generated by this dependence on the police state are very costly for national wealth and bring about a profound distortion of economic activity.

The forced exit of Ben Ali has meant the fall of a model that seemed solid and stood as an example for its neighbours. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by force and the chaos of day-to-day life in Iraq, the Arab authoritarian regimes have not stopped reminding their populations that dictatorships are a lesser evil, since they guarantee order and security. At the same time, they reminded the United States and the EU that the alternative to their regimes is anarchy or the coming-to-power of Islamists. What has happened in Tunisia seems to have done away with the inevitability of such an apocalyptic scenario. Tunisian people are asking for a participatory political system in which there is a real separation of powers, not a theocracy.

Although the situation in Tunisia is far from clarified and there is much uncertainty about the new stage, the status quo that is in the chair in the Arab world is in danger and, with it, the apparent stability of its political regimes. It is time for Western powers and, in particular, the countries of the EU to reassess the real cost of the apparent stability promised by Arab regimes in exchange for their unconditional support. European leaders and citizens need to ask themselves whether their security and economic interests in their southern neighbours are better guaranteed by "ferocious states" or strong states.

The national anthem of Tunisia ends with the following two lines by the local poet Abul-Qasim al-Chabbi: "If the people aspire to live one day, destiny will necessarily respond to them. Darkness will have to disappear and the chains will have to be broken". A century and a half after the first Arab constitution was adopted in Tunisia in 1861, the population of the country has called for a new constitutional framework that guarantees a participatory political system with a real separation of powers.

(1) Summary of the analysis by Real Instituto Elcano titled The fall of Ben Ali: a one-off or a change of paradigm in the Arab world?

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