Theme: The Tunisian regime had stressed economic liberalism in order to overshadow political liberalism; however the people’s uprising has made plain the failure of the attempt.
Summary: No one expected that in a matter of days Sidi Bouzid would become the Arab capital for popular protest and the sacrifice of a disillusioned youth. It is still too early to understand the implications of the Tunisian uprising, but it is, however, possible to say straightaway that everything has changed: a determined population got the better of an authoritarian President. It is a historical precedent in an area where change usually occurs from the top down.
Analysis: This contribution stems from four assumptions: (1) The ‘bottom-up revolution’ has brought about, for the time being, a sudden change in the regime but not of regime; (2) the negotiated and safe departure of Ben Ali is the result of a double deal within the system and in particular between the military and the US; (3) the absence of Islamists meant that the uprising was not harshly suppressed and was recognised by the US; and (4) the likelihood of contagion has been limited for various reasons, among them local, inter-Arab and international factors.
First, this paper will analyse the nature of the uprising and its main protagonists whilst looking at the role of the working classes and the army, as well as the limited role of the middle class and the opposition. It will then consider the possibility of, and limits to, regional contagion. Finally, it will analyse the major obstacles to the democratisation of Tunisia, the main equations to be resolved and lessons to be learned. Four conclusions can be highlighted: (1) the revolt did not result in a real collapse of the regime since there has been no split with the authoritarian elite; (2) given its lack of direction, it might not weigh heavily on the political process in the aftermath of Ben Ali; (3) there are still ambiguities with regard to the role of the military, the attitude of the US and the agreements made for Ben Ali’s departure; and (4) the possibility of a regional contagion is limited for a number of reasons.
The Arab world is accustomed to change from the top downwards, as a result of coups or external pressure –or even intervention–. Real change is rare, and the trend is to have life presidencies and for power to be hereditary. However, the young Tunisian who sacrificed himself in protest sparked an unprecedented popular mobilisation that has led to a change from the bottom, for the first time in the region. Consequently, the immediate (Arab) external enemies of the Jasmine Revolution are precisely those who support the idea of a President for life and the hereditary transfer of power, the antithesis of the people’s reappropriation of their own future. This revolt has not only chased Ben Ali out of government and the country, but it has also destabilised the Arab regimes, who now claim to respect the wishes of the Tunisian people, even though they do not respect the wishes of their own people.
The Leading Role in the Uprising
The leading role in the uprising has essentially been played by the working classes and the army; the minor players have been the middle classes and the opposition, who lagged behind during the movement’s initial phase. Nevertheless, the latter did play an important role in the organisational phase along with the professional organisations.
It was the riots of the working classes which led to the uprising. The middle classes were not really called upon, at least not at the beginning of the movement. However, the Tunisian model should have followed a pattern such as this: the formation of a middle class would eventually lead to it making known its political demands, having secured a comfortable standard of living. However, this did not happen. The regime did not give way to pressure from the middle class and continued in the same authoritarian vein whilst transforming into a mafia-like regime. The corrupt networks of state capitalism took precedence over politics. The system held the middle class at arms’ length and crushed the working class. And it is the latter that, having nothing to lose, unlike the middle class, caused the fall of Ben Ali in less than a month.
However, to make a fair assessment of the uprising, another decisive factor in the country’s transformation should be highlighted: the attitude of the army. By refusing to fire on the demonstrators, it took a decision that is not part of Arab political culture. It was undeniably a historic turning point in the region. In doing so, it caused a large split in Ben Ali's repressive regime and showed up the security forces in his service. Ultimately, the entire repressive system was paralysed. The experience of the Eastern European countries has shown that once the repressive agencies of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships stop functioning, the regime collapses. This has been the case in Tunisia, except for the fact that it is not the regime that has collapsed, but the head of the executive who has fallen. For the time being, the uprising has resulted in continuity, but in a slightly different way, for the regime. It has not fundamentally changed the regime, which is now trying to come to terms with the new situation and is attempting to appropriate the revolt. The men of the old-new regime still retain almost all of their positions in the government of national unity.
Therefore, one of the two obstacles to democratisation in Tunisia is the absence of a complete break with the old regime. The authoritarian elites are still in control. The composition of the national unity government reflects a change in the regime but not a change of regime. The break away from the authoritarian elite has failed. The experience of democratic transition in East Europe has shown that countries that fail to make a clean break with the authoritarian elite are unable to become more democratic.
It appears that there was a decoupling, a divorce between some key components of the repressive system and the head of the executive. The question is why and how did the Tunisian army make this choice? It is possible that the safe exit of Ben Ali was meant to save the regime. However, the speed of events and the openly negotiated destination of asylum make this difficult to believe. However, the fact that the army did not stop him but, on the contrary, provided him with the means to go in safety certainly seems to point to a deal (leaving in safety in exchange for relinquishing power). It is also possible that the idea was to avoid having the people take reprisals against Ben Ali, presenting him with the fait accompli of the uprising to free themselves of a President who had become uncomfortable. Finally, it is also possible that his negotiated departure is the result of a double deal (within the regime, and between the military and the US), sidelining France, which was keen to maintain the status quo at any cost and which did not believe in the President’s imminent fall. It is also possible that the army had wanted to get rid of him but was unable to do so because coups are alien to the country’s political culture. Hence, the army was waiting for the right moment to act without risking the accusation of involvement in a coup with American consent.
As for the opposition, its attitude was hesitant, as if it did not want to and/or could not get involved in an uncertain outcome for fear of a violent reprisal, leaving the people to face their destiny alone. The more the regime appeared to be conciliatory towards the demonstrators, the more the opposition upped the tone: its rise to power on the media scene ran parallel with the regime’s steady stream of concessions. In short, it was not the generalisation of the revolt which boosted the opposition but the dramatic collapse of Ben Ali’s power. It was the working classes who paid with their blood in order to steer the revolution, far from party-based implications and concessions. This has allowed the insurrection to retain its independence from all political stripes and to pave the way for the opposition and civil society organisations to deal with the organisation of the transition’s second phase (following the departure of the deposed President). But it has also deprived the working classes of any real representation. And this is where the main flaw of this directionless uprising lies. The fact that there are no legitimate representatives who can negotiate on behalf of the people could deprive them of their political due. There is a danger that power might be seized once again and change be just another form of continuity, but not a break with the authoritarian past. Ultimately, the most difficult challenge is not to revolt, but to control the political processes in the post-Ben Ali Tunisia.
These events have inspired the Arab people and a spill-over is a possibility in other states that are in a precarious situation (Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and others). The regimes themselves stress their local ‘specificities’. Certainly, the socio-political situations are different but the similarities are far more important than the dissimilarities. It could even be said that these regimes have attained a form of Arab unity as regards political immobility, social injustice and corruption. However, the presence of the same ingredients is not enough. There must be a catalyst that cannot be controlled, that depends, on the one hand, on the movement’s degree of spontaneity and magnitude, and, on the other, of the reaction of certain internal and external players. The main issue is not whether the Tunisian model (in this case we can speak of a model) will be replicated in other Arab countries, but whether the military in these countries will have the same attitude to the Tunisian army. For now, the spill-over has been contained. The contagion experienced by Algeria, for example, has been very limited in scope and duration. The cases of self-immolation that have occurred in Algeria, Mauritania, Egypt and Yemen have not led to any popular demonstrations. The transfer of the Tunisian model has had no more effects than those. However, if the revolt continues over a longer period and manages to end the regime of the ousted President, the contagion effect will exert a far greater pressure on other states.
Moreover, the attitude of the US on the one hand and the absence of an Islamic threat on the other should be considered. The US recognition of the protesters, which will not necessarily be repeated, can be explained by three factors. First, the US does not consider Tunisia a key state in the area, unlike Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is difficult to imagine the same attitude with regard to similar events in either of those two countries. Secondly, the uprising’s lack of a specific political direction is a reassuring element for America. Finally, the uprising has not been exploited by the Islamists, as is generally the case in riots in the Arab world. All this explains why the US has more or less belatedly broken a golden rule observed by the western powers which is to never support the democratic demands in countries where there are sympathetic regimes. It is enough just to compare the US reaction to events in Iran and Tunisia to see the difference. Certainly, democracy cannot be imposed from the outside, but it can be hindered by external forces. This is the case in the Arab world, where the Western powers have proved to be real obstacles to democratisation.
With regards to the Islamist absence, this can be put down to the relative modernity of Tunisian society, the Islamists’ limited capacity for mobilisation due to their repression, and finally a possible Islamist strategy of not placing themselves at the forefront of the rebellion in order not to legitimate the revolt’s suppression. In this respect, any disturbances in the Arab world which have an Islamist tint will be repressed by a country’s regime with Western support. Since there is still a strong Islamist presence in many countries, it is unlikely that the Tunisian scenario will be easily replicated elsewhere. Moreover, the fact that the protesters were not supported by foreign countries has also given the movement an undeniable credibility and independence. The guardians of the established order were unable to accuse the uprising of being manipulated by foreign governments. Neither the accusation of foreign help (conspiracy) or of terrorism were able to discredit the revolt and legitimise its repression.
Finally, the ability of Arab regimes to survive change and renew themselves from within without changing either their course or nature should not be underestimated. They know how to sway from one form of authoritarianism to another depending on events. However, caution is also advisable. If Ben Ali’s regime, which was considered to be one of the strongest in the region (and one of the most authoritarian), experienced such a fate, the scenario could be repeated elsewhere. The Arab regimes are already protecting themselves and are on the defensive: lowering prices for basic commodities, improving the purchasing power of certain population categories and ordering the police to avoid confrontation with any potential demonstrators. However, these measures are just emergency containment strategies, designed to defuse the situation so that the risk of contagion is cut off but without addressing the root of the problems. The ability of regimes to dodge the winds of change and to render socio-political demands meaningless still remains considerable.
From prior events, we can identify the other obstacle to democratisation in Tunisia, namely the refusal of Arab states to one of them becoming more democratic. If this were to happen, it would be a source of instability for them all. For fear of a domino effect, bearing in mind the strong inter-Arab links, the established regimes will not tolerate real democracy in Tunisia. Under the pretext of a return to calm and stability, they will ensure that the movement does not lead to real democracy within the country but rather to a political opening, which is at the same time sufficient to calm popular enthusiasm, and yet limited in order for the survival of these regimes not to be threatened. Moreover, some Arab states claim that they want to respect the wishes of the Tunisian people, but none of them ever criticised the authoritarian elites of the old regime for having appropriated themselves of power in the first place.
- Bottom-up changes, by way of a popular uprising, are not only possible but effective. In the absence of a political transition from the top, the people will eventually revolt. A revolt can lead to anarchy or even civil war, if it is conducted or claimed by radical organisations. Regimes which use military force to maintain control over the state and society end up losing everything.
- It is the end of a widespread belief that the Arab people will not rise up and that ‘velvet revolutions’ are not possible in the Arab world.
- The Tunisian uprising has been popular, spontaneous, massive and without political guidance. It has no heroes, great rebel leaders or representatives with whom the ‘authorities’ can negotiate. The hero of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ is dead: Mohamed Bouazizi, who triggered the revolution with his self-immolation. However, revolutions usually lead to the emergence of symbolic figures, figures for the media. Once again, this is a distinctive characteristic of this uprising, as its lack of political bias and its preferred media, the Internet, made it unnecessary to personify information to make it effective, unlike traditional media who are always seeking spokesmen to embody the ‘revolution’. On social networking sites, information is produced by everyone and for everyone.
- The model of a hereditary republic has suffered a significant setback. The hereditary powers installed in the region are at risk of being overwhelmed by the power of popular revolts, and this should at least present an obstacle to future plans for life-presidencies and family successions.
- Economic issues cannot be used as an excuse for indefinitely postponing democracy. The link between economic development and democratic development is more than ever inseparable.
- The age of social networks on the Internet has smashed the media censorship present in authoritarian states. The Tunisian government, which had always strictly controlled information and the Internet owes its fall, in part, to the Net, to the generation of social networks, which are the real relay stations for the information necessary for a popular uprising. Images of the events are spread throughout the world thanks to the presence of protesters on the Internet.
Conclusion: In order to avoid social unrest and uncontrollable revolts, at least two equations should be resolved.
It is necessary to recognise that economic liberalism cannot be decoupled from political liberalism, because the second is the safeguard of the first: in the absence of any democratic control, the system becomes authoritarian and mafia-like, and the only mechanism that can readjust a country’s political course is to revolt. It is not by pouring money into social development that grants immunity to uprisings. The opening up of the political field is consistent with the equitable distribution of wealth and the dividends of growth. The Tunisian regime has stressed economic liberalism whilst obscuring political liberalism, but the people’s uprising has shown how mistaken the regime has been. Man does not live by bread alone, he also lives by culture and freedom. Wellbeing is also a matter of dignity and freedom. Between two countries with equal levels of development, we will choose the country where there is greater freedom. In this respect, the migration issue will continue to arise even within a situation of sustained growth. Furthermore, amongst those who engage in illegal migration there are many people from relatively comfortable backgrounds.
It is necessary to end with the Euro-American option of preferring precarious stability, assured by authoritarian regimes, to (the dreaded instability of) a democratic process which it cannot control. Ultimately, the Euro-Atlantic powers have had neither stability nor democracy in the region. Moreover, although democracy cannot be imposed by external players, it can be –and is– hindered by them despite any ethical discourse they might deploy.
Université Paris 8 (France)