Waves of protests and discontent toppled Tunisia’s autocratic ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, surprisingly fast, sparking fear among Arab leaders that unrest could soon spread to their countries. While it remains unclear what Tunisia’s troubles will bring for the country, the region’s strongmen are looking for ways to contain chaos in the Arab world.
Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, analyzes the Tunisian upheaval and its impact on the Arab world. Muasher says that while the upheaval was triggered by high prices and unemployment, it’s a mistake to believe that it’s all about the economy. The Arab world is in crisis because of a lack of good governance. Leaders need to recognize that no country is invulnerable and take steps to open political systems to improve the democratic and political rights of the population—only then will future revolutions be avoided.
The protests were triggered by economic grievances and rising prices, but it’s a mistake to think that the crisis was solely about money—economics alone did not bring people to the streets. The unrest was as much about governance as it was about the economy.
When you look at the slogans used in Tunisia and across the Arab world in recent weeks, few targeted high prices. Rather they accused the government of abandoning its people. There is a high degree of frustration about the lack of good governance, and this is a lesson that must be learned in Tunis and other Arab capitals.
It’s too early to tell if Tunisia can become a beacon in the Arab world—a peaceful move to a sustainable democracy is by no means assured. Hopefully, this doesn’t end up like the crackdown in Iran following the disputed elections in 2009, but there’s no telling yet.
There are old faces in the new government and a great deal still needs to be decided. Clearly, there is a strong desire within the population for a new beginning and a more democratic and pluralistic system, but it’s a long way off.
The traditional argument put forward in and out of the Arab world is that there is nothing wrong, everything is under control. With this line of thinking, entrenched forces argue that opponents and outsiders calling for reform are exaggerating the conditions on the ground. This argument has been fundamentally undermined by the unfolding events in Tunisia.
Tunisia was doing relatively well economically, had a mild opposition, and a strong security establishment, so the risk of revolt was considered low. It wasn’t supposed to happen in Tunisia and the fact that it did proves that fundamental political reforms—widening the decision-making process and combating corruption—are needed around the entire Arab world.
The concern is not whether protests will spread from Tunisia, but that tensions in Arab countries could erupt at any moment—as the events in Tunisia made clear. While the conditions are different in every country, there are overarching demands in all Arab countries—improving governance, fighting corruption, and dealing with people in an equitable manner—regardless of the political and economic situation. These are issues that need to be tackled and tackled quickly.
The old argument is that if you open up the system, the Islamists will take control. This provided the ruling parties justification for keeping the system closed and maintaining a tight grip on power. In Tunisia, it was one person who wasn’t affiliated with an Islamist party or part of an armed group who chose to burn himself out of economic frustration. This undermines the old guard’s thinking that the political system needs to remain tightly controlled. In the face of pent-up resentment and with no way to democratically express grievances, one person's action propelled a revolution.
Whether Arab countries will draw the right lessons is still unknown, but the initial indications are not encouraging.
No country is immune. There is a tendency by advisors in Arab regimes today to say that they are not Tunisia. And the other tendency is to argue that this is an economic crisis that can be dealt with through short-term measures like providing subsidies and increasing salaries.
This is totally missing the point. Unless leaders start understanding the real lessons and making the right moves, the Arab world will go back to business as usual in no time with severe and serious consequences for the future.
There are three lessons that the Arab world needs to take from the events in Tunisia. One, this is not about the economy—it’s about governance. Solutions, therefore, need to address governance issues as much as they need to tackle economic concerns.
Two, no one is immune. Countries can’t say that they are not at risk. Tunisia was a well-functioning country with a mild opposition and strong security force that enjoyed relatively strong economic growth—and this did not prevent the crisis from emerging.
Three, the old argument that countries can’t open up political systems without Islamists coming to the fore is the wrong argument to make. While Islamists could still exert influence after political systems are open, it became clear in Tunisia that change doesn’t need to come from an armed group or Islamist opposition. Instead, one person can trigger a revolution that led to the fall of an autocrat. This points to a deeper, structural problem that must be addressed in a sustained way rather than through knee-jerk and short-term reactions.
Western governments that offer blind support to autocratic regimes or look the other way as repressive policies are carried out should revisit their policies. While reform is certainly a homegrown process, the international community should not impede political reform in countries like Tunisia.
Tunisia was a police state and corruption was pervasive for years. This was well known but ignored by the West. This needs to change and there should be more emphasis put on political reform. Good governance should not be given lower priority when the West deals with the Arab world on issues of concern to both sides. Corruption, equity, good governance, and the rule of law are issues that can no longer be contained within each country—they have a global nature and the international community can no longer overlook them.
The region is indeed in crisis. From the struggles in Lebanon to the referendum in Sudan to secession in Egypt to the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, it’s about governance. Although each situation is different, the underlying themes that connect them all are the lack of good governance, pluralistic cultures, and serious respect for the rule of law.
Those who argue that the Arab world is not in dire straits are avoiding reality. Small events can set off a region-wide crisis and unless the governance issues that cut across all countries are addressed and addressed quickly, the Arab world will suffer more crises in the future. This is the most important lesson the Arab world and the international community should learn from the recent events in Tunisia.
The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.
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