The citizens’ revolution in Tunisia that forced dictator Zine el Abidine ben Ali to flee the country provides many lessons for the Arab world. Regimes should keep the lessons in mind to avoid repeating Tunisia’s experience in their own countries, while citizens can draw inspiration in hopes of effecting democratic change.
First, Tunisian citizens have reminded Arabs of the main lesson of democratic transformations: Never underestimate the potential of peoples stifled under the yoke of authoritarianism. No matter how long the rule lasts or how tight its grip, citizens will instigate change through sudden revolutions and uprisings with the power to overcome corruption and bullets.
Second, Arabs have learned that authoritarian regimes lack public legitimacy, even if they create economic growth. Under Ben Ali, Tunisia had the highest growth rate among Arab countries outside the Gulf region; average annual individual income rose to $4,000, education became more widespread, and illiteracy rates were cut significantly.
Once this growth stagnated, however, many Tunisians became dissatisfied and had no place to turn to air their grievances. Their concerns about bread-and-butter issues quickly evolved into a broader demand for political liberties and democracy.
Third, authoritarian leaders are incapable of comprehending people’s suffering. Ben Ali and his ministers ignored rising unemployment rates of 40% among the educated youth and the increasing gap between rich and poor. When street protests turned into a larger uprising, Ben Ali’s regime responded with bullets and clubs. It was only in the final days of his 23-year rule that Ben Ali promised citizens economic and social development, government accountability and democratic change. He convinced no one.
Fourth, attempts to overthrow authoritarian rule can occur spontaneously and gain momentum quickly. Demonstrators in Tunisia went beyond raising slogans of democracy, human rights and good governance by forcing the regime to acknowledge their basic social and economic rights. While the cost of overcoming Ben Ali’s regime was high — some 70 Tunisians were killed before he left the country — the demonstrators’ speed and persistence, as well as their growing ability to use social media, were successful in facilitating change.
Finally, authoritarian rulers in the Arab world who form friendships with the West — as Tunisia did — should recall the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979 that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Despite the West’s support for the authoritarian ruler, dictators can be removed from office and Western capitals are among the first to give up on them.
If Arab leaders of recalcitrant regimes heed these lessons, they should seek to implement democratic change in measured steps. Within a few weeks, they can impose a democratic form of government, despite the absence of viable opposition. That would benefit not only those in power, but their citizens as well.