Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Regime Change in Tunisia

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Update from AIJAC

January 18, 2010
Number 01/11 #04

This Update deals with the sudden overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia over the weekend. It focuses especially on two questions about the aftermath of this event: Is democracy now in the cards for Tunisia, and what are the implications of the regime change in Tunis for other Middle Eastern autocracies?

First up is columnist and author Anne Applebaum, who has studied democratic transitions and is sceptical that democracy is likely to follow the overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship. She argues, based on past examples in various countries as well as her own visit to Tunisia a couple of years ago, that the street riot method of overthrowing a regime has a poor history for creating real democracy. She also reviews that school of thought, especially in France, that saw Ben-Ali as a "model dictator" and argues that employment figures could have told people that something like this was brewing. For her full argument, CLICK HERE. Also warning that democracy may not be outcome in Tunisia are academic Nathan Brown, and Israeli columnist Smadar Peri, while journalist Michael Totten is somewhat more hopeful. Meanwhile, also joining Applebaum in deploring the idea of a "benevolent despot" is journalism lecturer Justin Martin.

Dealing with the regional fears and hopes created by events in Tunisia is American foreign policy expert Elliot Abrams. Abrams points out that Tunisia is unusual in the Arab Middle East in high education and GDP levels,  and makes an important distinction between the effect on Arab republics - such as Egypt and Algeria -  and monarchies - like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Abrams sees the latter as less vulnerable, sees Algeria's less personal dictatorship as not vulnerable to the overthrow of the regime by rioters, but points to Egypt or Libya as cases where the contagion could spread. For the rest of his analysis, CLICK HERE. Further exploring the regional implications and which regimes might be at risk is former CIA analyst Bruce Reidel. Expressing doubt that there will much contagion are German editor and author Josef Joffe and Israeli academic analyst Barry Rubin.

Finally, Iran expert Khairi Abaza tries to look at the parallels and lessons from the 1979 overthrow of the Shah in Iran to the situation in Tunisia. He predicts Tunisia's Islamists may try to form a coalition with liberals, as in Iran in 1979, before attempting to seize exclusive power, and calls on the West to unequivocally support the liberals and their demands for genuine democracy. He also warns against acquiescing in a cosmetic change to a merely superficially more liberal new dictatorship, arguing the Islamists would emerge from such a transition as the main opposition, poised to seize power in future. For all that he has to say, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:


Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution might not install a democracy

By Anne Applebaum

Washington Post, Monday, January 17, 2011; 12:00 AM


PARIS- Violent street demonstrations, followed by the toppling of a dictator, are an exhilarating way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society. They are not, however, the best way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society.

While watching Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" unfold, remember this: Street demonstrations can unexpectedly bring extremists into power, as they did in Iran in 1979. They can create unrealistic expectations and then unravel, as did the Orange Revolution that began in Ukraine in 2004. And they can end badly, with reactionary violence, like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square.

By contrast, the most successful transitions to democracy are often undramatic. Consider Spain, after the death of Franco; Chile, after the resignation of Pinochet; Poland, which negotiated its way out of communism; all of these democratic transitions dragged on, created few spectacular photographs - and ultimately led to stable political systems.

But all of those transitions were made possible by authoritarian leaders who recognized that the game was up or who, like Franco, had the good sense to die. Tunisia's president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali - as of Saturday, a resident of Saudi Arabia - didn't have that kind of foresight. Instead, he created fake opposition parties and a phony parliament, set up a draconian regime that controlled the Internet and beat up the occasional dissident to keep everybody else frightened. A French friend who was in Tunis a few weeks ago told me that the newspapers were so favorable to the president that stories read as if they had been written by Ben Ali's mother.

Yet the recent outburst of anger in Tunisia was not only predictable, it was predicted: I was briefly in Tunis three years ago, and people talked of little else except enormous numbers of educated and unemployed young people. Some thought they would turn into a wave of immigrants; others worried they would gravitate to radical Islam; many feared that the chaos in Iraq put them off the idea of democracy.

A month ago, they turned to street protests. So far, this is not an Islamic revolution - but it isn't a democratic revolution yet, either. Instead, we are witnessing a demographic revolution: the revolt of the frustrated young against their corrupt elders. Anyone who looked at the population numbers and job data could have guessed it might happen, and, as I say, many did.

Yet if it was so obvious, why wasn't this explosion anticipated, managed, channeled into elections? If it could be done in Chile, why not Tunisia? Clearly Ben Ali and his family were too comfortable and too rich. Unlike the Spaniards or the Poles, he didn't share a continent with other democracies. The war against terrorism gave him a way to justify his authoritarianism: As an ally in the fight against radical Islam, he neatly avoided American pressure.

But Americans don't matter much in Tunisia, where France, the former colonial power and largest investor, has indulged and supported Ben Ali for decades, both materially and ideologically. While 18th-century France developed the modern philosophy of democracy, the contemporary French commentariat has developed something like a philosophy of anti-democracy. Dismissing Americans and their naive belief in "democracy promotion," a columnist in Le Figaro argued only last week that all nations have "a right to their own history," which is more important than their "right to democracy," whatever that means.

In this school of thinking, Ben Ali was a model dictator: He defended women's rights, educated his middle class, prevented the radical Islamists from coming to power - and that was enough. Former French president Jacques Chirac once declared that "the most important human rights are the rights to be fed, to have health, to be educated and to be housed." By that standard, he concluded, Tunisia's human rights record is "very advanced."

Ben Ali clearly came to believe this himself. In public, he spouted phony "reform" rhetoric. Meanwhile, his corrupt entourage (many of whom arrived in France over the weekend, installing themselves in a hotel next to Disneyland Paris) created a stagnant and stultifying society, one in which those educated young men and blue-jean-clad young women had few prospects and knew it. These demonstrations began with the dramatic public suicide of a university-educated 26-year-old who couldn't make a living as an illegal street vendor. They grew quickly because so many young people sympathized with his plight.

The French were surprised. The Tunisian elite was surprised. Had they not been surprised - had they, like their counterparts in Egypt or Belarus, not been misled by their own anti-democratic ideology and talk of benevolent dictatorship - we might be watching a peaceful and orderly transfer of power in Tunis instead of street riots. I'm delighted to applaud the departure of Ben Ali. I hope the government that emerges in his wake brings Tunisians greater liberty and prosperity. I wish I felt more confident that it will.

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Who’s Next After Tunisia?

by Elliott Abrams

Council on Foreign Relations
, Sunday, January 16, 2011

Wide discussion of whether the revolt in Tunisia will now spread to other Arab lands seems to me to ignore two key factors: what is unique in the Tunisian case, and the issue of monarchy.

Tunisia was unique in combining a reasonably advanced society (80% literacy, $8,000 per capita GDP) with an extremely repressive personal dictatorship. Algeria, right next door, is different: It is a dictatorship, but one ruled by what is known as “Le Pouvoir,” the power—a shadowy combination of military officials. President Bouteflika has been in power for 12 years, but his is more institutional than personal or familial rule, and it is characterized less by the rapacious corruption of the Ben Ali family in Tunis than by immobility and boredom. Riots might convince the military leaders to dump Bouteflika, but it will be harder in Algeria than in Tunisia to remove the regime.

Egypt is a closer case, for the possible candidacy of President Mubarak’s son Gamal to be his successor would suggest a move from military to familial rule. As there are no term limits in Egypt, were the 47-year-old Gamal to run and win in this year’s presidential election he could follow his father’s 30 years in power with 30 of his own. Moreover, there are persistent stories about corruption in the Mubarak family and the wealth of his sons, and widespread corruption throughout the regime. Here we get closer to the kind of powder that exploded in Tunisia. Libya is a special case due to the unique character of Muammar Qadhafi, but here too rule is less institutional than personal and familial: his sons hold central positions in the regime. Syria is a classic case of familial rule by a son following his father as president for life, but the organs of repression are especially vicious and regime control over them seems strong. If the Tunisian revolt is going to spread, Egypt and Libya are likely the best candidates.

Why not Jordan or Morocco, which are mentioned in some news stories, or the Gulf kingdoms and sheikdoms? I would argue that the issue here is perceived legitimacy. Such systems have two advantages: that the monarch is often viewed as a legitimate ruler who stands above politics, and that the blame for poor governance (inefficiency, corruption, repression) can be cast onto the ministers—who can then be replaced.

Of course the system can break down, for example if the royals appear to be corrupt themselves and to live in overly ostentatious splendor. And efforts to keep the blame with the civilian ministers can fail if they are replaced too often and appear to be nothing but marionettes of the palace. Creating constitutional monarchies where some degree of power is shared with elected politicians has barely been tried in the Gulf (it is most advanced there in Kuwait, which has a real parliament), and the experiment has proved extremely difficult in Jordan and Morocco. But it may offer a better –smoother and even faster– path to a stable democracy than can be found in the fake “republics” of the Arab world. This will be a significant competition to watch. Which kind of system is best able to undertake reform and which will lead more peacefully and sooner to democracy (whether in a constitutional monarchy or republic) and to full respect for human rights?


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Tunisia and the Lessons of the Iranian Revolution

Khairi Abaza

The New Republic, January 16, 2011 | 2:14 pm

What happened in Tunisia over the past few days was reminiscent of scenes from Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and ’90s: people’s power in action. But it is another historical parallel—to Iran in 1979—that has something to teach the West as it figures out how to respond.

The toppling of Tunisia’s longtime dictator, Ben Ali, recalled the last days of the Shah, when riots against poor living conditions and calls for human rights quickly turned into demands for getting rid of a dictator. The Iranian revolution did not start as an “Islamist revolution,” but rather as a genuinely anti-authoritarian uprising in which liberals, communists, independents, and Islamists all took part. For a short period, the Islamists even worked with other political forces until they consolidated their power, then turning against their erstwhile allies and destroying them violently.

In Tunisia, the Islamists could try to repeat this pattern. Indeed, it would not be surprising to see them form an alliance with secular forces in the short term. This will last only until the Islamists consolidate their power, at which time they will jettison the non-Islamist elements, turning Tunisia into another Iran.

And so, just like Iran in 1979, Tunisia now finds itself at a crossroads: Will it head down the path of democracy, or will there be a takeover by Islamists? In 1979, Europe and the United States missed an opportunity to stand with liberals at the time of the Shah’s overthrow, leaving them at the mercy of the Islamists. Now, the West must avoid repeating this mistake in Tunisia by clearly identifying with the liberals, and their demands for democracy and better governance.

The worst thing the West could do would be to support a cosmetic change in which another authoritarian figure replaces Ben Ali and makes only small concessions to ease popular discontent—granting the people some new liberties, while maintaining the authoritarian structures of the state. Such a move would signal to the Tunisian people that the West is not actually interested in promoting democracy in Tunisia, and would likely set the stage for the Islamists and their international sponsors to emerge as the strongest opposition. In the end, Tunisia would likely fall to the Islamists, another form of authoritarianism.

Some in the West have long argued that because of the lack of a viable liberal alternative, supporting authoritarian regimes in Arab countries is the only political choice against the Islamists. Now, in Tunisia, as people flood into the streets demanding democracy, we see that this is not the case. It was not the case in Iran in 1979 either, but the West was so invested in the Shah that it failed to strongly back the liberal opposition. We don’t have to repeat that error today.

Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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