So. Tunisian revolution. Worthwhile?

After the outpourings of joy in the wake of the departure of Tunisia’s Ben Ali (14th January) and Egypt’s Mubarak (11th February), there has been a period where other Arab regimes have offered concessions: Morocco & Jordan, bought off their people: Saudi Arabia or repressed viciously in the face of growing unrest: Bahrain Syria.

So what’s happening 6 months on from the Arab spring in the country where it all kicked off? The Economist is more optimistic than the Spectator, which raises the bogeyman of previously repressed Islamists gaining power, at the expense of relatively liberal, if despotic strongmen.

The intellectual elite threw their support behind the revolution, in which only a tiny percentage of the population participated. Now they complain of a lack of police protection. But the laconic policeman in charge at a local station, in response to a plea for help from a member of the CinemAfricArt audience [where a film by Nadia El Fani “Neither God, Nor Master” exploring Atheism was being shown], rather hit the nail on the head. ‘Ben Ali was protecting you, and you kicked him out,’ he reportedly said, and shrugged.

Despite this, the Economist concludes

COMPARED with the other upheavals across the Arab world this year, Tunisia’s is still the runaway winner. Since the country’s dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, with his greedy wife, Leila Trabelsi, flew off into a Saudi twilight on January 14th after a nationwide uprising that lasted barely a month, there have been political hiccups, sit-ins, strikes and riots, especially in the fly-blown towns of the interior, and several new governments. But under Beji Caid Sebsi, an avuncular 84-year-old who first served in a cabinet in the 1960s and took over as prime minister on February 27th, Tunisia has calmed down.

So. The warnings were at the time, that Islamists, who formed by far the best organised would prevail. Journalists, who made that prediction at the time, are finding enough evidence to support the view that they were right. And those who were optimistic, can still do so. I fell on the cautiously optimistic side at the time urging (writing about Egypt) the people of the Middle East to…

…contain their expectations – democratic systems are not perfect, and do not in themselves lead to freedom and the rule of law, nor do they always lead to good government. What it does ensure is that tired, ineffectual or repressive regimes get booted out before they become a liability and stupid ideas such as socialism, get tested to destruction.

But whatever happens – there is reason to be optimistic about the world right now, until politicians and religious leaders get together and screw it up for everyone…

Of Course there is much that could still go wrong. But to imagine that Islamists were NOT going to be influential in ex-dictatorships was clearly naive. In any future Middle-Eastern democracy is going to have Islamists in Government or it isn’t a democracy. This means that movies by Atheist feminists are going to be harder to show in public. It also means that, if democracy takes root, the islamists are confined to the Margins, and committed to democracy in much the same way as Eastern European communists are today.

I still remain optimistic that a better, freer, more democratic Middle East is on the cards. A democratic Syria will be both more Islamic, and freer than that of the Boy Assad. The Egyptian Military interim council is perhaps “new boss, same as the old boss”. But even they’re planning elections, which have a chance of being fair. Islamists may run amok in the Tunisian interior, but that’s economic – the despair of angry young men without jobs, and these people have been manipulated by extremists for the whole of history.

The Islamists are not the boogeyman. The Arab spring, it should be remembered, started not with an Islamic group but an unemployed fruit-seller, Mohammed Bouazizi, who was selling vegetables without a permit. Being unable to bribe the police, he suffered harassment. His self-immolation which led to The Arab spring was economic, not political. Tyrannies are tough enough to resist Islamism and other political opponents but insufficiently flexible to provide employment for their people. The lack of jobs changes the risk/reward profile of protest, by removing the economic levers the dictator can pull to blackmail his population. Unless the new leaders CAN reverse the economic factors that led to the revolution, Arabs will lose the faith that democracy can bring economic benefits.

The problem is that Democracy doesn’t in itself, bring employment. Free markets and the rule of law, strong property rights, and a lack of corruption in public services do. And these take generations to develop – generations the newly democratic countries do not have. Islamists are merely the latest incarnation of political extremists to use economic demands of the to impose political ideologies on them. Before them were the communists & fascists. Anarchists, religious fanatics and military men have all through history done exactly the same. Democracy itself is remarkably fragile, especially in its early years. Whoever gets control of Egypt and Libya can either use the levers of a democratic state for patronage for favoured groups leading to the African vision of elections as tribal head-counts, Or the European/Western model of democratic parties leading interest groups who get showered with economic favours when their favoured party wins. Neither is particularly good at upholding the real guarantors of freedom: Institutions such as a civil service & law enforcement which upholds rather than flouts the law, without corruption. We in the west HAVE to help Tunisia & Egypt build strong institutions. Whether their new institutions will last, though, That’s up to the Arab people themselves.

2 replies
  1. john b
    john b says:

    Was worried from headline and start of piece that I'd firmly disagree. As it is, I firmly agree with your lack of conclusion. Hope Tunisia continues down the democratic route as does rest of MidEast (also, remember, Economist is centre-right-classical-liberal; Speccie is equivalent of New Statesman – while both Speccie and NS say interesting things, Economist is the only one of the three I'd ever trust)…

  2. Single acts of tyranny
    Single acts of tyranny says:

    This is a very interesting and reflective article. My own fear and indeed expectation is that the notional democracy will become a kleptocracy in its own right with the fig leaf of democratic consent. It happens in Central and Southern Africa, I can't see why the North will be different.


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