The Tunisian government has fallen. The first collapse of an autocratic regime in the Arab world due to a popular uprising has implications for the wider region, where there is no shortage of states with similar vulnerabilities. Though a domino effect is unlikely given the unique conditions in each country, Egypt is the next one to watch.
Unprecedented public agitation in Tunisia has brought down the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, an event that may have repercussions far beyond the tiny North African state.
Though a small, closed, and isolated place, Tunisia is part of a significant region where other states — to varying degrees — also are vulnerable to mass uprisings. The social unrest in Tunisia over the past month suggests the decades-old style of governance in the Middle East and North Africa region increasingly is becoming untenable.
Since their establishment in the post-colonial period, regimes in the region have relied on a number of factors to maintain their power. These have included exploiting the Islamist threat to get the masses to accept an autocratic state as a defense against an “Islamic” one. They also have included a strong security and intelligence apparatus that has prevented social mobilization efforts. And they have been marked by an ability to maintain a decent level of economic development by gradually moving away from the command-style economy toward economic liberalization.
Each of these three core factors are no longer working the way they once used to.
For one thing, Islamists increasingly have fragmented into different strands, the majority of which want to pursue their political goals via democratic means. The jihadist threat has also subsided. And most important, a rising Turkey under the Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seen by many people in the Arab world as a template for a system in which religious and secular segments of society could coexist. In essence, the old Islamist bogeyman these regimes would cite is no longer an argument capable of convincing the masses to tolerate a secular
For another thing, the security and intelligence apparatuses in the Arab world have struggled to thwart public mobilization in an age where communication technology has advanced tremendously. When these regimes came to power, people at best had one landline telephone and watched state radio and television — a situation that continued until the last few years. With the explosion of satellite television, the Internet and cellular phones, people have found it much easier to communicate and to mobilize, especially in countries where education levels have gone up rapidly as is the case with Tunisia.
Still another change has been the gradual move by the region’s autocratic regimes from command economies to more market-oriented ones. Some — such as Algeria, Libya, and to a lesser degree, Egypt — have managed the change on account of their petroleum wealth. Meanwhile, the forces unleashed by global financial downturn and economic recession have made it much more difficult for the regimes’ to maintain decent economic conditions in their respective countries. Some of the following countries can rely on energy wealth to address this problem, avoiding the kind of social unrest unleashed in Tunisia due to runaway unemployment; others will not:
Libya has a small population (6.5 million) relative to its size and wealth and is unlikely to see mass unrest. The Gadhafi regime over the years also skillfully has employed institutions to connect with the grass-roots in order to counter the threat of alienation from the government. Besides, in the case of Libya the issue is an intra-elite struggle between old guard and those calling for more reforms.
Algeria is also petro-rich but has a much larger population (35 million). It also has had the worst experience with Islamist insurgency, and given that the North African node of al Qaeda is based in country, many remain fearful that jihadists will exploit any mass rising against the government. There is also a fair degree of democracy in Algeria, with multiparty politics including Islamists in parliament. Each of these factors reduces the chances of a mass uprising.
Morocco is more vulnerable than Algeria given that it has more less the same size population (33 million) but without the energy resources. That it has a constitutional monarchy with multiparty parliamentary politics including an AKP-style Islamist party in the legislature provides it with a decent cushion, however. The society is also significantly torn between religious and secular classes.
Egypt is the most vulnerable in all of North Africa and the Middle East given it is already in a historic period of transition given that its elderly president, Hosni Mubarak, is ailing and his successors are divided over how to ensure regime stability and continuity of policies. Moreover, the opposition boycotted recent elections that it saw as unfair, and opposition parties are lack representation in the system. The country’s largest opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, has even said it is considering civil disobedience as a way forward in the wake of the recent electoral rigging. Regime-change in the region’s largest Arab state (80 million people) has huge implications for not just the Arab states but also Israel and U.S. interests.
The Arab masses (not just in North Africa but the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula) have watched the fall of the Tunisian regime blow by blow, creating the possibility that the public in many countries may find inspiration in the Tunisian experience. It is too early to say how things will unfold in the Middle East and North Africa, as each state has unique circumstances that will determine its trajectory. What is certain, however, is that a regional shift is under way, at least to the extent that governments can no longer continue with business as usual.