Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tunisia after Ben Ali

Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Council on Foreign Relations
January 14, 2011

After twenty-seven years in power, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left the country, apparently for Dubai. The month-long protests that led the Tunisian military to push the president from power underscored the political alienation, limited economic opportunity, and corruption rife in Ben Ali's Tunisia. With Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi temporarily in charge of the country, the question is: Now what? It's hard to say at this early stage, but here are a few conclusions:

* There is no indication that the Tunisian armed forces are interested in military rule. Rather, the military's decision to end Ben Ali's rule reflects their desire to save Tunisia from consuming itself in the convulsions of demonstrations, protests, and violence that were sure to continue had the president stayed on. Throughout the last few days, there were indications that the military would not shoot Tunisians for the sake of saving Ben Ali from an enormous mess entirely of his own making.

* The military's decision to side with the people will likely put pressure on Tunisia's interim leaders and those who eventually come to power to heed society's demands for reform and change. Whether the military's leaders are democrats is not the issue; rather, their concerns seem to be that that graft, corruption, and the practices of one of the worst police states in the Middle East proved to be a threat to social cohesion and stability. Now both the officers and citizens have an expectation that new leaders will make a commitment to mitigate these problems.

* The Tunisian uprising against Ben Ali was devoid of Islamist agitation. This should put to rest the notion that Islamism is the only robust social force in the region. Opposition to regimes in the region is actually broad-based.

* Tunisia is an important but largely secondary ally of the United Sates in North Africa. With few, if any, strategic interests engaged, it makes it easier for Washington to make a strong statement about "applaud[ing] the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people," as President Barack Obama said in response to Ben Ali's departure. It's an open question whether the Obama administration will continue to be as forthright when it comes to political ferment in Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan, where Washington's primary interests are engaged. With the exception of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech in Doha this weekend and Obama's statement today, the administration has preferred to speak softly on reform and change. Perhaps now they will see value in being more vocal.

* Understandably, there has been considerable talk about a democratic wave sweeping the Middle East. Egyptians, Algerians, Jordanians, and others have been watching events in Tunisia carefully and seeking inspiration in "Tunisian people power." At the same time, the defenders of Middle Eastern regimes have also been watching and drawing their own conclusions about how events in Tunisia affect them and the durability of their political systems. Precedent would suggest that instead of getting out in front of demands for change with genuine reform, these leaders will likely make some concessions to their people while shoring up their regimes through coercion.


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