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Monday, 24 January 2011

Tunisia: A break with the past or a return to business as usual?

By Guy Burton

Here in Ramallah it has been hard to ignore recent events in Tunisia. The flight of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years of power and more than a month of protests against his regime reflect similar sources of frustration at poor living standards and human rights abuses across the region. But can the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ (an inevitable moniker placed on any significant form of social mobilisation against a government over the past decade) offer a model for other Arab societies to follow? Certainly media outlets from the Guardian and the BBC to Al Jazeera have played up the attention in this regard foreseeing a domino effect sparked by the Tunisian protests and spilling over to neighbouring governments. Those seen as most at risk and liable to similar forms of social pressure are Egypt, Libya, Jordan and Palestine.

Prospects for democracy

The region’s recent past does not bode well for Jasmine Revolutions elsewhere. Both in terms of a maximal outcome of democracy and a minimal form of greater political liberalisation, the prospects are not promising. Given its uncertainty, democracy does not appear an especially attractive prospect for many Arab regimes and their supporters.

Perhaps the two most visible examples of greater democracy (at least in terms of free elections) were in Palestine and Iraq during the past decade. The 2006 Palestinian legislative elections led to a Hamas victory, much to the distaste of the international community that bankrolls the Palestinian Authority (PA). The donors’ primary partner, the secular nationalist party Fatah, has subsequently delayed presidential, local and legislative elections in 2009 and 2010 with the tacit acceptance of the international community. But while Hamas has been undermined and persecuted by the PA in the West Bank even if elections were held tomorrow Fatah would still be likely to lose, most likely to various independents.

Similarly, liberal democracy in Iraq has exacerbated divisions rather than reduced them. Having been boycotted by the majority Sunni population, the 2005 elections did not lead to national unity. And despite their participation in the 2010 elections, politics remains a zero-sum game between different sectarian groups. The situation is further compounded by the ongoing civil strife and the continuing presence of American troops whose presence is paradoxically both its cause and (possibly?) solution. In such cases, neither Palestine nor Iraq offer Arab leaders and their populations a promising vision of future democracy.

More limited political liberalisation?

Political liberalisation also seems beyond most Arab governments. In Syria, the flowering of the ‘Damascus Spring’ in 2000, when greater civil and political freedoms seemed possible was brief. It brought an end to the 90s’ decade throughout which many observers thought political liberalisation to be possible. Instead only the facade of liberalism and democracy remains. The 2010 Egyptian and Jordanian elections saw various measures, including attempts at gerrymandering, being used against the main Islamist opposition in attempts to prevent or discourage them from standing.

Across the Arab world the state tends to overpower society. Both leaders and the led seem to recognise this: Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi arguably spoke for many of his peers when he said that the protestors should have waited for Ben Ali to go in his own time while similar protests in neighbouring countries have remained limited to date. In part this reflects the regional public’s awareness that they cannot risk pushing the state too far, lest they provoke a disproportionately repressive reaction.

The shine comes off: business as usual

At the same time, protests may not achieve much in the way of change. In Tunisia a newly appointed national unity government includes several of Ben Ali’s ministers (defence, interior, foreign affairs and finance). As a result, the demonstrations continue to take place, with protestors demanding a complete break with the past. But given the relative dominance of the state within the region, what are the chances of them being sustained?

So far the Tunisian case suggests that, when sufficiently sustained, protest can remove particular power brokers. But the asymmetrical relationship between state and society will not be enough to transform the system. To illustrate this point, it is worth noting the experience of the last Arab ‘revolution’, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005. Then Syria’s political and military presence was driven out following protests against the assassination of former PM, Rafiq Hariri. However, only a few years later, Syria’s position was restored through its Hezbollah client – and in a government formed by Rafiq’s son, Saad.

Guy Burton
is Researcher at the Centre for Development Studies at Birzeit University and Research Associate at the LSE Ideas Centre.

Shifting Sands is the blog of the Middle East International Affairs Programme at LSE IDEAS, analysing current events in the Middle East and contributing to the ongoing deliberations over policy prescriptions.

Silvia L. Peneva, Editor

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