The Jasmine Revolutions

Jan 31, 2011 12:00 AM

As Tunisia and Egypt pass through the throes of transition, can 'modernising authoritarian' regimes really move towards democracy, managing the increasingly restless, young populations within their borders?

Every story needs a beginning. The narrative of the current turmoil in the Middle East began when Mohamed Boazizi sat down outside the governor's office in Sidi Bouzid, calmly doused himself with petrol, flicked a lighter which engulfed him in the flames and sparked a series of protests, dubbed the ‘Jasmine Revolution' that would bring down Tunisia's sclerotic president in just three weeks and kick start uprisings across the region. All Boazizi wanted in life was the chance to set his own destiny. He was educated, but couldn't get a job in a country where unemployment stagnates at 14 %. He aspired to own a van to provide a steady income for his family, but when he started selling fruit and veg from a makeshift stall, the police harassed him and confiscated his livelihood.

Self-immolation is martyrdom in its purest form. Unlike suicide bombers, there is no attempt to murder or maim those around you, just the silent horror of desperation. The American journalist David Halberstam witnessed a monk set himself on fire in protest at the treatment of Buddhists in South Vietnam: 'Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly weathering and shrivelling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh . . . I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.'

But if such an individual sacrifice seems incomprehensible, we can understand the collective pain that fuelled the wider uprising. The US embassy cables released by Wikileaks pulled no punches in their assessment of the failings of the Tunisian regime. The country was a ‘police state' with the media controlled by the president's henchman. The first lady's corruption was equated with Imelda Marcos, but with property and jobs instead of shoes. The government ‘tolerated no advice or criticism' and the lack of opportunity for those outside the circles of political influence angered ordinary Tunisians. The question now is whether the scent of jasmine will drift in the air to Tunisia's neighbours. There have been deliberate copycat efforts in other states - with protesters setting themselves alight in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania. As I write, the government of Hosni Mubarak teeters on collapse after days of mass protests that have bought together vast swathes of Egyptian society to the streets.

But the strongmen will fight hard to cling on though, as Mubarak and many of Ben Ali's allies have done. For too long, Arab despots have convinced western policy-makers that the only alternative to their rule is the terror of the jihadists. They can cite real examples too - from the electoral victories of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria to Hamas in Palestine, both of which plunged each state into crisis. Despite calls for an orderly transition, it remains unclear that if Mubarak does leave office whether he will be replaced by the middle class intellectual Mohammed El Baradei or one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is something that worries many in the local liberal elite, hoping for a quiet life. Larry Diamond, an expert on democratisation from Stanford suggested the same play was at work in Latin America, where the middle classes preferred authoritarianism to the fear of revolutionary communism. However, although coming late in the game, many of those states are now far more democratic.

And although relativist scholars have tried, it's hard to intellectually reconcile Islamism and democracy -while the concepts of shura (consultation), ijma' (consensus) are often internalised in Islamist movements, that's a long way away from the sovereignty of the people or freedom of expression. But in Turkey, the Islamist AKP has become a moderate vanguard in the way in which Christian Democrat parties in Europe transformed. Some scholars, like Diamond, are now arguing that we should talk to Islamist movements to encourage them into the mainstream.

Many wonder if the Middle East is a peculiar region, where governments buoyed by oil and gas receipts can buy their citizens off with a half-baked social contract, and know the price of being ousted from power. It's hard to be optimistic about the potential for democratisation - of the 22 Arab League countries, the highest rated (according to The Economist), Lebanon, has just seen its government collapse. Even at the height of the post-Berlin wall euphoria, most countries in the Middle East were exercising limited, reversible changes to the their governance, often more about letting off steam than making long-term reforms. Outside powers have often talked tough on democratising the Arab world. President George W Bush was especially ebullient, ‘Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?' But the fear of the alternative and other strategic needs prevented much leverage being extracted in return for huge sums of military assistance. It's a fear felt by many in Israel, such as the former ambassador in Cairo, Eli Shaked, who claimed fresh elections would be the first and last in the country, fermenting an Islamist takeover.

The ingredients for change are well set. Countries from Iran to Morocco have a burgeoning young population, which is not just desperate to work, but is more educated and connected to the outside world than ever before. Indonesia provides a functioning example of a majority Muslim state that seeks to reconcile religion, radicalism and representation. And other Muslim countries from Mali to Malaysia have effective democracies, if somewhat managed.
Over the long term, 'modernising authoritarian' regimes like Tunisia and Egypt will fail as, without effective reform, they will find it impossible to meet the aspirations and protect the security of their citizens. But in the interim, democratisation will come against some powerful forces: the geostrategic need to support 'friendly' authoritarian regimes; a lack of commitment by outside forces; the propaganda and patronage provided by those opposed to change; and the simple fact that so many citizens have become accustomed to political claustrophobia.

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