By Barry Rubin
A popular uprising fueled by unemployment, economic suffering, and long-term discontent has overthrown the dictator–but not necessarily the dictatorship–in Tunisia. In 55 years of independence, the country has been governed by two dictators, the current–until now–one being Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali, who has been in power for 23 years and was a key power in the regime even before that.
Is this going to spread? Does it mark some new phase in Arab politics? Probably not. Tunisia is a very distinctive country. It has been the most Europeanized state in the Arab world, due in part to the secular-oriented policies of the regimes. There has been an Islamist movement but the regime has kept it weak, perhaps making Tunisia the Arabic-speaking state with the lowest proportional support for Islamism among its population.
There have been economic riots in other countries over the years, especially in Algeria or, for example, against reductions in bread subsidies in Egypt. Notably, there was the Beirut Spring movement against Syrian control of the country. But in Tunisia the opponents lack of leadership and organization is likely to mean that the same elite and the army will remain in control of the country.
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Here’s the bottom line: Statist and dictatorial policies have led to serious limits on freedom throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Economic stagnation and lagging living standards are prevalent, except in those countries that have large oil and natural gas incomes compared to small populations.
How have regimes kept in control? Through giving rewards to supporters and punishing opponents; military and police power; redirecting hostility toward other (America, Israel, the West) targets; and other means. While revolutionary Islamists have promoted rebellion, Arab nationalist regimes have opposed them with a wide arsenal of tactics. And the very fear of an Islamist transformation can also be a good tool in keeping the elite together and the masses in line.
That system got too far out of balance in Tunisia. There is a chance of parallel developments elsewhere–Algeria has also experienced riots–but it is not likely. At any rate, this issue will have to be watched closely.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).