Poverty alone does not cause revolutions. They are caused by thousands of accumulated injustices that, in their totality, push a society to its breaking point. When that point is reached, even the smallest of incidents can ignite the firestorm. In Tunisia, this appears to have been the case.
What began as the desperate act of a frustrated, humiliated young man in mid-December has electrified the Arab world:
“I am travelling, mother; blame is pointless. I am lost on a road not of our making. Forgive me for disobeying you. Blame the times, not me. I am leaving, and there is no return.”
These were the final words posted on a Facebook page by Tarek (Mohamed) Bouazizi, an impoverished, young unemployed street vendor from the tiny central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid who had been denied a local permit to run a small fruit and vegetable stall unless he paid officials “baksheesh” (a bribe). It was his sole source of income. In his despair, he set fire to himself ultimately succumbing to his injuries. His tragic final act of defiance sparked massive demonstrations and rioting throughout the country and eventually brought down the 23-year dictatorship of Tunisian President Ben Ali on January 4th.
Today, Bouazizi is a hero, and not just to his nation, but to millions of long-abused Arabs in the Maghreb who appear prepared to use the tragedy of his death as a catalyst for change. The Tunisian people had reached a point where even Ben Ali’s summary dismissal of his government, his promise of fair legislative elections within six months, and his pledge not to run for a sixth term in 2014 could not save his regime. If it is next to impossible for the educated few to find a job (much less a good job), how much less are the opportunities for the uneducated or those with limited or minimal education?
Tunisia is probably the last Arab country where a popular insurrection could have been predicted primarily because it was the most Europeanized country in North Africa. It is more stable, and Tunisians are generally better educated than most of their Arab brethren. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first post-independence president, made it his business to develop his country’s broad capitalist middle class by pouring resources into its educational system and making higher education effectively free. He abolished polygamy, established an anti-Islamist regime, and pushed a social agenda of secularization, women’s rights, birth control and family planning that, in contrast to most countries in the region, made sex education compulsory in high schools, and slowed population growth by keeping both public education and social welfare within manageable limits.
Under his successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, however, Tunisians became fed up with official corruption and the rapacious lifestyle of Ben Ali’s family (colorfully described in recent WikiLeak disclosures); unemployment hovering at 20% (which included an estimated 52% unemployment rate among the country’s university graduates); legions of impoverished workers, trade unionists, lawyers and human rights activists; endemic poverty in the rural areas; rising food prices; insufficient investment in the public sector, and one of the most repressive regimes in the region – to which both the EU and the US conveniently turned a blind eye. When the Tunisian police began wearing red armbands in solidarity with the dissidents, and the army refused to fire on them or to seize power for themselves choosing instead to surround the Presidential Palace and the airport, Ben Ali knew it was time to pack his bags.
When despots fall, the rest of the club takes notice. His ouster has sparked fear among Arab autocrats in almost every kingdom, emirate, republic or territory that his demise may be the harbinger of things to come given the rising tide of popular dissatisfaction with illiberal, unreformed authoritarian rule in the other Arab autocracies that line the south shore of the Mediterranean. The moment the Arab world learned of events in Tunisia, at least four Algerians set themselves on fire, an Egyptian self-immolated outside the parliament buildings in Cairo, and similar incidents occurred in Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
While the near-silence of Arab leaders speaks volumes about their fears, there is little doubt that the region’s dictators are praying for chaos and collapse in Tunisia. Libya’s Gaddafi even told Tunisians they were now suffering bloodshed and lawlessness because they were too hasty in getting rid of Ben Ali. He has good reason to be worried given that he has already lost the support of the powerful al-Warfalla and al-Zuwayya tribes that have now come out against him and support those demanding his removal. After all, the Tunisians achieved something unique in the Arab world. For the first time in recent memory, an Arab ruler was toppled not in the name of religion or ideology, nor by the army, or a foreign invasion, or a coup, but by a spontaneous popular uprising of the people over bread-and-butter issues like unemployment, the economy, corruption and the indignities associated with repression. It turned on its head the popular theory that the only issue in the Middle East worth supporting was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that Arab oppression of Arab was a minor concern.
Until this event, the rulers in the region considered themselves unassailable. Now, the aging Arab dictators of the Maghreb worry that the success of the Tunisians will incite their own impoverished populations to revolt. Probing beneath the surface of the Arab world, one finds an unwritten pact of sorts between those who rule and those who are ruled. Quite simply, if the people are to be excluded from political life and told to forego civil liberties, they must at least be provided with employment, services, economic growth and an improved living standard. This has not happened, and where it has, it has not happened fast enough to keep pace with their burgeoning populations.
The concern in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Morocco and Algeria has been heightened even further by the knowledge that thousands of messages from ordinary Tunisians supporting the revolution flooded the Internet on Twitter and Facebook by a young generation of Arabs who used their iPhones and blogs to coordinate rallies and protests across their country, took photos of what was happening as it happened, and posted them on Facebook and YouTube.
Statistically speaking, Tunisians have greater access to cell phones and the Internet than do residents of Lebanon, Jordan or Syria (estimates are as high as 30% of Tunisia’s population), and this access allowed them to coordinate their activities and disseminate information to the Arab world instantly. For this reason, Ben Ali tried to censor the Internet by blocking political and social media websites. Video-sharing sites were a special target of his censors as Tunisian activists frequently released provocative online videos including one documenting the first lady’s frequent shopping trips to Europe using the presidential jet, a beachfront compound decorated with Roman artifacts; ice cream and frozen yogurt flown from St. Tropez, France; a Bangladeshi butler and South African nanny; and a pet tiger in a cage. As a result, the moment President Ben Ali boarded the plane that carried him into exile, dozens of Egyptian activists began dancing outside the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo, chanting ‘Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him too!’ Audiences in the Arab world were glued to Al Jazeera while Tunisians were filming their own revolution. Grainy cellphone images of clashes with the police in one town led to other clashes.
Demonstrators were told not to show up with opposition party slogans or flags, or to invoke the names of presidential candidates. The leaders of these movements were asked not to appear on the front lines and even to refrain from participating, so as not to give the authorities an excuse to write off the protests as being merely factional. In effect, a generation of Arabs that grew up without a political voice now found one on the web. As a result, the revolt spread like wildfire and became unstoppable.
As Marlyn Tadros writes:
“We all watched Ben Ali’s forces clashing with people, saw disturbing YouTube videos of loss of life, watched as Ben Ali’s airplane left the tarmac, watched him as his plane was denied landing in Malta and France and its final landing in Saudi Arabia. We all listened to Saudi citizens cursing at their leaders for allowing a tyrant on their land; listened attentively to the White House sheepishly offering a weak statement regarding the right of Tunisians to choose their leader. We saw tweets stating clearly that this was the way to win people’s hearts and minds, not through the toppling of a dictator through senseless wars because a real revolution is one that is by the people and for the people rather than a manufactured one.”
The implications are ominous. Saudi Arabia has 2.3M registered Facebook users; Bahrain about 220,000, and Oman 160,000. Arab autocrats know that if popular insurrections can succeed in stable, educated and relatively prosperous Tunisia, they can succeed in their own less stable, economically depressed, populous, and politically volatile countries. As Rami Khouri, editor of the Beirut Daily Star noted:
“The grievances that the Tunisian demonstrators articulated are also widely shared across the entire Arab world, with the possible exception of some of the smaller wealthy countries in the Gulf. These complaints are about rising prices and job shortages, but also about the heavy-handed and condescending manner in which ruling Arab elites treat their citizens and deny them the most basic human rights of expression, credible representation, political participation, holding power accountable, and equitable access to the resources of the state and the opportunities of the free market.”
Despite a wealth of resources, the Arab states have seen an economic growth rate of only 0.5% a year between 1980 and 2004 (and no better since then), according to the United Nations Development Program, placing them at the bottom of the world’s growth list. The International Monetary Fund has said that with current unemployment rates in the Arab world already very high, the entire region needs to create close to 100 million new jobs by 2020. But in a situation where budgets are being strained by the soaring cost of imported food and fuel, this will be virtually impossible especially in those Arab countries lacking significant oil reserves.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, has problems that dwarf Tunisia’s – the population is booming, 60% are under 30, youth unemployment is soaring, at least 20% of its 80 million citizens live on less than $2 a day, and one third of Egyptians are illiterate – prime indicators of popular discontent. About a million babies are born there every nine months. It also lacks the civil and political institutions that are necessary for democracy or any tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights. During his thirty years in power, Mubarak refused to allow the emergence of a secular, moderate, middle-class-based, pro-democracy opposition. His departure has now left the field to the Supreme Military Council that replaced him and to the only organized opposition in Egypt – the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Given that Egypt’s new military rulers, within the space of a week, have already authorized two Iranian warships to transit the Suez Canal (the first such authorization in three decades) carrying long-range missiles to Hezbollah, and allowed Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi (the MB’s supreme religious and ideological authority who has been exiled from Egypt since 1961) to return home and give an anti-Israel victory speech with anti-Semitic overtones to a million-plus crowd in Tahrir Square in Cairo on state television (while denying other Opposition leaders access to the podium), such actions would suggest that the military is preparing to grant significant power in Egypt’s future government and parliament to the Brotherhood. Qaradawi’s sermon had nothing to do with the goals of freedom, rights, reforms or a better life for which the people demonstrated in Tahrir Square for 18 days. It should be remembered that it was Qaradawi who argued that radical Islamist groups should always participate in elections as they would inevitably win them.
One has only to study the results of the latest Pew Global Attitudes Project (April-May 2010) to understand the attitude of the “Arab street” in Egypt and how that attitude would reflect itself in a free election. According to the Pew analysis, 82% want stoning for those who commit adultery; 77% would like to see whippings and hands cut off for robbery; 84% favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion, and 96% of women have been subjected to genital mutilation. Asked if they supported “modernizers” or “Islamists” only 27% said modernizers while 59% said Islamists, and 85% of Muslims in Egypt consider Islamic influence over political life to be a positive thing for their country……all of which suggests that any “democratic” revolution taking place in Egypt would likely be hijacked by the MB. After decades of repression, the MB has learned to stay in the shadows, and it is anxious to maintain the impression that it is just one part of the wider protest movement – rather difficult to believe given its guiding principle that “Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Qur’an is our law, Jihad is our way, and dying for Allah is our greatest hope.”
White House rambling over the MB being like an Arab version of the March of Dimes – a moderate, secular, social-oriented group is sheer nonsense but no surprise given that the organization was well-represented at President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, at the express invitation of the American government. As Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations writes:
“Many in the West presume that once Islamist parties are integrated into the political order, the burdens of governance will inevitably lead them to dispense with their ideological past. This does a disservice to the Muslim Brotherhood and its many offspring, denigrating their commitment to their dogma…..The moderation that these groups have exhibited in the past few decades in places such as Egypt was pragmatism born out of compulsion, not some kind of intellectual evolution. Relieved of the constraints of Arab police states, they are free to advance their illiberal, anti-Western agendas.”
Regardless of its cultivated image of moderation, the group remains committed to establishing Shari’a law throughout Egypt (and beyond) – the effect of which would be to dehumanize women and relegate non-Muslim religious minorities to second-class status, establish a Sunni theocracy modeled on Iran, repudiate the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, control access to the Suez Canal, promote terrorism throughout the region by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, sever the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and annex it to Gaza to establish a new, powerful Hamas-controlled state that would border the Red Sea and work for the annihilation of Israel.
The MB hates the West for what it is, not for what it does. It has spawned eleven different Islamist extremist organizations including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, al Qaeda and the Gama’a Islamiya (Islamic Group) ….. and if the Pew studies are correct, it’s moment may be rapidly approaching. Should the Egyptian army support a coalition government that would include the MB, what unfolded in Iran in 1979, Gaza in 2006, Lebanon this year, and Turkey in recent years could well be the harbinger of things to come in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Algeria, and the Palestinian Authority. For US interests in the Middle East and for Israel, it would be catastrophic – one man, one vote, one time.
In Algeria, although the middle class has so far failed to join the anti-government rioting in that country and there is no real backing for the protests from Algeria’s trade unions (both of which were evidenced in Tunisia), with 25% inflation combined with a 35% unemployment rate, a chronic lack of housing, political corruption and widespread poverty, the fear is that Algeria’s population may also being edging towards desperation, especially since 75% of those who are unemployed are under 30 years of age. Four days of rioting over price rises in food staples like cooking oil, milk and sugar have forced the government to use some of its vast $150B in gas export cash reserves to increase food subsidies, but not all Arab countries are so fortunate, and even subsidies, at this point, may not be enough to pacify the Algerians.
In Yemen, the poorest Arab state, nearly half the population lives on less than $2 a day and doesn’t have access to proper sanitation. With 35% unemployment, high prices, a nearly stagnant economy, less than 10% of the roads paved, a shortage of potable water, and tens of thousands displaced by the continuing war between the Yemeni government of Ali Abdullah Saleh and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is ripe for revolution. The government is riddled with corruption, has little control outside the capital, and its main source of income – oil – could run dry within a decade.
Nor is Saudi Arabia with it billions in oil revenues and formidable intelligence apparatus exempt from possible revolutionary chaos. Unemployment among its youth continues to run at 30% to 40%. As Karen Elliott House writes in the Wall Street Journal:
“The average age of the kingdom’s trio of ruling princes is 83, yet 60% of Saudis are under 18 years of age. Thanks to satellite television, the Internet and social media, the young now are well aware of government corruption – and that 40% of Saudis live in poverty and nearly 70% can’t afford a home. These Saudis are living Third World lives, suffering from poor education and unable to find jobs in a private sector where 90% of all employees are imported non-Saudis.”
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second largest city, sewage and rainwater recently flooded the city for the second time in 14 months. The combination of revolution in Cairo and government ineptitude in Jeddah produced widespread Saudi cynicism and anger on the Internet. The royal family increasingly is seen by its subjects as recklessly extravagant, corrupt and unable to deliver efficient government.
Exacerbating the problem is that the royal rulers are old, infirmed and largely out of touch. King Abdullah has been out of the kingdom for three months receiving medical treatment in the US and Morocco. Crown Prince Sultan, 85 years old and ill with cancer and Alzheimer’s, rarely is seen in public. Rounding out the ruling trio is the deputy Prime Minister, Prince Naif, who is 77 and suffering from diabetes and osteoporosis. After them? No one knows. As we witnessed in the post-Andropov era of the former Soviet Union, Gorbachev took power with reform policies that proved too little too late. Saudi Arabia may be no different. What Saudis hunger for are standard services provided by far less wealthy governments – good education, jobs, decent health care. What they may get, given their powerful and organized conservative Wahhabi establishment would be worse than Egypt’s feared Muslim Brotherhood if the system comes apart at the seams.
Even the Jordanian monarch is concerned. The Jordanian economy saw a record deficit of $2B this year, inflation rising by 1.5% to 6.1% in December 2010, and rampant unemployment and poverty – estimated at 12% and 25% respectively. When news of events in Tunisia spread to his country, King Abdullah immediately surrounded his palace with tanks as a precaution. Jordanians held protests in several cities over the rising prices of fuel and food, although Abdullah had earlier slashed some prices and taxes to quell the public anger and ease the burden on the poor. But when faced with events in Tunisia, he imposed a news blackout on the Bedouin riots staged against him in the southern town of Maan, as well as on the rallies held in Irbid, Karak, Salt and Maan by Jordanian University students and Ba’athist party members demanding that his Prime Minister, Samir Rifai step down due to declining living standards in the country. All told, more than 5,000 people staged protests across Jordan in “a day of rage” against escalating food prices and unemployment and it all occurred the same day that Ben Ali fled Tunisia.
Complicating Jordan’s dilemma are the serious street protests being staged by indigenous Bedouin tribes, the traditional backbone of the Hashemite royal house who are demanding the restoration of lands which they claim were stolen from them over the years by the royal family and the Jordanian government. In early February, 36 Bedouin tribal chieftains sent a letter to King Abdullah II demanding that he cede some of his power including the right to appoint prime ministers and ministers and that he cut down on extravagant royal spending in favor of helping the poor. For now, the Bedouins are making the most noise while the Islamic Action Front (IAF) – Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood – is biding its time, waiting to jump in when it sees the first crack in the royal stand against the disturbances. It seeks to amend Jordan’s election laws, which could enable it to regain significant parliamentary power, and possibly even a majority. It could then challenge secular Jordanian laws, the king’s economic ties with the US, and Jordan’s unpopular peace with Israel.
Jordan’s other problem is more serious. The Jordanian army consists of Bedouin soldiers belonging to the same tribes as the protesters in the streets. The royal security services have the same composition. Should Abdullah crackdown against the demonstrations, the likelihood of a wholesale Bedouin mutiny against the Hashemite royal house or even the first Bedouin coup against a Jordanian monarch cannot be ruled out.
Failing or failed Arab governance across the arc of countries stretching from Yemen and the Gulf to North Africa is not a new phenomenon. Neither are the remedies difficult to ascertain. The backwardness of the Arab world is evident everywhere: in education, health, rising unemployment and pervasive government corruption, and history suggests that the Middle East is running out of time. The World Bank observed in a recent report:
“Arab countries are very vulnerable to fluctuations in international commodity markets because they are heavily dependent on imported food. Arab countries are the largest importers of cereal in the world…and most import at least 50% of the food calories they consume.”
The problem is that the political leadership across the Arab world lacks the will to reform its economic, political or educational infrastructures primarily because they are well aware that reform has rarely if ever assisted despots in retaining their monopoly on power. Instead, they continue to use the West’s fear of Islamic terrorism as justification for their repression of all opposition, continuing Western dependence on Arab oil, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to deflect pressures for modern reforms in their countries that would affect everything from gender to knowledge. These regimes are not inclined to seek out new export markets, or increase their domestic manufacturing, or enhance their competitiveness through education and labor market reforms.
Whether this “Jasmine Revolution” (as it is being called) survives longer than the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon or the “Green Revolution” in Iran remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the democratization of Tunisia is a distinct possibility because unlike other Arab countries, Tunisia has a highly educated population; its annual economic growth rate hovers around 5%; its annual birth rate is only 1.7% (less than Britain); it is mono-ethnic (99% Sunni Arab); its per-capita income is almost twice as high as neighboring Morocco, and ahead of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; and it is more urbanized (67% of the population) than either Morocco (56%) or Egypt (43%). It also has a high level of tolerance as expressed in the large degree of equality for women. It has banned Muslim headscarves in public buildings and legalized abortions – a deep taboo in most Muslim societies. In addition, the country has strong ties with the European Union, and its economy is closely linked to Europe. Along these same lines, while Morocco sells only 15% of its output abroad, and Egypt 24%, Tunisia exports almost 40% of its GDP paralleling most European countries.
In the end, events unfolding in Tunisia and the greater Arab Middle East present the US with a dilemma. Free elections open to all parties including radical Islamists like the MB is an attractive concept. But so too are the concepts of respect for minorities, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, a free press, the equality of women, secular democratic opposition parties with a real opportunity of coming to power, unfettered trade and labor unions, a constitutional system of checks and balances, the separation of mosque and state, and adherence to treaties – none of which would take place if Islamists were to seize power by the ballot, through parliamentary coalitions or by force of arms as has already occurred in Iran (1979), Gaza (2006-2007), and Lebanon (2011).
Democracy is a political and voting process, but liberalization, the ultimate goal, is part of a defined value system notably absent in the Arab world. A society is truly democratic only when its population embraces the concepts of tolerance and the protection of minority rights, but a democratic process that only deepens Shari’a in Arab societies will be anything but liberal. We would be foolish to believe that Arab societies emerging from dictatorships, tribalism, economic and political stagnation and massive oppression can liberalize their political systems overnight.
To understand the future, we need to understand the past. Under the Truman Doctrine, US presidents used every conceivable instrument available, including massive financial and diplomatic assistance, to convince centrist parties notably in France and Italy to oppose the inclusion of Communists in any government despite the Communists calling for “free elections” under “united fronts.” Doing so, allowed these newly-freed countries the time to develop the institutions and political cultures necessary for democratic governance. Today, the primary US interest in the internal governance of these new Arab democracies should again be to help protect them from Islamist parties like the MB by opposing their inclusion in any government coalition for the reasons cited. Richard Cohen, writing in the Washington Post said it best:
“America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same.”