Saturday, January 15, 2011

Right. Tunisia.

tunisia day & night
tunisia day & nightBy david pham. Used under a Creative Commons license.

While the media circus in our neck of the woods was focused on the fundamentally pretty insignificant drama in the US, we missed the real news. Tunisia. As Juan Cole put it, it's the first social revolution in the Islamic world since 1979, and this time it's Sunni and Arab, which means it has the kind of potential for contagion that the good Ayatollah's project never did.

Too bad I don't really know squat about Tunisia. Great beaches, great food, sunshine, a laid-back attitude about religion, and a corrupt semi-authoritarian pseudo-democracy muddling along in general second-world style. I'm trying to educate myself, though. Here's what I've figured out so far.

By African standards, Tunisia has been doing great. The economy is pretty well developed and nicely diversified, about two-thirds services, a quarter manufacturing, and the rest extractive and agricultural. Some oil production but not so much it'd seriously skew things. Tourism is a big industry. Lots of new infrastructure investment. Very close trade ties with the European Union; we have the Tunisians make our sneakers, sew our shirts, and produce a lot of food. Lots of people coming and going, too; Tunisian immigration to France and from there to the rest of Europe, Europeans mostly visiting as tourists. The GDP looks pretty good, at $82B PPP.

It's also been politically and socially stable since the now-ex-President Ben Ali kicked out his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, in 1987.

Tunisia is also doing sort of OK by Arab standards; stabler than Algeria, richer than Egypt or Morocco, less divided than Iraq, less of a police state than Syria; economically near the top of the pack of countries not based on oil extraction.

So what gives? And why does it give in Tunisia?

Any polity is stable in good times. If there's little unemployment and robust economic growth, people will be too busy to have a revolution, no matter what the government does. The system will only be put to the test when that goes pear-shaped, for whatever reason. While Tunisia has been posting pretty respectable GDP growth numbers, that's not translated into jobs. Lots of people are unemployed. Especially young people. Young men, in particular. That's bad. Young men need a purpose. If the economy doesn't provide them with one in the form of a sensible job with decent prospects, there will be trouble.

If you put polities on an axis with totalitarianism on one end and anarchy on the other, you'll find a few islands of stability. One island is somewhere pretty close to the totalitarian end. Sufficiently oppressive systems can go on indefinitely, if they can figure out how to deal with succession—the usual way they collapse is with a power struggle once the Glorious Leader dies, or if a new Great Leader decides to loosen the screws a little. Mature democracies with well-established institutional, social, cultural, and political infrastructures are another island. They will have safety nets and contingency plans and adjustment structures and cash cushions in place that can handle many social and economic crises and put the system back on track.

The countries somewhere between the two tend to be unstable.

Tunisia seems to fit that mold rather nicely. Authoritarian, but not so authoritarian that even a peep of dissent will get your ass jailed. There is an institutional and political infrastructure of parties, elections, organs of government, and what have you, even if the President's party always wins. Labor unions exist and are relatively strong and independent of the ruling political party. There's a pretty big and pretty well educated middle class. That middle class speaks French and often also English and is online. Internet access is not politically restricted, even though proscribed sites may be blocked, and there may be surveillance.

The middle class has enough information to know that their system stinks big-time. They can see the nepotism, corruption, the way the ruling clans skim the cream off the economy, and the red carpets they get in Europe. That's a pretty powerful revolutionary class right there. Massive pent-up discontent plus a way to connect, disseminate, and organize.

The working classes are also organized through labor unions. I would assume there is some Internet penetration there as well, through Net cafés and second-degree connections as well. So even in the presence of an official media blackout, they can get some idea of the big picture as well.

The ingredients for a revolutionary situation appear to be there. There's a big social problem—mass youth unemployment. There's a corrupt government. The government isn't quite evil enough to keep a lid on the ensuing discontent. People are able to connect with each other, get the big picture, more or less, organize, and then get out on the streets. It was also apparent that the President's hold on the levers of state violence wasn't quite as solid as he thought: when the rubber met the road, at least a part of the army flat-out refused to fire on the protesters. That's when Ben Ali decided to get the hell out of Dodge.

This looks like the Russian February Revolution of 1917 in some respects. It's a spontaneous mass explosion of discontent that ended up driving out the Tsar. However, there's no unifying figure or ideology representing that discontent, and at least so far it appears that the institutional structure of the state is more or less intact; we have a caretaker president promising rapid elections.

In other words, there's a power vacuum. That won't last very long. Something will move in to fill it.

I don't know much about Tunisia, but I kinda doubt even an expert could make anything more than a wild guess about who or what that would be. If I was live-blogging the February Revolution, I wouldn't have given the Bolsheviks a snowball's chance in Hell of ending up on top—a small band of loud troublemakers with their leader in exile, too. So a Bolshevik-style scenario can't be ruled out. If that's the way it'll play out, it'll be either the Islamists or the Communists who'll do it; they're the only ones with an ideology, an organization, and a will to power for that sort of thing. However, I really can't see the Hizb-ut-Tahrir in charge in Tunis; Tunisia just isn't that sort of country. So between those two, my money would have to be on the Communists. But somehow that doesn't seem all that likely either.

A more likely scenario is that the existing power structures reassert themselves, with some more or less cosmetic reforms. The economic, military, and political power is concentrated among a handful of clans—seven, according to Juan Cole—and that power will be very tough to break. They will also have the advantage of international backing. Ben Ali got lots of pats on the back for advancing democracy although he didn't, really; I'm sure his successors will get the same treatment as long as they make the right noises and keep the business arrangements going.

If this is combined with a reform program that gets rid of the worst and most overt forms of corruption in the system—like the business with the permit for a fruit stall that got the poor guy to set himself on fire, which triggered this situation to start with—this could actually be a pretty OK kind of scenario. Tunisia would still be stuck with a corrupt, dysfunctional pseudo-democracy, but it would be marginally less corrupt and might be more inclined to gradual evolution towards a more open and better-functioning system.

Another possibility is that the system cracks open a good deal more and a genuine political pluralism is introduced. I have no idea what that would mean. Tunisian society has no glaring cracks in it—almost uniformly Sunni Muslim and Arab with a touch of Berber—so it might not result in Lebanese-, Iraqi-, or American-style permanent deadlock. But then it might; that's what usually happens when you set up democratic institutions in a country without the social, educational, and cultural underpinnings for it. Democracies grow slowly. Tunisia might have what it takes to become one, or it might not. I don't know.

The worst outcome is continued escalation of the revolutionary situation. That'll kill the economy dead, which will make life much worse for everybody. If the riots don't quiet down fairly quickly, Tunisia could become a basket case like Algeria during its long civil war. That would be very bad. I don't know enough about Tunisia to even try to guess how likely this outcome is. Does it have the divisions that caused Algeria to fall apart?

Regionally, Tunisia could be very important. It appears socially and economically rather similar to Egypt and Jordan. It's also Sunni Muslim. That means that it could become a precedent for other Arab countries in a way that Iran (Shi'ite, Persian) and Turkey (er, Turkish) never could. Something like the rapid unraveling of the Soviet bloc isn't inconceivable.

In any case, something's hit the fan, and there will be a lot of splatter. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

And, for the record, I really hope this plays out well. The Arab world badly needs a shining beacon on the hill. Perhaps Tunisia will finally be it. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you.


  1. Algernon said it: thanks. This was educational!

    By the way, you probably noticed the Tunisian blog that was mentioned in HS today? In case you didn't:

    My French is a bit weak so trying to interpret the comments takes quite an effort from me, but in your case that shouldn't be a problem.

  2. A bit off topic, but I hope you'll take a look at the upheaval going on in Lebanon in a future blog. Your insights in that region were always highly educational.

  3. Not much to blog about, there. It's just people changing chairs. Froth. Theater.

    The country is politically deadlocked between two blocs, each of which is strong enough to stop the other from governing, but not strong enough to govern. Whoever is on top depends on which way some smaller blocs swing. Walid Jumblatt jumped ship to the March 8 (Hezbollah) side, so now they're in front. Walid Jumblatt isn't the most reliable of allies and smokes way too much weed, though, so it's anybody's guess how long that'll last. In 2008 he pissed off the Hez so bad they made a pincer movement on his stronghold in Barouk and beat the living crap out of his militia, stopping literally at his front door.

    Under these circumstances, it doesn't matter much who sits in which chair, or nobody. If Najib Mkati manages to put together a cabinet, it'll be just as dysfunctional as Saad Hariri's one. And if not, well, Lebanon muddled along without a government for a quite a while, a year or two back, no?

    I wouldn't travel there just now, though; it's a bit tense. I doubt it'll go further than low-grade sporadic violence, though, because the Hezbollah is strong enough to spank anyone who tries to start any serious shit.

    Kind of ironic that with all that, it still isn't strong enough to govern outside its own fiefdom.