The upheaval in Tunisia took most people by surprise – not just the ex-president
and his cronies, but also supposed experts on the country and region. As for the
average bloke, insofar as he had ever thought about the place – well, he
probably hadn’t. If he had even heard of it, it was probably in the context of
an ad in the travel agent’s brochure or window, or on the TV, offering a sunny
Mediterranean holiday. It was not the kind of place associated with mobs engaged
in lynching policemen, burning buildings and generally running amok.
that’s what it turned into, seemingly overnight. Tunisia thus served as a
classic example of a “black swan” (as in Nassim Taleb’s book of that name) – a
dramatic and “game-changing” development coming out of a seemingly cloudless
sky. And let’s make no mistake, it IS a major event, on a global basis – but
it’s important to understand why. The reason is largely the one advanced by all
the pundits in their analyses – but they didn’t go far enough in pursuing their
very valid rationale.
The now-common wisdom about Tunisia is that that
country has demonstrated that a seemingly placid populace, cowed under an
autocratic regime, can be moved to sudden, intense bouts of fury that can bury a
seemingly stable regime that has been entrenched for decades. The prolonged
period of apparent calm is misleading, because beneath the surface, troubles
fester for a long time before eventually exploding.
What causes them to
explode so suddenly? Here, too, there is no great mystery, mainly because the
mob made it quite clear what its primary grievance was: food, the lack thereof
and/or the cost thereof.
The recent surge in the cost of numerous basic
foodstuffs – not just grains but, in the Tunisian case at least, sugar – was the
overt or proximate cause of the unrest. However, it is obvious – to the rioters
themselves as well as to outsiders – that the price of sugar was no more than
the proverbial straw that broke the back of the Tunisian camel (the one featured
in the tourist brochure…). The “underlying issues” that drove the mob onto the
streets were the lack of jobs and poor prospects facing the large cohorts of
young people, especially males, in Tunisia today.
Once seen in that
light, the Tunisian upheaval, revolution or whatever you want to call it, looks
an entirely different creature.
Of course, it was surprising in its exact
timing, but the idea that a country with that kind of (autocratic, repressive
and corrupt) regime, with that kind of (low-growth, corrupt and largely
backward) economic structure and, most critically, with that kind of demographic
structure, would suffer from potentially violent unrest is a no-brainer. It thus
ceases to be a rare-event “black swan” and becomes a commonplace white
Once that is understood, it is easy to see that there are many
other such white swans, both in the immediate vicinity (Egypt, for example) and
much further away (food riots in Laos this week). Numerous countries –
especially but not only in the Arab and Muslim world – have similar political,
economic and demographic structures, making the analyst’s work very easy: how
likely is it that this or that country will go the way of Tunisia? How stable is
this or that regime? Spurred by the al-Jazeera-driven wave of copycat riots and
even self-immolations that quickly spread across the Arab world and beyond, this
has been the main theme of the material written by political, military, economic
and other analysts over the last week or so.
But that is not good enough.
Simply rounding up the usual suspects, using a checklist of suspicious features
– Arab, Muslim, third-world, backward, corrupt, autocratic, low growth, high
unemployment, etc. etc. – is too simple and far too simplistic. Let’s think a
bit harder: where else are there countries with large populations of young
people suffering from chronic high unemployment and with poor prospects for
getting ahead in life? Youngsters who are blocked from joining the fast track
because they don’t have money or connections, and because ambition and
willingness to work hard don’t count for anything? Youngsters who have seen
their parents, and in some cases even their grandparents, stagnate on the slow
track of social and economic advancement, because of social, ethnic, religious
and other forms of discrimination? Does Belgium answer that description?
Holland? France? Most of Western Europe? Many American cities and some entire
states? If so, then it’s not just an issue facing “poor,” “backward,”
“third-world” countries located far away on another continent.
actually in the heart of the Western, and supposedly rich, world – simmering
beneath the surface, ready to blow up seemingly overnight, supposedly out of the
blue. Like in Tunisia.