President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia stepped down Friday after days of
worsening riots and, coincidentally, one day after Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton bluntly criticized Middle Eastern leaders during a speech in Qatar,
where she accused them of tolerating “corrupt institutions and a stagnant
RELATED:Tunisia grapples with looting, deadly riotsAnalysis: A warning to Arab dictators‘Tunisian Jews unaffected by upheaval’Root Causes
Ben Ali, who had ruled for 23 years, had earlier
promised to step down when his term ends in 2014 and hold parliamentary
elections within six months. Now the Arab world is watching to see which other
regime might be vulnerable and what the US response will be.
Tensions had been rising steadily within Tunisian society over the past
According to a 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks
and published by a British newspaper, “President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is
sclerotic and there is no clear successor.”
Frustrations stemmed not only
from economic malaise but also from suffocating repression and increasingly
visible kleptocracy within the ruling family. The past few years witnessed a
number of tremors that should have given the government adequate forewarning of
the current political earthquake. For six months in 2008, concerted labor action
froze the mining industry in Redeyef.
And last year, protests forced the
government to reverse a decision that appeared to benefit Tunisians close to the
Ben Ali family.
These and other protests were large and well organized,
but they took place on the country’s geographical and political periphery, and
were little noticed by the international press. Moreover, they did not connect
fully with the deeper malaise in Tunisian society.
In December, however,
a young Tunisian man immolated himself in apparent frustration at being
prevented from selling vegetables on the streets of his hometown. In death,
Muhammad Bouazizi came to epitomize the humiliation and powerlessness so many
Tunisians feel on a daily basis. Young Tunisians – the vast majority of the
population – now had a symbol around which to rally and create what is fast
becoming a fundamental rupture of the state.
The demonstrations have been
fueled by several factors, foremost of which is the potent combination of
unemployment and underemployment.
Tunisian unemployment has long been
fairly high – over 13 percent in 2009 – but it has been aggravated recently by
the concentration of joblessness among the burgeoning youth population.
According to the World Bank, nearly 30% of Tunisians aged 20-24 are unemployed,
while young university graduates face nearly 25% joblessness.
youths are being educated at higher rates, this schooling has not translated to
improved economic prospects.
Recent years have been particularly
difficult for the Tunisian economy. As a result of the global economic downturn,
the country faced economic contractions between 2007 and 2009. This has meant
even fewer jobs, particularly in tourism, a major sector catering to Europeans
seeking cheap Mediterranean sun.
Meanwhile, declines in state revenue
have coincided with ongoing efforts to implement economic reforms, including an
unpopular program to gradually reduce subsidies on some commodities, including
food. Earlier attempts to reduce subsidies in the 1980s met with riots and were
called off. The latest price hikes were implemented last summer.
dissatisfaction has only been exacerbated by the authoritarian regime’s
excesses. Tunisians have long been aware of state repression, but lately, with
the help of the Internet, they also have become well acquainted with the
voracious corruption of Ben Ali and his ruling clique.
According to the
previously mentioned 2009 State Department cable, “Corruption in the inner
circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the
chorus of complaints is rising.”
The cable detailed how Ben Ali’s
daughter’s household included “a large tiger, named ‘Pasha,’ living in a cage,
which consumes four chickens a day,” reminiscent of “Uday Hussein’s lion cage in
Baghdad.”Possibilities for Regional Contagion
Tunisia’s riots have
coincided with civil disturbances in Algeria and Jordan, states facing similar
challenges of joblessness and underemployment. With large gas and oil export
revenues/reserves and low foreign debt, Algeria is in better financial condition
than Tunisia. But lower global oil prices in 2009 stressed state coffers, while
Algerians were affected by higher world commodity prices.
Algeria is an authoritarian state, with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s regime
receiving only slightly better Freedom House ratings than Tunis.
the most important similarity, however, is that Algeria also has a very young
population with bleak economic prospects. Although the country’s unemployment
rate has decreased from more than 15% in 1995 to 10% today, it remains a leading
source of disaffection.
Jordan has seen civil unrest in recent weeks as
well. Although many have likened these disturbances to those in Tunisia and
Algeria, they were inspired more by tribal tensions, albeit related to economic
opportunities. The kingdom is treating the antigovernment riots in Maan – an
impoverished city with a long history of protests – with the utmost
For example, King Abdullah has announced that he will
temporarily reinstate state subsidies on some basic commodities by lowering
Apparently, Washington is concerned as well, so much so that it
increased its assistance package to Jordan by $100 million this year –
effectively underwriting Amman’s subsidies – to help stave off
Although these are the only states that have thus far seen
popular discontent, several other Arab regimes are concerned about spillover and
have taken steps to insulate themselves. Libya and Morocco, like Jordan, have
lowered prices on staples.
And Egypt – whose 2008 wheat crisis was so
severe that the military had to be called in to bake bread for the general
population – is no doubt watching developments closely.What Can
Washington and Europe Do?
The most striking aspect of Tunisia’s countrywide
protests has been their wholly indigenous character. Ben Ali’s assertions that
the unrest was being instigated by outsiders and led by extremists only served
to reinforce public suspicions regarding how out of touch he was.
challenge now for the United States and the European Union is to ensure a smooth
transition to a new government.
The United States has far less leverage
over Tunis than do the EU and France. (As the leaked State Department cable put
it, “By many measures, Tunisia should be a close ally. But it is not.”) The
United States provides no economic assistance to Tunisia, and its military
financing program is paltry – a typical complaint from Tunis. Despite this,
Tunis provides important counterterrorism cooperation and was held up as a
regional model during the Bush administration.
It is the EU, however,
which fuels Tunisia’s economy through large cash infusions and has a robust
trade relationship with the country.Conclusion
The events in Tunisia
demonstrate to Arabs around the region how brittle even the most advanced police
state can be when resolutely confronted by its citizens.
This lesson will
not likely be lost on Egyptians, Jordanians, Algerians, and others.
almost all indicators, from education to economy, Tunisia ranks far ahead of
other Arab nations in the region. Yet the government’s failure to improve the
basis of its legitimacy, ensure widespread benefits from economic reforms, and
create a path to meaningful political participation has brought the country to
the brink of revolution.
It has also provided a dramatic and early 2011
reminder to the Obama administration that the perceived trade-off between
stability and democratic reform is false and that, furthermore, what one
perceives as stable can change within a matter of days.J. Scott
Carpenter is the Keston Family fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East
Policy and director of Project Fikra: Defeating Extremism through the Power of
Ideas. David Schenker is the institute’s Aufzien fellow and director of the
Program on Arab Politics. This “Policy Watch” paper was prepared for The Washington Institute and is reprinted by permission.