demostration in Sidi Abu Zeid.
(photo credit: Eldad Beck)
One of the most remarkable things about the Middle East – a region racked by
terrorism, war, religious extremism and economic malaise – is how stable its
governments are. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled for 23 years before his
ignominious fall three weeks ago; Hosni Mubarak has been in charge for almost 30
years and is part of a system in place since 1952; father and son Assad have had
a lock on Syria since 1970 and Muammar Gaddafi over Libya since 1969. The Gulf
is one of the world’s last bastions of monarchs who rule rather than
It wasn’t like that in the 1950s and 1960s, when despot for a day
was the norm, but since then, rule by strongmen has become remarkably
institutionalized. When one goes, another effortlessly takes over as the new
king or dictator.
Bashar Assad stepped into the presidential palace
without a protest, Abdullah replaced Hussein and Mubarak appeared to have been
trying to do the same for his son. The wave of democratization that swept across
the world over the last 30 years passed over the Middle East without a whimper
of People Power or Velvet Revolution.
AMERICA IS customarily blamed for
this state of affairs, but the charge is baseless. Both Washington’s best
friends (where it is presumed to have influence) and its worst enemies (where it
has none) are equally autocratic. The only variable is how distant a country is
from the region’s core Arab-Muslim identity. Thus, on the periphery a handful of
democratic countries exist – Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and even a quasi-democratic
Iran until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad smothered it.
The unrest in Egypt and the
protests as far afield as Jordan and Yemen are teasingly reminiscent of the kind
of rebellions that have historically brought down dictators. Yet, there is every
sign that autocracy is here to stay in the Middle East. Ironically, Tunisia may
be one of the reasons.
As is the nature of things when despots are sent
packing, Tunisia’s Ben Ali got a bad media rap.
But by regional
standards, he wasn’t particularly loathsome. Transparency International’s index
of perceived corruption put Tunisia in eighth place among Arab countries,
cleaner than Egypt, Algeria and Libya. The Economist’s index of democracy ranked
Tunisia ahead of Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iran and the United Arab Emirates and not
far behind Egypt. Tunisia was hardly a democracy but neither was it
And, Ben Ali could claim solid success in
economic development. Tunisia’s economy grew smartly under his rule, building
export industries that were competitive in the European market and attracting
foreign investment. Indeed, Ben Ali created one of the few countries in the
Middle East with a broad middle class. Some 70 percent of Tunisians own their
homes and the level of education approaches some European countries.
WAS his big mistake. Tunisia never quite developed the growth trajectory of an
Asian tiger, but like the rest of the Middle East, it needed just that to
generate jobs for its rapidly growing population. Tunisia had an unemployment
rate conservatively estimated at 13%. Worse than that, it had a youth
unemployment rate probably more than double that.
And, worse still, the
kind of jobs the economy did offer were typically beneath the education and
skills of its people.
But a double-digit jobless rate isn’t unusual in
the Middle East. Even the Gulf economies have high rates, a condition obscured
by the fact that oil wealth pays for everything. The difference between Tunisia
and the rest is that Tunisia has a big middle class that wasn’t going to put up
with it and had the resources, personal commitment and political engagement to
act. Even after Ben Ali bought his one-way ticket to Saudi Arabia, the protests
continue to ensure that the new regime won’t be a clone of the old
Nowhere else in the Middle East has any country reached that level
of social development – and, indeed, after Tunisia it may be a very long time
before any of them do.
Egypt’s masses may bring down Mubarak, but the
middle class isn’t big or strong enough to fight the long fight for democratic
rule. Egypt will almost certainly end up with another Mubarak, or something
The rise of China as an economic superpower has brought it many
admirers, who would like to learn from its example. The Chinese way, to put it
crudely, is a relentless focus by the political leadership on economic
Free markets are helpful but not a be-all and end-all, and
democracy is regarded as an outright hindrance. Elections, labor unions,
environmental regulations, pesky congressional committees and zigzagging
policies just get in the way. The middle class created by the resulting
supercharged economy will look the other way in exchange for jobs, holidays and
But, as Tunisia has demonstrated – as had Korea, Taiwan
and a host of other countries – it will not. It may take time and the transition
to more democratic rule may take different forms, but the tempting model of
China – happy masses, happy autocrats – doesn’t work for very long. The
traditional choice between democracy and a market economy versus retrograde
dictatorship remains as true today as ever.
For the despots of the Middle
East, of course, it’s no choice at all.The writer is executive business
editor at The Media Line. His book
Israel: The Knowledge Economy and Its Costs
will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.