Après Tunisie, le déluge?

The unrest in Egypt and the protests in Jordan and Yemen are teasingly reminiscent of the kind of rebellions that have historically brought down dictators.

demostration in Sidi Abu Zeid (photo credit: Eldad Beck)
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 reign.
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 exceptionally repressive.
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.
THAT 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 one.
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 worse.
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 growth.
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 shopping malls.
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.