Revolutions are caused not by poverty alone, but by thousands of accumulated injustices; when the breaking point is reached, even the smallest can ignite the firestorm
In Tunisia, what began as the desperate act of a frustrated, humiliated young man in mid-December has now sent shock waves throughout the Arab world.
"I am travelling, mother; blame is pointless. I am lost on a road not of our making. Forgive me for disobeying you. Blame the times, not me. I am leaving, and there is no return" were the final words written in a short note by Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate,who had been denied a permit to run a small fruit and vegetable stall. He set fire to himself -- an act of defiance that sparked demonstrations and rioting throughout the country and eventually brought down the dictatorship of Tunisian President Ben Ali, on January 14th.
Today, Bouazizi is a hero, not just to his nation, but to millions of Arabs in the Maghreb who appear prepared to use the tragedy of his life and death as a catalyst for change. The revolution in Tunisia was not motivated by ideology or religion, nor was it pro or anti-democracy. Its only catalyst seems to have been the desire of millions of Tunisians for social justice, dignity, the right to work, and to live free of fear and poverty.
The Tunisian people had reached a point where even Ben Ali's summary dismissal of his government, his promise of fair legislative elections within six months, and his pledge not to run for a sixth term in 2014 (after a 23-year dictatorship) could not save him. After all, if it is next to impossible for the educated few to find a job (much less a good job), how much less are the opportunities for the uneducated, or those with limited or minimal education?
Tunisia is probably the last Arab country where a popular insurrection could have been predicted. It is more stable, and Tunisians are better educated than most of their Arab brethren. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first president, made it his business to develop his country's broad middle class by pouring resources into its educational system and making higher education virtually free. He abolished polygamy, established an anti-Islamic fundamentalist regime by expelling leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1980s, and pushed a social agenda of secularization, women's rights, birth control and family planning that, in contrast to most countries in the region, slowed population growth by keeping both public education and social welfare within manageable limits.
Under his successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, however, Tunisians outraged over the official corruption; the rapacious lifestyle of his family (as documented in recent WikiLeaks disclosures); unemployment that hovered at 20% (including an estimated 52% unemployment rate among the country's 200,000 university graduates); legions of impoverished workers, trade unionists, lawyers and human rights activists; endemic poverty and a lack of investment in rural areas; rising food prices; insufficient investment in the public sector, and an authoritarian political system.
Adding to this tinderbox, Tunisia, unlike Algeria and Libya, is unable to rely on oil and gas exports for 97% of its foreign revenues, and has had to import expensive energy, and attract foreign investment for its textile industry, offshore car-assembly plants and tourist developments.
Ben Ali's ouster has sparked both hope and fear, depending on who is speaking, that his fall may be the harbinger of things to come, especially given the rising tide of popular dissatisfaction with illiberal, unreformed authoritarian rule in the other Arab autocracies that line the southern shore of the Mediterranean.
The moment the Arab world learned of events in Tunisia, at least four Algerians set themselves on fire, an Egyptian immolated himself outside the parliament building in Cairo, and similar incidents are now being reported in Mauritania.
The near-silence of Arab leaders speaks volumes about their fears; there is little doubt that the region's dictators are praying for chaos and collapse in Tunisia. Gaddafi told Tunisians they were now suffering bloodshed and lawlessness because they were too hasty in getting rid of Ben Ali. They have good reason to be scared: the Tunisians achieved something unique in the Arab world. For the first time,, an Arab ruler was toppled not by the army, or a foreign invasion, or a coup, but by a spontaneous uprising of the people.
Although, until this event, the rulers in the region considered themselves unassailable, there is, beneath the surface of the Arab world,an unwritten pact between those who rule and those who are ruled: if the people are to be excluded from political life and the benefits that flow from power, they must at least be provided with employment, services and economic growth. This has not happened; where it has, it has not happened fast enough to meet the needs of the burgeoning populations.
The concern in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Algeria has further been heightened by the knowledge that thousands of messages from ordinary Tunisians supporting the revolution flooded the Internet on Twitter and Facebook; that a young generation of Arabs used their iPhones and blogs to coordinate rallies and protests across their country, and that they took photos of what was happening, and posted them on Facebook and YouTube. Statistically speaking, Tunisians have greater access to cell phones and the Internet than do residents of Lebanon, Jordan or Syria; it was this access allowed them to coordinate their activities and disseminate information to the Arab world -- instantly.
The moment President Ben Ali boarded the plane that carried him into exile, dozens of Egyptian activists danced outside the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo, chanting "Ben Ali, tell Mubarak a plane is waiting for him too!" The Tunisians filmed themselves making their own revolution, and shared it with the Arab world. A generation that grew up without a political voice for decades had now found one on the web. As a result, the Tunisian revolt spread like wildfire and became unstoppable.
"We all watched Ben Ali's forces clashing with people," wrote Marlyn Tadros; "saw disturbing YouTube videos of loss of life, watched as Ben Ali's airplane left the tarmac, watched him as his plane was denied landing in Malta and France, and its final landing in Saudi Arabia. We all listened to Saudi citizens cursing at their leaders for allowing a tyrant on their land; listened attentively to the White House sheepishly offering a weak statement regarding the right of Tunisians to choose their leader. We saw tweets stating clearly that this was the way to win people's hearts and minds, not through the toppling of a dictator through senseless wars, because a real revolution is one that is by the people and for the people rather than a manufactured one."
Arab autocrats know that if popular insurrection can succeed in stable, educated and relatively prosperous Tunisia, it can succeed in their own less stable, economically depressed and politically volatile countries. As Rami Khouri, editor of the Beirut Daily Star writes:"The grievances that the Tunisian demonstrators articulated are also widely shared across the entire Arab world, with the possible exception of some of the smaller wealthy countries in the Gulf. These complaints are about rising prices and job shortages, but also about the heavy-handed and condescending manner in which ruling Arab elites treat their citizens and deny them the most basic human rights of expression, credible representation, political participation, holding power accountable, and equitable access to the resources of the state and the opportunities of the free market."
Despite a wealth of resources, the Arab states have seen an economic growth rate of only 0.5% a year between 1980 and 2004 (and no better since then), according to the United Nations Development Program; this places them at the bottom of the world's growth list. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is serving his fourth term as president and, despite his age of 82, is contemplating running for a fifth term. Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, has problems that dwarf Tunisia's, yet the problems are similar: the population is booming; 60% are under 30; youth unemployment is soaring; at least 20% of its 80 million citizens live on less than $2 a day, and one third of Egyptians are illiterate - prime indicators of popular discontent. In 2008, a sudden 30% rise in the price of imported wheat provoked widespread bread riots. Concerns about Egypt's future were expressed in a recent article in the Daily Star, a Lebanese daily:
"Anyone expecting a region-wide revolution would do well to look at Egypt, which imports around half of the food eaten by its 79 million population and is struggling with inflation of more than 10%. With a massive security apparatus quick to suppress large street protests, and the main opposition,the Muslim Brotherhood, excluded from formal politics, the state's biggest challenge comes from factory strikes in the Nile Delta industrial belt. Egypt's Internet-based campaign for political change, the country's most critical voice, has failed to filter down from the chattering middle classes to the poor on the street........Strikes have been going on, but not spilling into the public domain. This could however change if rising discontent over food price inflation feeds into the wider malaise about political and economic stagnation and the lack of opportunities and freedom."
The International Monetary Fund has said that with current unemployment rates in the Arab world already high, the entire region needs to create close to 100 million new jobs by 2020. But in a situation where budgets are being strained by the soaring cost of imported food and fuel, this will be virtually impossible, especially in those Arab countries lacking significant oil reserves.
Algeria faces a similar fear: a 25% inflation combined with a 35% unemployment rate has driven its population -- 75% of which is under 30 -- to desperation. Four days of rioting over price rises in food staples such as cooking oil and sugar have forced the government to use some of its vast $150B in gas export cash reserves to increase food subsidies; but not all Arab countries have such reserves.
In Jordan, when news of events in Tunisia spread to his country, King Abdullah immediately surrounded his palace with tanks as a precaution. Although the king had earlier slashed some prices and taxes to quell the public anger and ease the burden on the poor, Jordanians held protests in several cities over rising prices for fuel and food. He imposed a news blackout on the Bedouin riots staged against him in the southern town of Maan, as well as on the rallies held in Irbid, Karak, Salt and Maan by Jordanian University students and Ba'athist party, whose leadership demanded that the Prime Minister, Samir Rifai, step down due to declining living standards. In "a day of rage" against escalating food prices and unemployment, more than 5,000 people staged protests across Jordan -- all the same day that Ben Ali fled Tunisia.
As patronage, nepotism and bribery and clamping down on those who might challenge their regimes continue to be the preferred ways of ruling across the Arab world,, the problem is that the political leadership lacks the will to reform its economic, political or educational infrastructures: they are aware that reform has rarely if ever assisted them in retaining power. They continue, instead, to use the West's preoccupation with Islamic terrorism, its energy dependence, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to deflect pressures for reform. These regimes are not inclined to seek out new export markets, or increase their domestic manufacturing, or enhance their competitiveness through education and labor market reforms. Only Lebanon, Morocco, and some of the Gulf States have loosened their political and economic controls sufficiently to bring new entrants to the market for ideas and enterprise, but they are the exceptions..
Whether or not the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia (as it is apparently being called) survives longer than the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon remains to be seen. There is, however, a strong likelihood that the current uprising could lead to significant democratic reforms.
Unlike other Arab countries, Tunisia has a highly educated population, its annual economic growth rate hovers around 5%, its annual birth rate is only 1.7% (less than Britain); it is mono-ethnic (99% Sunni Arab); has a high level of tolerance (as expressed in the large degree of equality for women), has strong ties with the European Union, and its economy is linked to Europe.
These facts make Tunisia unique in the Arab world -- a fact which leads to the conclusion that a "democratic domino effect" is unlikely to occur. While democratization may evolve gradually in Tunisia, the same optimism cannot be expressed outside its borders. Anti-Western Salafist movements in Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and especially Egypt are considerably more powerful and well-entrenched, and could easily assume power in any part of Islamic North Africa as their aging dictators depart.
What we know is that the Gulf kingdoms that have experimented with democracy have found anti-Western, Salafi Islamic parties winning seats in their legislative assemblies -- so these countries may be less inclined to "open up their political processes" to further democratic reforms.
In addition, many states such as Egypt, Syria and Iran maintain vast security forces that are heavily vested in the status quo; these security forces (unlike those in Tunisia) are unlikely to join the ranks of the dissidents as seems to have occurred in Tunisia.
The Tunisian Revolution, although "Jasmine," was not bloodless; and it may launch a wave of repression across the Arab world if current Arab autocrats fear challenges to their power. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of ideas -- such as "democracy", "dignity" and "justice" --which were the sparks that ignited Tunisian society.
If anything, the Tunisian experience proves that a grassroots revolution can happen anywhere for any number of reasons and the Middle East is fertile ground for finding them. What we do know is that no Arab leader will be sleeping peacefully these days. These autocrats understand that what happened in Tunisia could end monopolies on power.