onsdag 19. januar 2011

Caution on Tunisia, please

Herved får Dagens DCs lesere gleden av å lese Assistant Professor Anne Mariel Peters' ekslusive analyse (kun for dere!) av det som nå skjer i Tunisia, samt hva dette sier om USAs demokratiprosjekt i Midtøsten. 

The departure of President Zein al-Abidin bin Ali from Tunisia last Friday marks the first time that mass protests have brought down an Arab head of state. By landing in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Ben Ali joined a small and disreputable club that mostly consists of weak and unpopular post-colonial monarchs (King Fu’ad of Egypt, Idris of Libya, and the Hashemites of Iraq) and military despots (Saddam Hussein, Amin al-Hafiz, ‘Abdel Salam ‘Arif). As the head of a single party dictatorship that successfully guided Tunisia into export-led growth, Ben Ali was neither. His deposal is truly a landmark—full stop.

However, many American analysts see more in Tunisia: a bottom-up, "Jasmine revolution" led by new social media that will produce a domino effect in other corners of the Arab world.  Democracy advocates have jumped at the opportunity to encourage a proactive US role in Tunisian political opening, and remind us (lest we forget) of the fallibility of Arab authoritarianism. Ironically, few parallels are ventured between Tunisia and the Middle East’s last revolution—which peaked with the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran on February 1, 1979.

But let’s examine some of these claims. First, do the events in Tunisia constitute a revolution? The late American political scientist Samuel Huntington claims, “A revolution is a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activity and policies.” Revolutions are distinct from coups, rebellions, civil wars, or any other conflict that results in only superficial changes to the regime, state, and society.
The trouble is that we do not yet know how the Tunisian story ends. Some details echo revolutions of the past. The country’s young protestors seem to fit the classic paradigm of young, educated, and frustrated revolutionaries—people whose modernizing, socioeconomic ambitions surpass the current regime’s ability to accommodate them. The unemployment rate in Tunisia is around 20 percent, and this month’s riots were catalyzed by the self-immolation of a young, male, and college-educated fruit vendor whose license had been confiscated by authorities. Trade unions are playing a role in the protests, and there also appear to be divides within the military.
Yet a number of other factors indicate that Tunisia’s new government will be the Ben Ali regime all over again, just without Ben Ali. On Monday, a caretaker government was announced that includes Ben Ali’s party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, but excludes Islamists and the communist party. A negative development in itself, this announcement is likely a function of Tunisia’s notoriously weak political opposition and civil society. Crushed for decades by a highly coercive police state, it is unlikely that any group will be sufficiently organized and well equipped to push through a revolution—let alone bargain for political opening as many analysts hope.
Second, is the mass unrest in Tunisia likely to inspire similar events in other Arab countries? This claim contains the hidden assumption that other Arab publics do not know what is good for them or, in the very least, need an inspiring scene of Tunisian rioters on Al-Jazeera to compel them to action. Nothing could be further from the truth. Arab publics have witnessed their regimes engage in repression, torture, overt collaboration with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), peacemaking with Israel, backhanding Palestinians, and supporting two highly unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to see how screenshots from Tunisia could be any more inspiring. Most citizens, afraid of repression or happily co-opted into massive state welfare systems, simply choose to remain at home.

So why all this talk of a Jasmine Revolution? “The First Arab Revolution?” Domino effects? Perhaps the answer is that Tunisian politics has stakeholders far outside its own capital. After eight years of democracy promotion and no Arab democracy to show for it, the outgoing Bush administration cast a pall on Washington’s community of democracy advocates, a diverse group of scholars, politicians, think tank analysts, and democracy organizations. President Obama’s 2011 budget request marked a 10 percent increase from 2010, but the president has also removed controversial direct funding to Egyptian civil society organizations— a strategic and symbolic move that the democracy community has strongly protested. From this perspective, the euphoria around Tunisia is understandable: it is the opportunity that many thought would never come. However, democracy advocates run the risk of Peter and the Wolf. If American expectations for Arab democracy are again dashed, a willing ear may be difficult to find in the future. 
Caution on Tunisia, please.

Anne Mariel Peters is assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. She can be reached at apeters@wesleyan.edu

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