Will it spread?

Tuesday, 18. January 2011     0 comment(s)
Timo Behr
Researcher - The European Union research programme

A specter is haunting the Arab world – the specter of democracy. The extraordinary events that have swept one of the Arab worlds’ longest serving strongmen from power have raised hopes (and some fears) that other countries in the region might be next. Comparisons have quickly been drawn with earlier waves of democratization – including Europe’s “velvet” and “color” revolutions. Others have talked about a Twitter Revolution and a Wikileaks Revolution – pointing towards the important role that new social media has played in Tunisia and might yet come to play elsewhere. But how likely is it that democratic protests will lead to revolutionary contagion throughout the region?

On the face of it, conditions in neighboring countries appear favorable. Geriatric autocrats have been ruling the fate of the region with impunity for many years. Some of them, like Egypt’s Mubarak or Libya’s Qaddafi, easily outdo Tunisia’s departed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in seniority – who still managed to hang on to power for 23 years. Corruption is rampant and widespread. The media and all forms of public expression are tightly controlled. The gap between rich and poor is gaping. And youth unemployment is skyrocketing: A recent report estimated that amongst the 15-29 year old unemployment stands at 17.6% in Morocco and 21.5% in Algeria, compared to 31.2% in Tunisia.

All of this seems to suggest that Tunisia’s example could have a powerful demonstration effect. And indeed, recent weeks have seen public protests in several countries – most notably Algeria, which has experienced a similar rise in food prices than Tunisia. Moreover, cases of copycat immolations – the original trigger of the Tunisian protests – have been reported in Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania. But does this mean that soon we can expect to hear liberty’s tune being played in Cairo, Rabat and Algiers?

Sadly, the prospects remain dim. The fact is that for all the talk of “people power” and social media, the Jasmine revolution has been as much an old-style military coup as a new-age revolution. Ben Ali’s cardinal mistake, it seems, was to lavish money and offices on his close family members (especially his wife) and new business elites. There even was talk of his wife succeeding him in office. This meant that when push came to shove, Tunisia’s military leadership refused to crack down on the protesters in order to defend Ben Ali’s family business. Regime fragmentation, exaggerated by popular pressure, therefore seems to have been the key to Ben Ali’s unexpected downfall.

Even if popular unrest spreads, the prospects for a repeat of the “Tunisian scenario” will therefore hinge as much on the determination of protesters as on the cohesiveness of the regimes in question. Here the outlook is less promising. In Algeria, power is vested in the military establishment which has shown its determination to use force. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI has been tainted by corruption charges, but remains firmly in control. Only in Egypt, controversy about Mubarak’s succession may yet open some cracks in the regime, as the military seems unwilling to accept his son Gamal as the country’s future leader.

In all three countries, moreover, prospects for a peaceful revolution remain dimmed by the fact that, unlike in Tunisia, they would not be driven by the secular middle classes, but by the urban poor and the Islamist opposition. Ultimately, this makes it less likely that their military establishments will stand down in the face of rising protests. Of course, it is difficult to exclude the possibility of a chain-reaction in North Africa – rapid political change is partly based on difficult to predict psychological tipping points. But if it comes, it is likely to be at a higher cost and under more contested circumstances than in Tunisia.

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