As more information comes in from Tunisia, it is still impossible to tell what the future holds for the North African country. With the Speaker of Parliament / interim President Fouad Mebaza putting his feet on the presidential desk for the moment, while promising (and being constitutionally obligated to promise) new elections within 60 days, there are still many question marks flying around. While some are seriously questioning the wisdom (and the ability of the government) to hold elections so quickly – the last thing the country needs is corrupt elections – others are focusing on the possibility of other regional dictators and authoritarian leaders falling like a Wolfowitz wet dream. Domino theorists have their eyes specifically on Egypt – which faced food shortages and protests not too long ago, Algeria and Jordan – who are both currently facing protests similar to Tunisia’s, as well as Syria – a country that domino theorists just tend to dislike.
[tweetmeme] Scott Carpenter, a former Bush Jr. deputy assistant secretary of state who helped create the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) – a democracy promotion organization, has called the Ben Ali regime ‘constantly paranoid’ and said that “the place [Tunisia] was so sterile — you just feel people’s fear, and the complete lack of dynamism in the society… Within the State Department we used to refer to it as ‘Syria with a smile.'” Clearly Carpenter did not go as far as predicting the imminent demise of the Syrian government, but by relating the conditions to those in Tunisia, it is not a far leap. Josh Landis, an expert on Syria, points to some serious differences which make a Syrian revolution very unlikely:
There are many reasons that Syria is not like Tunisia.
1. Most important to revolution and regime collapse is division within the elite. If the elite splits and begins fighting among itself, the state can collapse. We saw this in Russia, where the most important part of the elite got tired of communism and wanted perestroika.
In Iran, the elite was divided but disagreements were limited and opposition leaders wanted an Islamic Republic and were not willing to take down the state or get killed to force change. The military was willing to shoot at the people.
In Tunisia Ben Ali fled. He was unwilling to order a bloody crackdown. This is key. Perhaps the military was unwilling to take his orders?
2. Tunisia is a religiously homogeneous country unlike Syria. In Syria, because the military elite is dominated by the Alawite minority, it is unlikely to split. Members of the Syrian elite will look at what happened to the Sunnis of Iraq or the Christians of Iraq and close ranks. The sad history of sectarian violence in the region acts to enforce elite solidarity. Members of Syria’s Sunni elite are also chastened by the sectarian fighting that followed regime collapse in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. The wealthy Sunni elite does not want civil war. The fear of civil war based on religious affiliation is the greatest legitimizer or bulwark of authoritarianism in Syria.
These are the top two reasons.
Syria is unlikely to follow along the path of Tunisia toward popular revolution. The Syrian intelligence and military forces will shoot and stand by the president. The people have been chastened by watching the years of sectarian agony that the people of Lebanon and Iraq have suffered due to state collapse.
This said, if Tunisia can right itself politically and avoid prolonged chaos and repressive military rule, it will undoubtedly become a great exemplar and point of hope for all Arabs. Nothing undermines hope more than failure. So far, the Arab world has failed to produce a model of democratic success. If Tunisia turns into a successful model of Democratic success, it will embolden the forces of change and opposition parties throughout the Middle East.
Photo from Arab Crunch