Is Overthrowing Authoritarian Regimes the New Beanie Baby?

Is overthrowing authoritarian governments the next big thing in the Middle East or just a passing fad?

While the world anxiously waits to see what will happen in the post Ben Ali era in Tunisia, many are starting to wonder (if not predict) the fall of other autocratic/authoritarian regimes in the region.  While searching for some sort of international significance of the events in Tunisia, it seems natural to look at other similarly oppressive regimes in Syria, Jordan, Egypt or Algeria to try to predict the next to waver and fall.  While it is true that the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia is likely to give concern to other leaders in the Middle East who have seemingly ruled over dissatisfied publics for decades, there is piles of evidence to support the claim the Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution will be the only one in the region.

Certainly, rulers are somewhat wary of folly that would push along the revolution domino.  Jordan has recently released major subsidies (“putting a band-aid on a bullet wound”) to drastically lower food and fuel prices; Egypt’s foreign minister has warned the West to not interfere with Arab internal politics (i.e. don’t push for another revolution) – despite the West’s absence in the Tunisian uprising, and Libya expressed dismay over Ben Ali’s toppling.  Do these precautions from other leaders signify a sincere concern of a spreading revolution to the impoverished and unemployed of their countries?

[tweetmeme] Stephen Walt warns those waiting for Mubarak, al-Assad, Rifai and others to join Ben Ali for a party in Saudi Arabia will be disappointed.  In addition to the simple fact that each country, despite similarities (unemployment, poverty…), has incredibly different internal situations, Walt lists four main explanations why Tunisia’s revolution lacks that contagious je ne sais quoi. First, explains Walt, there is very little historical evidence for revolutions crossing international borders (with the exception of the Eastern European examples – the Revolution of the Roses and the Orange Revolution – as they were all linked by the historically isolated post-Soviet void in external leadership) and revolutions that did spread were aided by the presence of a large foreign army (Napoleon after the French Revolution across Europe or the Red Army after WWII).  Secondly, revolutions have been nearly impossible to predict.  Walt cites Timur Kuran’s work on the East European Revolutions of the late 80’s and Susanne Lohmann’s piece on East Germany, but I would throw in this comment by Thomas Carothers as well:

I remember vividly in 1998 when demonstrations began to multiply in Indonesia and one of America’s top Indonesia experts confidently told me that President Suharto was fully in control, in fact “at the top of his game” and would ride out the turmoil without problem. One month later Suharto was gone. Tipping points in political change are based on psychological thresholds, which are both difficult to predict and measure. Often the very people who know the country best are least able to foresee the change, rooted as they are in old assumptions of stability.

Third, the events in Tunisia will (and already have) caused other Arab leaders to take action to avoid and actively prevent a similar occurrence in their countries.  Ben Ali badly mismanaged the initially localized, then national protests.  It is unlikely that other leaders will be that bumbling and the actions by Jordan, cited above, prove this point.  Finally, Walt notes that Tunisia is not exactly a democratic paradise quite yet.  With violence and riots continuing, and despite the formation of a unity government, there is no one truly in control of the country.  If the revolution results in continued economic and social hardship (and it might) or even the election of another corrupt government, the public in other countries might step away from the edge, wary of the possible negative consequences.

So while it seems unlikely that other countries will follow Tunisia, the events in North Africa have the potential to cause positive change in other countries, though falling short of major revolutionary change. Perhaps those looking to replicate Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable vendor whose self-immolation was used as a catalyst and rally cry for the growing movement, should think twice about the likelihood of revolutionary immortality before lighting the match.

Photo from Al Jazeera

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