Not to harp on the idea of some sort of revolutionary fever catching hold in the Middle East after Tunisia popular upheaval, but I came across two articles today that made me wonder if Tunisia has the potential to mark the beginning of some sort of longer-term change in the way Middle Eastern autocrats rule their countries. Despite the imitation self-immolation protests that have occurred in Egypt, Algeria (four times), and Mauritania, it is unlikely that the Tunisian revolution (as Collins Dunn notes, it is perhaps too early to start using the term ‘revolution’) will catch hold in such a massively effective way in other countries. Of course, although the Tunisian revolution may not immediately spur similar uprisings in other countries, it still represents a major historical event that will undoubtedly cause ripples that could, eventually, lead to a change of regime, but at a more natural, organic pace.
[tweetmeme] As I pointed out yesterday, many are comparing the events in Tunisia to those that led to the disposal of the Iranian Shah in 1979. A paramount truth to the Iranian Revolution, though, was that it was not contagious; no other countries made the transition to an Islamic republic. Thus, while there are similarities to Iran, the Persian example is not one that gives much credence to the domino theory. As Robin Yassin-Kassab notes in Pulse Media, the rise of Islamism after 1979 retarded the rise of revolutionary change and instead promoted sectarianism throughout the region. Despite its inability to spread to other countries, Iran’s revolution had a major and demonstrable change on the political scene of the Middle East, specifically by leading to the rise of Islamic oppositional parties throughout the Middle East – the important emphasis here being oppositional. Of course, there was no Islamic presence in Tunisia’s revolt which was led mainly by secular actors, meaning that it will presumably not act as the same kind of catalyst for Islamic political opposition or the consequent rise in sectarianism. However, it is entirely possibly, and perhaps even likely, that the disposal of Ben Ali will strengthen opposition parties throughout the Middle East and embolden publics to become more vocal about their grievances.
This type of contagion has already been demonstrated in several countries – Egypt, Algeria and Jordan, mainly – as the public has come out en masse to demonstrate anger with their respective governments. It is unlikely that these protests will lead to the same sort of result as in Tunisia, it may help foster a more open political dialog. Indeed, Ben Ali’s hardened stance of non-negotiation (until it was too late) demonstrated two important facts about popular resistance: 1) brutal repression of protests only creates martyrs, rallying calls and more opposition; and 2) it isn’t too difficult for leaders to fall and fall hard. In other words, while the Tunisian movement might not immediately cause copycat revolutions in other countries, it provides the neighboring leaders with important lessons on how to deal with dissent and opposition. If the current unrest results in real change (in unemployment, education, poverty relief, etc.), yet falls short of overthrowing governments, the Tunisian legacy could be one of emboldening popular opposition while softening governments’ reaction to public dissent.
Of course, the legacy of Ben Ali’s fall has yet to be determined and could very well turn out to be the complete opposite. However, as Collins Dunn points out, many Middle Eastern countries, led by “autocrats with improbably black hair at advanced age,” are approaching an inevitable change in leadership after decades of leadership by the same unnaturally dark-haired autocrats:
I don’t know if there has ever been another time — surely not since the end of hereditary rule in so many countries — when so many have been in power for so long. Qadhafi since 1969, Qaboos of Oman since 1970, Salih of Yemen since 1978, Mubarak since 1981. At least the Sultan has a hereditary claim; everybody else there has overstayed their shelf life. (And of course, though Syria used to have coups frequently, someone named Asad has been in charge since 1970.) Bashir of Sudan has been there since 1989, but at least part of his country is about to leave him. (Oddly enough, Mubarak, Qadhafi, and Salih all supposedly hope to be succeeded by one of their sons. The hereditary monarch in the list, Qaboos, has no sons and no clear successor.)
Put another way, a large number of countries in the region could soon be facing a natural change of regime as their seemingly ageless leaders are forced to surrender the political reigns due to death or retirement. While Mubarak, Qadhafi and Salih have sons lined up, none of the younger autocrats-to-be seem to possess the same charisma (can the reformist Saif Qadhafi or the conservative Mutassim Qadhafi ever live up to their father) or national following as their elders (particularly Gamal Mubarak and Ahmed Salih.) Thus, while the revolution in Tunisia may not be be knocking off leaders in other countries, these same leaders may be falling for more natural reasons. Moreover, the fall of Ben Ali will inevitably influence the way the strong leaders of today and the predictably weaker leaders of tomorrow deal with a strengthened and nonviolent political opposition.
Tunisia’s repulsion of Ben Ali will probably not be the catalyst for similar revolutions forcing other autocrats to step down. Despite similarities between Tunisia and, say Egypt or Syria, each country has a unique domestic political and social situation that in many cases render popular revolution unlikely, if not impossible. Yet Tunisia could represent the paramount event in a cycle of political unrest across the region leading to natural leadership changes and more open regimes caused by stronger and more empowered opposition. The political forecast in many of these autocratic regimes seems to predict a perfect storm of: 1) leaders anxious to avoid a repeat of Tunisia; 2) opposition motivated by the success of Tunisians; and 3) longstanding political strong men being replaced by potentially weaker successors. A storm that could, perhaps, lead to natural revolution-less change across the Middle East.
Photo from All Voices