Is Tunisia the first Arab authoritarian domino to fall? Or is it a unique case that should not be viewed as a precedent for either the Arab world in general or the Maghreb in particular? The region’s dictators have sought to dismiss the “Jasmine Revolution,” but the spark that started in Tunisia could spread — perhaps in a matter of months or years — to the entire Arab world.
Indeed, the wall of fear has crumbled, the people have spoken and an “Arab spring” could be at hand. The message from Tunisia, at least so far, is clear: corrupt and authoritarian regimes, beware: Unless you reform deeply and quickly, your days are numbered. The greatest danger is that the Jasmine Revolution could go the way of Romania’s anti-communist uprising of 20 years ago, with the old regime’s underlings expelling their bosses in order to stay in power.
However, the best analogy for Tunisia today is Spain in the years preceding and following the death of Francisco Franco. By opening itself to the world through tourism, and with its emphasis on education and women’s rights, former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime created something unique in the Middle East: a vibrant middle class. However, the regime, like Franco’s dictatorship, did not treat the members of this new middle class like adults, thereby encouraging widespread frustration.
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Given this, it would seem wrong, if not dangerous, to compare Tunisia and its Jasmine Revolution with other national contexts in the region. Nevertheless, if Morocco looks stable today, this largely reflects two factors: monarchy and reform. Led by a group of technocrats surrounding the young King Mohammed VI, a reform process — including political liberalization — has begun in earnest, even if the results still seem modest.
Moreover, Mohammed VI, as “Commander of the Believers,” benefits from a “Muslim” legitimacy that the leaders of Algeria and Egypt, two of the region’s most vulnerable regimes, do not possess. And Morocco, contrary to Algeria, does not suffer from the curse of oil.
Even if the case of Tunisia is largely unique, it would be shortsighted to dismiss its potential influence elsewhere in the region, where many young Arabs in this age of Facebook and Twitter now “feel Tunisian.” They, too, are humiliated by their leaders’ performance and, more deeply, their vulgar despotic essence. They, too, thirst for freedom. Whatever the Jasmine Revolution’s outcome, and even if it cannot become for the Arab world what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for Europe, it will establish a “before” and an “after.”
The “after” is likely to highlight two potential models of political development for the Arab world: Turkey and Iran. If the revolutionary wave that began in Tunisia spreads to the rest of the Arab world, how many countries will be tempted by Turkish openness, and how many by Iranian fundamentalism?
Of course, that is a somewhat simplistic dichotomy. There are gray areas in the Turkish experiment with “moderate Islam,” and, beyond Iran’s mullahs, there are reasons for hope in the vibrant and resilient character of that country’s civil society.
What is clear is the West’s preference for the Turkish model. Most Europeans may want to keep Turkey at a reasonable distance, but, confronted with changes and possible disorder, if not chaos, in the Arab world, they look favorably on Turkey’s potential to play a stabilizing role.
To be sure, history never repeats itself, but could some kind of neo-Ottoman order be the best answer to the risk of “Arab chaos”? Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey already plays a growing role in the region, and has strengthened its image with ordinary Arabs by taking a muscular diplomatic position against Israel’s deadly military assault in June last year on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that had been organized by a Turkish charity.
However, it is one thing to be popular and another to serve as a model. Turkey is demonstrating that Islam and modernity are compatible. Nevertheless, the Turks are the Ottoman Empire’s heirs, and the Arab world, contrary to Western hopes, might not be ready to exchange its current frustration for the humiliating admission that it requires its former rulers’ model to progress toward modernity.
It would be dangerous to assume that after Tunisia, democracy in the Arab world is just around the corner, but the belief that nothing will change is equally illusory. For better or worse, history is on the move in the Arab world — and there is very little the West can do about it.
Dominique Moisi is the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion.
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