Much is being made about the role that social networking and other technologies played in the mass protests which forced Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country, ending a reign that began with a bloodless coup nearly a quarter-century ago. While there may be something novel in the way that Facebook and Twitter helped the various dissident forces to organize over the course of the last month, at the origins of what has already been dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution” was a more classic crisis, one with implications not just for the transitional government that has, for now, assumed control of the small North African country, but also for its immediate neighbors as well as for the broader Arab world in general.
The irony is that Ben Ali’s overthrow was as much the result of what he had done as what he failed to do. One has to acknowledge the economic progress and relatively capable level of governance which he presided over. Urban growth is readily apparent to anyone who travels along Tunisia’s Mediterranean coastline. Businesses, especially small and medium manufacturers, are expanding, while tourism is flourishing. The enduring influence of the progressive and secular policies of Ben Ali’s predecessor, Tunisia’s independence leader Habib Bourguiba, can be seen in the astonishing 60 percent of young women who have access to higher education.
The problem, however, was that the progress was uneven. The southern and interior regions of the country were essentially left behind by the economic boom and have experience little, if any, development. More importantly, while the economy grew and social progress was achieved, Tunisia’s politics essentially stagnated. Ben Ali, abetted by allies abroad for his secular, pro-Western political orientation, justified his authoritarian rule by citing the dangers of the Islamist extremism demonstrable next door in Algeria. Meanwhile, a growing and ever-more-prosperous middle class was increasingly frustrated by the lack of political space allowed them. In the end, these two streams of resentment, economic and political, came together in a torrent which swept away the regime.
The question of the moment is whether the events in Tunis will presage something more significant for the region.
To the east, Libya, for all its oil wealth, has certainly not delivered to the vast majority of its people much by way of goods and services—no wonder the country’s mercurial “Brother Leader” was one of the few world leaders to condemn his Tunisian counterpart’s ouster, telling state television that the protesters had been led astray by WikiLeaks. Even those relatively well off under Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule lack basics like access to healthcare: suffice to visit any hospital ward or medical office in Tunis to find otherwise well-connected Libyans queuing to have their ailments tended to. Despite these privations, for now the ubiquitous security services remain loyal to the regime and all but the bravest (or most foolhardy) Libyans have learned over the course of more than four decades to keep their political aspirations to themselves. Nevertheless, it is an open question whether the sixty-eight-year-old Qaddafi’s feuding offspring will manage to maintain their inheritance.
To Tunisia’s west, Algeria has, at not inconsiderable cost, largely managed to put down the extremist Islamist insurgency which very nearly tore the country apart in the 1990s. But the foundations of the regime are hardly secure. The country’s 12.2 billion barrels of proved oil reserves have been as much a curse as a blessing, crowding out virtually any incentive for its elites to develop for-profit industrial and commercial sectors. Algeria’s politics have likewise ossified, never having developed beyond the one-party rule of the group that led the country to its independence. To keep themselves in power, Algerian civilian politicians have to resort to bribing their military protectors with excessive largesse, such as the $7.5 billion arms deal with Russia several years ago that contained various items like MiG-29SMT fourth-generation fighters and Varshavyanka-class diesel-electric submarines which are of questionable utility given the country’s actual security challenges.
The most stable country in the region is Morocco. The political openness of their country—in comparison to its neighbors, it is a veritable oasis of liberalism—allows Moroccans to better manage some of the same aspirations which have brought other North African countries to the brink of the abyss. The monarchy itself, especially under King Mohammed VI, has been a force for liberalization, even forcing through reforms like the new family code advancing women’s rights over conservative objections. Moreover, even the lack of significant oil reserves has been good for the country insofar as it has made the enterprising merchants and industrialists of Casablanca—rather than rents—the driving force behind a more balanced economic development. In a step that might prove a model for the region, the kingdom has recently moved toward devolving more governmental functions to local governments, not just in the Western Sahara, which was offered a unique autonomy statute, but elsewhere.
What is the role for the United States in this dynamic? While one has to be realistic about America’s ability to “do” anything in the Arab Muslim world, the United States nonetheless has an important interest in the security and stability of the Maghreb region. Consequently, there are steps which Washington and other international actors can take that would advance these goals. For example, rivalries between the states in the region have proven to be significant obstacles to the economic integration and political cooperation which they sorely need. The Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), first agreed to between Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia in 1989, was supposed to spur the creation of an organic regional partnership. However, the Union has been “frozen” since 1994—yet another victim of longstanding tensions between Morocco and Algeria over the latter’s support of the Polisario Front secessionists in the Western Sahara. Loss of earnings due to the UMA’s failure is on the order of 2 per cent of average annual GDP for each country. For Tunisia alone this resulted in the failure to create some 20,000 jobs a year. In a country with a population of 20 million, the additional 320,000 jobs might well have meant the difference for Ben Ali between enjoying old age in Tunis with its libertine cosmopolitanism and spending it in Riyadh with its Wahhabist strictures. In fact, the number almost exactly matches the number of jobs which last week the embattled president belatedly promised to create for unemployed graduates within two years. In short, the key to political stability in this sensitive geopolitical space that is in everyone’s interests is sustainable economic growth and a commensurate political space that allows the youthful majorities of these countries to have a real stake in the future, their own and that of their countries. Achieving those goals is the only way to prevent the tempest in Tunis from boiling over.