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l’affaire Tunisie

Why the Maghreb is not the Khaleej.

Some quick thoughts on events as yet unfolding in Tunisia.

Much has been written recently about the so-called revolution in Tunisia and its probable impact on the rest of the Arab world.  Robert Fisk, for instance, rattled off the names of every other Arab country he could think of when asked if he thought the revolution could be contagious to the rest of the region.  Admittedly, somewhat unfair to pick on Mr. Fisk when the vernacular press in Tunisia’s neighboring countries has spent almost every waking moment since the revolution asking, “are we next?”

Some factors make the events in Tunisia different from others (العربية) that have occurred in the greater region. Unlike almost any other upheaval in the region’s recent history, this was not an Islamic movement.  Further, it also invalidates the claim that Arab societies were incapable of bringing about change intrinsically and without the support of foreign powers.

However, it would be erroneous to extrapolate this “revolution” in Tunisia to the greater region, particularly the Peninsula.  The Maghreb, after all, is not the Khaleej.  Three primary factors inhibit the sort of Rousseauian rebellion in the Peninsula currently being romanticized in the West.

First, the Heads-of-state: with the exception of a few, rulers in the Peninsula derive political power to rule from dynastic allegiances (contrast this with how heads-of-state in Libya, Algeria and Tunisia came to power).  This is not to say that the leaders in the Peninsula cannot be disposed, but that it will most likely come from within the family (e.g., Oman 1970, Qatar 1995, etc.) than take the form of a people’s’ revolt.

Second, Police states: the contrast of real curbs on social and political freedom and high levels of human and economic development make a Tunisia-like uprising improbable. Harder, because of curbs on freedom and equally unlikely to inspire a economically satisfied population.  Third, United States: While the U.S. pushes for a democratization of the Peninsula, it also has a vested interest in preserving the region’s monarchies.  It provides billions of dollars worth of military equipment to them and trains their officers.  When needed, it has shown a willingness to come to their aid when their power is threatened (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia).  This is a far cry from the rapport the Maghreb has with the U.S.

Indeed, as Amr el-Shobaki makes some very valid points in January 18th’s al-Masri al-Youm, about why it would be difficult to even envision a similar uprising in Egypt, much less in distant Saudi Arabia.

In Egypt, protests have lately taken a single, monotonous form, often rallying people around sectarian causes. The Egyptian regime, unlike its Tunisian counterpart, allows these protests to give citizens an opportunity to vent. This strategy serves to diffuse people’s anger and prevent the transformation of issue-specific protests into larger social and political movements.

The protests that took place in Tunisia reflect a healthy society. The Tunisian education system may be the best in the Arab world (the country’s illiteracy rate is no more than 10 percent), and the Tunisian General Labor Union actually defends workers’ rights. It respects the principles of trade unionism despite the fact that some of its leaders support the ruling party. In contrast, the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) runs itself in haphazard fashion and has distanced itself from independent worker organizations like the Real Estate Tax Collectors’ Union and the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services.

Egypt is also plagued by religious fundamentalism that has made it impossible for Egyptians to protest under the banner of universal values, such as freedom, equality, combating unemployment and demanding a minimum wage. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia is not home to any Salafi movements. Nor does it have preachers who boast thousands of followers and who lead many youth astray. Tunisia does not have a Muslim Brotherhood that is intent on mobilizing thousands of people to defend its own agenda rather than the national interest, nor does it have religious leaders who spread ignorance and sectarianism. [al-Masry al-Youm]

So is democracy doomed in the Peninsula?  Not necessarily, but it almost certainly will not come about as a result of a popular uprising.  The democratization of the Peninsula is a long term project involving painfully slow political and legislative reform, whose wheels have only recently been set in motion.  In this regard, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman will lead the way and provide a model for the rest of the region to perhaps emulate.

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