Thursday, January 20, 2011

A critical time in Tunisia...

It is unclear which ways things will be going in Tunisia. Students were some some of the early protesters against the government. But who will fill in the power vacuum? Things are changing at a breathtaking pace. At least the ban on political parties has been lifted. So here are a couple of items of interest for this blog:

Benjamin Geer pointed to this analysis of the role of New Media in Tunisia's recent events, where Marc Lynch quite accurately reminds us of the influence of Al Jazeera, in addition to Facebook, Twitter, etc:
I'd point to one other aspect of this which often gets overlooked. Al Jazeera and the new media ecosystem did not only spread information -- they facilitated the framing of the events and a robust public debate about their meaning. Events do not speak for themselves. For them to have political meaning they need to be interpreted, placed into a particular context and imbued with significance. Arabs collectively understood these events quite quickly as part of a broader Arab narrative of reform and popular protest ---the "Al Jazeera narrative" of an Arab public challenging authoritarian Arab regimes and U.S. foreign policy alike. Events in Tunisia had meaning for Jordan, for Lebanon, for Yemen, for Egypt because they were framed and understood within this collective Arab narrative. From Al Jazeera's talk shows to internet forums to the cafes where people talked them out face to face, Tunisia became common focal point for the Arab political debate and identity.
And Muhammed Yahia at House of Wisdom thinks that such a Tunisia-style change is unlikely in other North African countries:   

Now this is something that normally doesn't happen in the Middle East, and all countries are eying the small nation of Tunisia, wondering if the same could happen elsewhere, such as in Algeria. Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia.
The short answer is "probably not."
The longer answer would explain why. Tunisia is already a well-educated country. It has the best education system compared to its neighbours. That is why when the call came for a nationwide movement amongst the educated, there were enough to carry the event through.
By contrast, Egypt, a country with a president in power since 1981, has a 30% illiteracy rate. The other, educated 70% have had a very poor education that many of them are regarded as illiterate too. Calls for action in Egypt on social networks such as Facebook usually bring together a handful of people protesting the situation. This is not enough to send ripples through the rest of the country such as what happened in Tunisia. There just aren't enough influential intellectuals to motivate people. The lack of education means academia are not likely to carry a revolt or uprising in the populous country. Others might, but not the academics.
Algeria had large street protests a couple of weeks ago, probably inspired by the Tunisian experience but these quickly died out after promises from the ruling party that the dismal conditions will change. The same happened in Jordan as well.
So should we be expecting a domino effect in the region? Most experts say no. The situation in Tunisia was very special. Even though the quality of life there was much better than its neighbours, the lack of any social liberties was much worse than other Arab countries.
At this time, there is nothing to do but wait and see.
Perhaps. But I don't expect this status quo to last more than a couple of years. "Ha" - you say. Many of the regimes have been around for several decades. Yes, but I just don't see how these authoritarian regimes are going to control an educated (levels are increasing fast), tech-savvy and increasingly globalized youth (more than 60% are under 25 in the Middle East) with high unemployment rates. Something will have to give. The key question is not about the possibility of change, but rather what shape will this change take?

On a related topic:

Check out this Reuters analysis: Tunisia revolt makes Islamist threat ring hollow
and also After Tunisia, Arab World gives up on America (tip from Martin Riexinger).

Also see this earlier post:
How important is the internet in the Tunisia uprising?

UPDATE (1/21/11): 
Here is a reasonable oped by Roger Cohen. He wants to see Tunisia potentially following the Turkish model:
Unseemly, perhaps, but a lot is at stake. If Tunisia can become the Arab world’s Turkey, a functioning democracy where Islamism is part of the electoral mosaic rather than a threat to it, the tired refrain of all the Arab despots that they are the only bulwark against the jihadists will be seen for the self-serving lie it has become.
 Tunisia has a lot going for it in this quest: high levels of education, emancipated women encouraged over decades to use birth control, manageable size, and an Islamist movement that Michael Willis, a North Africa expert at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, described as “perhaps the mildest and most pragmatic around.” Their exiled leader, Rached Ghannouchi, has been multiplying conciliatory statements. A democratic Tunisia can do the Turkish thing.
There will, in coming weeks, be agents provocateurs bent on the worst, and the usual Muslim-hating naysayers. Arab democracy is threatening to a host of vested interests and glib clich├ęs. It is also the only way out of the radicalizing impasse of Arab klepto-gerontocracies and, as such, a vital American interest.        
Read the full article here.        


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