When the Arab League meets in the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh this Wednesday, one empty seat will speak volumes


Newsnet Scotland’s Middle East reporter

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An autocratic leader presiding over a youthful, frustrated populace in a police state known for corruption, brutality and tight media control. It was a description of Tunisia’s dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali until his ousting at the weekend. But it could equally cover the present rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and a half-dozen other Arab countries, all of whom will be sitting far less comfortably following the first Middle Eastern revolution since 1979.

The end of Ben Ali’s 23-year rule has sent analysts into overdrive, picking over the bones of Tunisia’s last four weeks in search of a general theory of Arab, anti-authoritarian revolt – a one-size-fits-all to be applied to North Africa and the Middle East’s other stumbling tyrannies. ‘Who grows thorns will reap wounds,’ goes the Tunisian verse, much quoted oft-late to predict the comeuppance awaiting dictators. Early 2011 has already seen furious crowds in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan. Was Ben Ali only the first ‘wounded‘?

“The message of the Tunisian protest for incumbent regimes in the Arab world is very clear – reform or face the street,” said Tunisian expert Hakim Darbouche.  It’s a message that’s been heeded, at least to a degree. In Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous state, steps are being taken to placate ‘sources of tension’, according to al-Masry al-youm, the country’s leading independent daily, which reported the ruling NDP’s ‘precautionary measures to avoid provoking citizens’ would include postponing any planned price hikes or new taxes.  It shows caution but also a dash of the cynicism that has allowed Mubarak’s regime to parry wider discontent by yielding on minor issues. (Nothing, of course, is mentioned of what is surely the biggest and longest-standing ’provocation’ of all: three decades of brutal emergency rule.) This kind of reaction is also an indication that we need to look more carefully at the specifics of each country when trying to judge who will ride the waves and who will topple.

Many analysts warned about extrapolating from events in Tunisia, in some ways a very atypical Arab nation. With a relatively small, mainly urbanised population (circa. 10.5 million), a high level of education, well-integrated minorities and a general consensus on secular democracy, it was probably fair to say that Tunisia had – as Egyptian journalist Amr el-Shobaki put it, making a comparison unfavourable to his own country – ‘a healthy society and an autocratic regime’.  Not only did protesters have a target for their ire in their president and his rotten system, there were common ideas on the type of government (if not the exact make-up) that should replace him. As in many Arab states, protests and critical media were outlawed in Tunisia, revealing greater combined force when the streets did erupt. By contrast, Egypt and Jordan see the value in allowing limited dissent to diffuse anger, preventing issue-specific protests evolving into larger movements.

The ‘Islamist threat’, so often cited by the region’s strongmen as the unpalatable alternative to oppressive rule, was also absent, as noted by Foreign Policy‘s Michael Koplow.  In a way it was a queasy tribute to Ben Ali’s 1990s – the ‘decade of lead’ – during which he quashed the Islamist opposition, imprisoning thousands and sending many others into exile. But his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, father of the post-colonial state, was also an uncompromising secular nationalist, both in state policy and personal behaviour (Bourguiba referred to the veil as an ‘odious rag’ and legend holds he quaffed a glass of orange juice on daytime television during Ramadan). The regime’s unfussy attitude to Islamic tradition was widely endorsed by the public and fears of an Islamic takeover are surely misplaced, despite the rumoured return of exiled clerics like Rashid al-Ghanusshi and an attempt by al-Qaeda to piggyback on the people’s success. Contrast that with Egypt, an increasingly sectarian state where the Muslim Brotherhood waits in the wings, a prospect that delights some and terrifies others.  In Algeria, the scene of unusually fierce protests and copycat self-immolations, the memory of the 1990s’ savage civil war between the government and banned Islamist groups which cost 150,000 lives might act as a chastener.

What Tunisia also lacked was immense oil reserves – quoted as 54th in the world in oil production, it’s a net importer – the likes of which give other Arab states a means to hold down prices and buy off dissent with job creation and clientism. The recent faltering of the Tunisian economy – once a North African high-performer, earning it the US State Department’s patronising nickname ‘the country that works’ – contributed to a reported 80,000 unemployed university graduates. Young, educated and with time to spare, they were the perfect demographic for sustained, no holds barred protest. It’s a phenomenon mirrored in the rest of the Arab world.

Corruption and nepotism are as common in the region as portraits of the ‘beloved’ President (or King), but even by these standards Tunisia was stunningly unbalanced. The BBC reported an estimated 50% of the country’s economic life was in the hands of a few families. There was even a Marie Antoinette in the scandalous figure of Leila Ben Ali Trabelsi, said to have risen from working in a hairdressing salon to business mogul with suspicious ease. (Even the Daily Mail, not generally given to international coverage unless it involves Third Reich tittle-tattle, was leading with allegations of Mrs Ben Ali’s filched gold)

Most autocracies are a touch smarter, spreading the wealth via a web of privilege that trickles down, building dependency on the state as well as fear of what would happen were the benefactors removed.  Syria, ruled by an Alawite minority that flattened its militant Sunni opposition, is an exemplar.  But even those far down the chain have investments in the status quo that can be hard to break.  As Juan Cole pointed out in a BBC interview, Egyptian shopkeepers, reliant on tourism for their income, may be loath to risk the loss to livelihood which joining protests would bring (although one could, of course, have made that argument about Tunisia).

There are even degrees of ‘illegitimacy’, linked to lineage, history and behaviour.  Morocco’s King Muhammed commands a mixture of fear, hatred and respect.  Jordan’s King Abdullah is by no means loved: at least half of Jordan‘s population are beleaguered Palestinians, he presides over a rubber-stamp parliament and he’s no stranger to obscene demonstrations of wealth in a country with little but tourism and US aid to sustain it. But he probably has slightly more credibility than Saudi’s legion of lecherous, spendthrift princes who publicly endorse the most puritanical kind of Islam.

Much was made of the technological aspect in Tunisia – the dread phrase ‘Twitter revolution’ was even reanimated. But even if this were true, Tunisian web-savvy is arguably another barrier to its repetition in other parts in the region where internet access is varied and net-cafes, not home connections, are the norm.

Surely more important in Tunisia  – and in any future Arab uprisings – are mobile phones and satellite news, the latter a mainstay even in some of the poorest homes. This, though, will depend on the sympathies and owners of the channels; Qatar-based Al-Jazeera has been hailed as building support for the protesters but Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya gave a very different impression, reflecting the Saudi’s support of Ben Ali and even now emphasising the chaos and lootings that followed his departure.

As for claims that Wikileaks revelations about the Tunisian regime’s excesses fuelled discontent, Barry Rubin – an Israeli analyst, for once finding himself in agreement with Arab bloggers – argued that Tunisians had plenty of personal experience of their corrupt rulers. Indeed the US ambassador’s information likely came from the Tunisian people themselves.

If ‘Twitter revolution’ is ill-founded then ‘the Jasmine Revolution’ – the more widespread sobriquet – may have been used too hastily. As Issandr el-Amrani points out, not only has it been used before, it was first spouted by none other than…(drum roll) Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, when he replaced Bourguiba in 1987’s ‘medical coup’. Some more cynical Arab commentators, foreseeing a shuffling of places for the old regime in the new government, might read this blooper as a gloomy portend.

All of which isn’t to downplay the significance of Tunisia’s revolt. The commonalities of dictatorship, repression and stagnation are clear enough. It certainly grabbed the attention of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, facing his own disruption at home, who backed the ousted president, telling Tunisians they would find no-one better as ruler.

Other countries and powers have taken their own lessons. Lebanon’s Hizbollah congratulated Tunisia’s people for standing up to tyranny. For Syria, according to a state newspaper, it represented the bankruptcy of Arab states aligning themselves with the US, a key supporter of Tunisia and in whose intelligence services Ben Ali was reportedly trained.

For its part, the United States has belatedly recognised the overthrow, serving to highlight its incoherent (to be charitable) or downright hypocritical stance when it comes to liberalisation in the Arab world. ‘Yes, we would like a democracy in Tunisia – but not too much democracy,’ wrote Robert Fisk, noting that ‘we’ – he meant the west – want ‘law and order and stability’ in the Arab world lest true democracy usher in unsavoury, less US-friendly governments. Given the political climate in Tunisia that might be unduly pessimistic.

But Mark Levine was among those who saw a lost chance in America’s approach, characterised by Hillary Clinton’s declaration that ‘we can’t take sides’. ‘This was a moment when the Obama administration could have seized the reins of history… it could have done more to defeat the forces of extremism than a million soldiers in Af/Pak could hope to accomplish.’

It’s not just American influence that’s waning.  Anthony Shadid saw the undermining of ‘the Arab status quo’, a ‘loss of energy… and purpose around which to rally beyond the simple survival of the regimes themselves’. Dynamism may have gone elsewhere; these days Turkey’s PM Erdogan, Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Hizbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah top Arab popularity polls.

Much is at stake then. But repetition across the entire region is likely to be stymied by an intimidating range of local factors, complicated by small shifts in policy and attitude by the various players.

Some of the more pragmatic analysis was found at Al-Bab, with Brian Whitaker’s checklist for judging the seriousness of further upheavals going by length, spread, shift of focus and signs of a regime’s inability to tackle the problem.

These are factors Arab leaders will surely be observing too. Perhaps while her husband meets the Russian president this week, Jordan’s Queen Rania will be browsing the real estate listings, following the advice of one web-heckler to start ‘looking for a new palace in Jeddah’.