The Arab World Re-enters History?

January 28, 2011

By Roger Owen

It is rare that public events have the dramatic simplicity of the sudden departure of Tunisia’s late president. As such it belongs to that special category of especially memorable events such as the equally dramatic departure of the Rumanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 when his people also found the courage to turn against him. Although, unlike Ben Ali, he was unable to save his own skin by getting out of the country in time, along with members of his close family and a sizeable amount of his ill-gotten gains.

Just where it may now lead is, of course, a difficult question. As I remember telling Iranians friends celebrating the departure of the Shah in February 1989, we would be wise to celebrate tonight because who knew what tomorrow may bring. Popular revolutions, as history also tells us, never stop at the barricades and the burning of the Bastille but generally have a life, sometimes a very bloody life, of their own.

Nevertheless, in the Tunisian case at least, there are some causes for optimism. For one thing, the Tunisians do have a constitution which, however flawed, provides a structure for the orderly transfer of power and the reestablishment of political life via multi-party elections. For another, Tunisia is fortunate that it also possesses a number of experienced politicians from the days when some kind of organized opposition was possible in the early Ben Ali period and who have kept their programs and their practices alive since then, though mostly in exile. Again, unlike some other Arab countries, there are still the remains of once vibrant institutions like the trade unions and, to a lesser extent, the universities. And let us not forget its significant material assets including its ability to attract foreign investment and its outward-looking, well-diversified economy.

There is also the reasonable hope that, after twenty years in which Tunisia, like many of its Arab neighbors, was ruled by a president for life doing his best to convince the outside world of his democratic credentials, the country can now aspire to enjoy the significant benefits of properly belonging to that influential club of largely western democratic nations which still provides the world’s most powerful example of economic, social, intellectual, and cultural progress. With luck too, it can become a vital riposte both to those who say that Israel is the only example of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa and those others who, largely because of the existence of so many authoritarian presidents for life, are able to argue that the Arab world is an anomalous backwater, cut off from the vital tides of opinions, ideas and practices which animate the rest of the so-called civilized world.

There is yet another way of thinking about what has just happened, this time at a more psychological level. On a recent visit to Tunisia, I was immediately struck by what seemed to me the shame and suppressed anger of the young people I met, ashamed of the fact that they were ruled by a corrupt family which showed every sign of renewing its hold forever, and angry that there was nothing they could do about it, not even to complain. It reminded me very forcibly of the same glum faces and downcast eyes I had encountered in Greece in 1967, shortly after the Colonels’ coup, the sign of a proud people humiliated by heavy-handed rulers whose actions seemed totally at odds with the country’s popular political culture and its illustrious past.

Both Greece at that time, and Tunisia until the other day, had what one wise observer described as a ‘dignity’ deficit. And the question then became how could this sense of fear and indignity be broken. But who could possibly have anticipated that, on this occasion, the spark would be lit by one young man, and that its impact would be enough to sustain a nationwide protest for a sufficient length of time that the army would no longer fire on its own citizens and parts of its elite police force be reduced to a discredited set of trigger-happy gangsters?

What is also special about the Tunisian case is that, unlike Iraq, the liberation from dictatorship was the work of its own people, not that of a military invasion and occupation led by the Americans. At an existential level the Tunisians can proudly say that they freed themselves. At a more practical one they can hark back to the reasonably firm foundations on which their country was originally based after independence. Their first president, Habib Bourguiba, was also a dictator to be sure. But his legacy glows brighter when compared with that of his successor, having helped to create a homogenous, well-educated society of men and women with considerable industrial and entrepreneurial skills, as well as a proven ability to attract foreign investment from both public and private sources.

What the Tunisian people now have the opportunity to do is to use the need for a new post–Ben Ali constitution to begin a wide-ranging discussion about a new form of Arab rule in which the powers of the president are systematically offset by those of a prime minister appointed from an elected parliament, somewhat along the same lines as those in Lebanon and present-day Iraq. This, and similar measures, would then have the potential of initiating what might be called a reverse demonstration effect in which Arab states move not towards a system of authoritarian presidents for life, as they have been doing for the last forty or so years, but towards more plural forms of political power based on a set of checks and balances dependent on a variety of institutional mechanisms including an independent judiciary and a lively public opinion. What seemed a dream when promoted in lackluster fashion from outside by America and its allies in 1991 and 2003 now seems a more vibrant possibility as a result of the bravery of one Arab country’s own courageous and resourceful population.

This article was originally published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in January 2011. Read more of Professor Owen's Al-Hayat columns in English here.