Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tunisia: Revolution?

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By Barry Rubin

A popular uprising fueled by unemployment, economic suffering, and long-term discontent has overthrown the dictator--but not necessarily the dictatorship--in Tunisia.  In 55 years of independence, the country has been governed by two dictators, the current--until now--one being Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali, who has been in power for 23 years and was a key power in the regime even before that.

Is this going to spread? Does it mark some new phase in Arab politics? Probably not. Tunisia is a very distinctive country. It has been the most Europeanized state in the Arab world, due in part to the secular-oriented policies of the regimes. There has been an Islamist movement but the regime has kept it weak, perhaps making Tunisia the Arabic-speaking state with the lowest proportional support for Islamism among its population.

There have been economic riots in other countries over the years, especially in Algeria or, for example, against reductions in bread subsidies in Egypt. Notably, there was the Beirut Spring movement against Syrian control of the country. But in Tunisia the opponents lack of leadership and organization is likely to mean that the same elite and the army will remain in control of the country.

Here's the bottom line: Statist and dictatorial policies have led to serious limits on freedom throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Economic stagnation and lagging living standards are prevalent, except in those countries that have large oil and natural gas incomes compared to small populations.

How have regimes kept in control? Through giving rewards to supporters and punishing opponents; military and police power; redirecting hostility toward other (America, Israel, the West) targets; and other means. While revolutionary Islamists have promoted rebellion, Arab nationalist regimes have opposed them with a wide arsenal of tactics. And the very fear of an Islamist transformation can also be a good tool in keeping the elite together and the masses in line.

That system got too far out of balance in Tunisia. There is a chance of parallel developments elsewhere--Algeria has also experienced riots--but it is not likely. At any rate, this issue will have to be watched closely.

Incidentally, the idea that this began dut to Wikileaks is silly. After all, what did the cable say? That the situation in Tunisia was so bad that a revolt might erupt! Good State Department analysis but not the cause!

Of course, let's try out this kind of logic. I hereby predict there will be a moderate democratic revolution in Iran. There! Now if it happens give me credit.

By the way, nobody has yet remarked that U.S. State Department diplomats correctly predicted this revolution--as we can see in the Wikipedia leaked cable--and they should get credit for that.

Reading the material below is for extra credit:

PS: Why does the idea that the Tunisian revolution began because of Wikileaks irritate me?

Because it symbollizes many of the idiocies in Western news analysis, scholarship, and media.  After all, why do people in the West believe that Tunisians need Wikileaks to know about their own country?

Actually the underlying unconscious idea of many elite Westerners (especially those who purport that they are so sympathetic to "the other") is the patronizing concept that Third World people don't really exist in their own right but are merely minions to be maneuvered. So if they do something--terrorism, revolution, etc.--it must be based on some external factor. Namely, us! (Which is why these Western elite members blame America and/or Europe and/or Israel for all the problems in the rest of the world.)

Now, they ask: what do we know about Tunisia that could account for this revolt? Hm, Wikileaks! Yes, these peasants must have read Wikileaks and been moved to revolt.

Um, might there be some other motive? How about not having a job and being hungry and seeing wealthy Tunisians stealing and a government not meeting your needs and the situation getting worse and worse? Things are desperate even compared to the past and there's no prospect for improvement. There are lots of young people who feel they have no future. Also you feel that you have a good chance of demonstrating or throwing a rock or defying the police and not risk a chance of death or torture? Might that do it?

Or do you need Wikileaks to tell you that corruption is going on?

Now, where did theAmerican diplomats who wrote the cable get their information? Duh! They spoke to--wait for it!--Tunisian,s who told them!!!!

So here's how it the chain of transmission went:

Tunisians-American diplomats-State Department-Wikileaks-newspapers publishing Wikileaks-experts-newspapers publishing expert opinions saying that this was caused by Wikileaks-you.

BUT the origin of all this information--the beginning of the chain--was not Wikileaks but....Tunisians who knew about the corruption already.

Now, if they told US diplomats, don't you think they'd tell each other?

Note: If Tunisians actually say they were motivated by Wikileaks, I will happily withdraw this analysis. So far I have not seen that. Folowing this article's publication, reporters in fact said that people in Tunisia told them this wasn't a factor and didn't even know about it.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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