Links and reflections on Tunisia

Here are links to some recent articles on what's happening in Tunisia. One question raised by these articles (I excerpt the relevant passage below) is what danger do the protests pose the Ben Ali regime and what alternatives to it there are. Regimes like Tunisia have been extremely effective not only in containing opposition leaders but also in ensuring that none exist at all that have a wide popularity. There is no Tunisian Aung San Suu Kyi or Yukashenko. There are some prominent intellectuals and journalists, but there are not likely political candidates with any kind of organized base. This is the price that was paid in part by Western support for these regimes, and in part by the "social contract" enacted with the population.

It's not the same in all Arab countries, of course. Algeria has alternatives to Bouteflika, but the known ones from within the regime are not very pleasant. Monarchies like Morocco tend to be adept at putting the king above politics, thus making the issue of symbolic reform as simple as replacing an all-powerful minister of interior like the late Driss Basri. But in Libya, there is no visible alternative to Qadhafi other than one of his sons. In Egypt, Mubarak has ensured that there is no credible contender from within the regime, making the unlikely and courageous decision by Mohamed ElBaradei not to retire quietly a source of something new: a morally credible, authoritative critic of the regime.

But generally speaking, the Arab world has been pretty bad at generating credible oppositions, mostly because the opposition have been crushed, but sometimes also because of their own fault: they are too radical, too disorganized, etc.

Coming back to Tunisia, I see only one factor that could seriously shake the ruling elite into bringing down Ben Ali and engineering a transition as we saw in some of the Eastern European states in the 1990s: a strong message from the European Union, and France in particular, as well as the United States that this is desired. Such a push certainly won't come from inside the region, but Tunisia's main economic partners certainly can do something about it. This probably why we have heard so little from Lady Ashton at the EU on what's happening in Tunisia: a word from Brussels could have a tremendous impact. 

Tunisia's troubles: Sour young men | The Economist

Tunisia’s troubles are unlikely to unseat the 74-year-old president or even to jolt his model of autocracy. Yet they may serve warning to governments across the Maghreb that a growing number of young people in the region feel increasingly frustrated and marginalised, as ageing and undemocratic leaders seem ever more out of touch with them.

Steven Cook's Blog » Blog Archive » The Last Days of Ben Ali?

It may not be the last days of Ben Ali or Mubarak or any other Middle Eastern strongman, but there is clearly something going on in the region. Is it possible that the gendarme states in the region may not be a strong as we believe? To be sure, they have demonstrated flexibility and an enormous capacity to deflect and undermine opposition, but for how long? Forever? That’s a long time. We (Middle East geeks) may be doing ourselves a disservice by playing the odds-on-stability game, especially in light of the failed social contracts, Arab leaders’ willingness to employ violence against there own people, and the limited economic opportunity that led Mohamed Bouazizi to go so far as to dump gasoline over his head and light a match. A month ago, would anyone have predicted that an act like Bouazizi’s would set off major demonstrations throughout Tunisia? Events like the Duweiqa rockslide, Salam Boccacio 98 sinking, the outbreak of swine flue, and car accidents in the Gaza Strip, have the potential to become politically important well beyond the immediate issue at hand. Analysts have no way of predicting whether events like these will have a political impact or not, however. That’s why “tipping point” is not a useful analytic concept. You only know when something is a tipping point after it happens.

La Tunisie gronde toujours, mais qui pour remplacer Ben Ali ? | Rue89

Le vide politique qu'a créé Ben Ali ne donne pas beaucoup d'illusions aux Tunisiens : personne n'affirme que son régime s'effondrera dans une semaine ou dans un mois. Vincent Geisser appelle à encore plus de patience. Pour lui, le changement ne sera pas radical, et viendra davantage de l'intérieur :

« Des élites du parti de Ben Ali contestent de plus en plus la dictature. Une partie des cadres du parti est saine, il s'agit de haut fonctionnaires qui administrent le pays en dépit du régime autoritaire. »

Selon lui, il est possible que l'un d'entre eux succède au président actuel :

« Il faudrait un remplaçant issu du sérail, mais dont la réputation n'a pas été salie par des affaires de corruption. Un technicien qui engagerait des réformes économiques et politiques, pour ouvrir progressivement le paysage politique. »

Il s'agira forcément de quelqu'un de soutenu par la communauté internationale :

« Wikileaks a démontré l'implication des Etats-Unis, qui semblent chercher un successeur à Ben Ali, dont ils déplorent la corruption. » 

En attendant, les émeutes continuent. En France, Adel Ghazal espère un changement, sans réellement y croire :

« Il ne suffit pas d'être opposant pour être un leader crédible et porter une alternative. »

On another topic, also read: Tunisia's bitter cyberwar - Features - Al Jazeera English

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.