Second thoughts on the overthrow of Ben Ali

The Tunisian uprising has been called the Jasmine Revolution, the Tunisian Revolution as well as a number of other things. The Tunisians did not accomplish a “true” revolution in an academic sense, at least not yet; what took place in the last month resembled a “color revolution” more than anything else, displacing a dictator while leaving his regime largely in place though sapped of its political and moral legitimacy. Though the state remains in the hands of the old regime, by and large, its leadership has been at the mercy of the population, reshuffling its membership and resigning RCD membership as the crowds shout. Popular forces have gained power unseen in an Arab polity before. Yet the uprising has been remarkably civil and Tunisian authorities, though conspicuously brutal in the course of the revolt, showed a lack of resolve that one might not expect to see repeated in other Arab states. A journalist emailed this blogger with question: What are your thoughts on the Tunisian revolution, where is it headed and what kind of democratic developments do you think are possible? The answer is: Too soon to tell (regardless of how much is written here or elsewhere).

This blogger has thus avoided extensive commentary on the events until further reflection is possible. A few secondary thoughts since the first post, though:

1. The Tunisian uprising benefitted from several elements particular to Tunisia. One was that the participants, young people especially, are well educated and have high expectations for themselves and their society. The Tunisian middle class does not look at the rest of society and say, as one sometimes hears Algerian or Egyptians say, our people are so ignorant. Tunisia’s many university graduates have middle class values and a sense of agency not present on so wide a scale in some other Arab polities — partly a function of the sheer size of other Arab countries relative to Tunisia’s population of ten million. A regime that successfully educated the post-independence generation helped to plant the seeds of social mobilization and politicization. This is an area where Tunisia’s situation contrasts strongly with Egypt and Algeria, other large Arab states at risk for popular revolt. One writer called Tunisia’s uprising a “Middle Class Revolution,” making a very compelling argument on how Tunisia’s social achievements helped give its people the confidence to stand up for themselves as well as describing the growth of popular opposition as a widening middle class felt swamped in a sea of corruption. Thus middle class Tunisians identified with the humiliations and complaints of people in the less well off interior of the country where the revolt began (at Sidi Bouzid). It will be interesting to see how class influences the post-uprising politics in the interior, as well as on the coast.

2. Another factor in the Tunisian situation was the relative institutional position of its military. This has been somewhat widely commented on by smart people (especially ably here and here). The Tunisian military has always been small, seen as a potential threat to the political power of the country’s traditionally civilian leaders. The army numbers less than thirty thousand men, and the armed forces receive only about one percent of GDP. It therefore represents a unique regime component as the Tunisian example relates to the rest of the Arab world where militaries are often larger and more powerful politically. Ben Ali came out of the army himself — he was a graduate of St. Cyr and attended various western staff schools — but he rose to power through the security services. Thus his political capital came from the later institution rather than the military. Once the former Interior Minister was in power he treated his internal security service as many other Arab leaders treat their bloated armies. The Tunisian armed forces lacked the special treatment found in other countries and it was not a pillar of his rule. The Tunisian armed forces thus have a professional character somewhat different from those of countries where the military a political force. By refusing to fire on protestors, though, the Army Chief of Staff Rachid Ammar made a professional and political statement. In this moment the armed forces represented an element of the state rather than the regime. This contrasts with the priorities of an army like Algeria’s where the military views the regime and the state as products of its own labors (if not one and the same) to be defended against all internal and external enemies at close to any price (and where the army’s commanders themselves issued orders to shoot rioters in an incident similar to Tunisia’s today, in 1988). The military’s role in the crisis was to act as a police force where the security forces failed in their mission. The decision to fire on protestors represented an escalation in the crisis, one that from the perspective of self-preservation can only be called a horrible mistake — to speak not at all of its moral reprehensibility. The political role of the police forces in upholding Ben Ali’s regime came into conflict with the structural imperatives it shares with the military in maintaining the existence and agency of the state. At the same time this speaks strongly to the durability of the Tunisian state itself as an institution which predates both independence and colonialism by many centuries. It now enjoys a new prestige that may tempt it more deeply into politics. In this sense there are institutional factors that make the role of the military in Tunisia’s uprising and transition something to be studied in depth as the transition moves forward.

3. Watching the pronouncements and speeches of the interim government reveals the character of the old regime, and other North African governments as well. There are no charismatic characters in the new government. Judging by the tenor and quality of his speeches, it seems the long-time Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has never had to deliver a pronouncement aimed at convincing or inspiring an audience. His formal Arabic is halting and pre-fluent in the style of North African bureaucrats educated in French who are barely capable in standard Arabic but not confident in it (Ghannouchi even made a small grammatical mistake in his first speech). Ben Ali’s use of Tunisian darja was striking because he used it so infrequently unlike Bourguiba whose ability to use standard Arabic as well as darja was renowned. None of the men that have acted as faces of the new government are compelling either in their use of Arabic or as public speakers more generally. This reflects the authoritarian character of the old system: what use is cultivating strong rhetorical skills when incumbency is assured and loyalty to the president is instrument? One is impressed by the very fine Arabic of Mancef Merzouki and Rachid Ghannouchi, activists (particularly Ghannouchi) whose need to appeal the masses incentivizes compelling language and fluency. That Tunisia’s interim leaders speak in droll, formal language reflects commonalities with Algeria and Morocco. Lameen Souag, a linguist, deals with these problems in some depth here making the key point, that “he [Ghannouchi] has never had the need to master rhetoric or appeal to a mass audience.” Again the current leadership in Tunis has never had an incentive to convince the people to follow its lead, working as an auxiliary to Ben Ali in an imposed political system. At a symbolic level this should be even more evidence of the gulf between the street and the palace as protestors demand the resignation of RCD officials. On another level is shows the extent to which the political class is accustomed to following rather than leading.

4. Many are concerned that the success of the Tunisian uprising so far could spread elsewhere in the Arab world. The key point is this: places like Egypt, Algeria and perhaps even Jordan, Morocco and Yemen, are pre-revolutionary societies. The correct combination of public humiliations at the hands of state officials, a well publicized injustice could set off a spark similar to Mohamed Bouazizi’s. The place many are looking is Egypt with smart people arguing that the country is next inline for a popular movement or that the regime is more durable and robust than Tunisia’s was. One cannot help but be impressed by how quickly Ben Ali’s security apparatus degenerated into open thuggery and vulgarity and how quickly he was given to flee. Once seen as among the most durable of Arab autocracies, Ben Ali’s Tunisia has been proven to have been among the most brittle — to the great benefit of the Tunisian street. The social malaise its political and economic system created overcame its security forces. Young Arabs are acutely aware of the corruption and everyday injustices that the imperatives of economic liberalization bring on people in developing countries like themselves and they are cramped and angry that the authorities in their countries deny them means of redress or complaint. Denied an avenue of change by legal means, these Arab youth are increasingly desperate. Their numbers overwhelm practically any other demographic in the region. Their priorities will dominate whatever uprising come in Egypt or Algeria or Jordan. The inability of geriatric leadership classes to identify or empathize with them is a series security issue for local regimes and the western governments that support them. But the structure of these other governments is key: not all are as old as Tunisia and not all have the elite divisions between the military and the security forces, the ruling family and the political elite. And it is unclear that other Arab leaders, like Ben Ali and his wife, are so wrapped up in money grubbing and gold-loving that it damages their ability to focus on repression in times of crisis. This was perhaps a major factor in the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families’ fall: they loved wealth more than power.

The tendency in many Arab regimes has been for the elite to draw out escape routes to Europe or the Gulf rather than battle plans or strategies for digging their heels into the dirt if challenged (as Ben Ali and Co. did; and note that Zine el-Abdine and Leila could not leave their homeland before visiting the bank to pick up gold bars). While there is a good case that Arab leaders have lost much of their prowess it is unclear that institutional decay and their personal weakness is sufficient to produce Tunisia style results — where it seems the ruling family’s avarice and cowardliness was a key factor in their fall.

There is potential in other Arab societies for a similar uprising as that in Tunisia, though the right trigger is what is missing. It cannot be said that such events are impossible in Algeria or Egypt or other countries. Are they immediately likely? In some senses yes and in others no. Arab regimes are learning from the Tunisian experience and have evolved bulwarks against revolution over years. Observers should not forget that Ben Ali fled Tunisia with his wife but his regime is still in country, taking revenge on the ex-president’s tight cohorts but still attempting to govern. The regime did not collapse even as it shook. Like other Arab states, Tunisia’s leaders face not merely a crisis of political legitimacy but also a serious moral crisis. They must find some formula that will make the use of repression and violence unnecessary. If legitimacy is the ability to rule without having to use force, few Arab leaders have legitimacy and the Tunisian political class is the first in the Arab world to be truly tested in this sense. The Tunisian crowd has been able to force concessions and changes in course from the interim government which appears to lack a strong leader with a distinct or independent vision. The technocrats are concerned with their own self-preservation and avoiding further chaos. Given this lack of vision and leadership it makes sense that the crowd and the interim government would engage in the kind of call and response game seen in the last week or so. This is where one observes the weakened morale of the regime elite, the strength of the protest movement at a key juncture. At the same time Ben Ali’s flight seems to have dented the confidence of top regime operators who now seem conspicuously flexible, although resignations from the RCD mean nothing at all for all practical purposes. The key here in the broader Arab context is not strictly the strength of the Arab crowd but the will and ability of the Arab authorities to hold their ranks in the face of adversity. Some are more shrewd than Ben Ali was and some systems are far more structurally complex and durable. Recall that the Algerian police have undergone a deliberate transformation since the 2001 uprising first under Ali Tounsi and then (from early this summer) under Gen. Abdelghani Hamel. The emphasis has been on discipline and restraint and where riot control is concerned, efficiency. Public appearances by the chiefs of police have been designed to raise the prestige of the police and the public’s sympathy with them in the wake of the Civil War. In the Algerian uprisings in late 2010 and early 2011 (thus far) there is a notable contrast between the response of Algerian and Tunisian police. The Algerians have kept deaths at low numbers and attempted to keep crowds from swelling up in the first place. The Tunisians killed in days as many Algerians were reported injured in the 22 January demonstrations in Algiers (around forty). Lethal force has been kept to a minimum. There is a conscious, if only partly successful, effort to display discipline so as not provoke harsh responses from demonstrators. The aggressive and ruthless tactics used in Tunisia display the exact behavior the Algerian police commanders have learned to either conceal or discourage rather than promote. It is not all this though: there are emerging divisions within the Algerian security apparatus given to the age of its leaders and competition for authority which has slowed down some of the decision-making around the response to recent riots. This helped contain the riots but represents a kind of hidden hesitation that could represent larger structural failures that are likely to lead to a serious crisis in the leadership in the medium term. The deaths of young people at the hands of the police were a turning point in Tunisia; others will likely seek to avoid such displays of contempt. In the Egyptian case there have been many public provocations: the brutal murder of Khaled Said by the security forces in a public Internet cafe; multiple National Police Days; the last two election cycles and so on. The bread problem (“Egyptians only rise up when bread becomes unaffordable”) has been avoided but there seems to be a sense that the regime (like others in the Arab world) is poking at other potential red lines that have yet to be uncovered. The Tunisian example, though, may not offer them that lesson.

6 thoughts on “Second thoughts on the overthrow of Ben Ali

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