The region of the Middle East and North Africa has long been known as a politically and socially volatile area. This should come as news to no one. But few would have expected Tunisia, a relatively stable and modernized country, to be the place where the tensions first boiled over.
In the coming months, the world will look on as Tunisia embarks on an interesting experiment. Can an Arab country make a smooth transition from authoritarian rule to a more open political system without skidding off into Islamic extremism?
The tide of change that swept the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism in Europe bypassed the Arab world, where essentially all the same regimes are still in power. Deceased leaders have been replaced by successors, but the system of government has remained unchanged.
Meanwhile, the general political climate in the world changed dramatically, and the very concept of authoritarian rule became obsolete. In response, the dictators and monarchs of the region in question were forced to disguise their old ways.
But the rise of a unipolar world order has not left the Arab world unscathed. When the confrontation between the two main superpowers came to an end, radical Islam came to fill the ideological void left in the wake. The outburst of terrorism has called attention to these origins.
A series of publications released at the turn of the century, including the sensational 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report, confirmed that the Arab region is lagging behind other parts of the world. The prescriptions were similar: countries throughout the region need social and political modernization and a more flexible system of government that can adapt to modern challenges.
The war on terror launched by the United States in the wake of the September 11 attack has had two opposing consequences. On the one hand, Washington declared a democratization drive as a means to shore up its own security and to resolve global problems. Authoritarian regimes in the Arab world simply did not fit into that picture. On the other hand, the United States had to deepen cooperation with repressive regimes in North Africa and the Middle East that quashed dangerous Islamic movements.
Those leaders successfully sold their anti-Islamist policies to their Western partners, threatening to relax the reins if the West fails to provide the required support. One striking example of this unlikely cooperation was outsourcing the interrogation of terrorist suspects to Middle Eastern countries. The U.S. military and intelligence agencies were limited in the rough interrogation techniques they could use on prisoners, while their Arab colleagues had more methods at their disposal to elicit the intelligence the United States sought.
America’s democratic assault on dictators soon petered out. U.S.-backed elections in the Palestinian Territories brought Hamas to power, derailing the peace process indefinitely. And the U.S. government is still licking its wounds from its experiment with the regime change in Iraq. Not even a superpower can afford to make the same costly mistake twice.
The recent unrest in Tunisia also came as a shock because Tunisians had not been demanding democratization, although they were all perfectly aware that their ruling family was mired in corruption. And despite the slogans to the contrary, Western powers are not comfortable with the idea of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa; they are more comfortable with the authoritarian rulers they know. Any expression of free will in the region seems to arouse suspicion in the West. In the 1950s, Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, was overthrown in a CIA-backed plot.
This explains the cautious attitude in the West toward the recent changes in Turkey, gradually implemented by the moderate Justice and Development Party since it first came to power in a free election at the beginning of the 2000s. Turkey is becoming more liberal and democratic as a result of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s declared policy of moving his country closer to Europe; at the same time, it is becoming a less secular and pro-Western country. Ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state, the country’s army has repeatedly interfered in politics to protect the secular and pro-Western values Ataturk championed.
The “free world” was only too happy to deal with Turkish generals and form alliances with them. The Islamist reformer Erdogan, on the other hand, is often seen as an irresponsible populist rather than a democrat in the United States, while Europe is busy searching for any excuses to deny EU membership to Turkey rather than praise its recent liberalization.
Tunisia has been compared to Turkey on several occasions. It is the most Westernized and secular country in North Africa, and the military there has always played an important role. How things turn out in Tunisia after this change of government will have implications for the rest of the region. In theory, Tunisia, with its educated and Europeanized elite, is the most likely candidate to make a peaceful transition to a pluralistic system. If it fails and descends into chaos, surely other countries in the region have little chance of succeeding.
Tunisia has close ties with Europe and has always been friendly with the United States. But it is a small and relatively poor country, so it can hardly pin its hopes on outside powers getting involved. However, if Tunisia’s example serves as an inspiration to citizens of other countries in the region, outside interest would surely increase. For example, if discontent grows in Libya, a country fantastically rich in mineral resources, there will be a line of potential benefactors wishing to steer it down the right path to democracy stretching all the way to Washington.