By Claire Spencer

If it were only Tunisia, the outside world might be excused for being slow to wake up to the potential consequences of the protests that led to last Friday’s sudden ousting of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from the presidency. The convulsion is now being described in terms of a “scenario” to be avoided elsewhere in the Arab world, with commentators looking around the region, notably to Tunisia’s neighbour Algeria, where riots over food prices have only just subsided, and towards Egypt, where recent attacks on the Christian Copts raised the spectre of deepening sectarian violence.

What is afoot in North Africa, and will it really infect the internal dynamics of other Arab states? On the face of it, the main spark for the Tunisian unrest was high unemployment, particularly among graduates, whereas in Algeria, it was the spike in the prices of cooking oil and sugar. Having reduced the taxes on both, the Algerian government has defused the tension for now, without addressing the underlying pressures of youth unemployment, underinvestment in poorer regions, and its own unaccountability to its citizens.

All these issues have their parallels in Tunisia, along with strains on living standards affecting the whole region. In 2008, a sudden, 30 per cent rise in the price of imported wheat provoked widespread bread riots in Egypt, and Jordan has recently seen protests over living costs too.

The combination of circumstances that triggered events in Tunisia has, nevertheless, been unique. Tunisian society may be in large part Arab, but it is also embedded in the Mediterranean, with a long Roman and Phoenician history. Just like their historical cousins in Lebanon, Malta and Italy, this had made Tunisians a nation of traders, open to business with the outside world.

More recently, the Tunisian economy has combined trade liberalisation and greater openness to the outside world out of necessity. Unlike its nearest neighbours, Tunisia cannot rely on oil and gas exports for 97 per cent of its foreign earnings, as do Libya and Algeria. The Tunisian state has had to import energy and attract foreign investment for its textile industry, offshore car-assembly plants and tourist developments.

Beneath the surface of the whole Arab world, however, lie structural causes for discontent which, as in Tunisia, will certainly not dissipate soon. The first is the failing of the pact between the rulers and ruled; that in exchange for their exclusion from politics, the state will provide its citizens with jobs, services and economic growth. This has not happened, or has not happened fast enough for the region’s burgeoning populations, which explains why sporadic outbursts have been a feature of life in Egypt and Algeria for five years or more, albeit localised and largely unnoticed from outside.

In Tunisia, despite well-known known human rights limitations, the Ben Ali regime survived through educating its 10 million citizens to high levels and promising women more freedoms in the market place than elsewhere in the region. Until the last few weeks, its external image was, accordingly, positive.

With a doubling in unemployed graduates, from 40,000 to 80,000 in recent years, the weaknesses of the Tunisian model became more obvious. It may be coincidental, but one of WikiLeaks’ offerings in December provided evidence of just how concerned US officials had become over President Ben Ali’s dysfunctional government and the rapacious lifestyles of his nearest relatives.

The other pact that failed in Tunisia, and is failing elsewhere, is the one between narrowly-based regional elites and their international partners, above all Europe and the US.

Since 9/11 these elites have made a promise to control al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates as well as curb the migration of unemployed youths and Sub-Saharan Africans northwards into Europe. In return, Europe and the US have lifted the pressure to democratise in favour of promoting economic reforms and investment to assist their regional allies in providing work for their burgeoning populations.

Should other regional leaderships take note, then, of what happens next in Tunisia and limit the fallout? The common features of all but the smallest Arab states are a youth bulge in the age range of 15- to 29-year-olds, along with the stifling of private initiative in both economic and political spheres. Only Lebanon, and, to a lesser extent, some of the Gulf states and Morocco, have loosened their political and economic controls sufficiently to bring new entrants to the market for ideas and enterprise.

Patronage, nepotism and officially-sanctioned bribery are still the preferred ways of doing business, as is arresting those who overstep the mark. The difference between this and corruption seen elsewhere is that only lip-service is paid to the emergence of independent judiciaries and the rule of law needed to curtail it.

The lack of progress towards establishing either is, in practice, an integral part of maintaining the status quo across the Arab world. Thus, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appeal of last week for Arab leaders to step up the pace of reform or, by inference, sink beneath the pressures that toppled Ben Ali, may once again fall on deaf ears. Reform has never really kept autocrats in power.

The EU and US would do well to re-evaluate policies based on urging individual leaderships to deliver reform on their own
. As a model for future engagement with the Arab world, they might do better to look to their own history of integrating the autocracies of southern, eastern and central Europe into the democratic fold from the 1980s. Here, progress depended on extending relations with popular institutions and processes, not with unelected leaders. It also meant directing financial support and incentives towards the population as a whole, including membership of the EU and Nato.

The immediate challenge facing the interim authorities in Tunisia is whether, after years of social control through repression, they are capable of opening up to the kind of power- and wealth-sharing needed to put the genie of popular protest back in the bottle. It may have to wait until the next generation of leaders. And, with so many other Arab leaders facing succession issues across the Middle East soon, that should give them all pause for thought.

Dr Spencer is Head, Middle East & North Africa Programme, Chatham House

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