Arab world ponders future after Tunisia

Sat, Jan 22, 2011, 00:00

WORLD VIEW:Social media’s role central to discussion about democratisation of authoritarian states

‘IT IS on everyone’s mind that the Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and a general recession,” according to Amr Mousa, secretary general of the Arab League. He referred to events in Tunisia as an example of “big social shocks that many Arab societies are exposed to”. These are “serious events” which “shape the beginning of one era and the end of another”.

The summit at which he spoke did not explicitly refer to Tunisia, but behind the scenes, in national capitals and in the Arab media, that country’s remarkable popular transformation monopolises discussions about the region’s future. Two major questions arise: will similar events occur elsewhere in an Arab world dominated by authoritarian governments and dynasties – and what role might transnational and social media play in any such change?

It is easy for outsiders to assume a greater homogeneity in the region than actually exists.

The hub and spoke relationship with former imperial powers like France and Britain means its states and peoples are surprisingly separate from one another – as was the case with the Soviet-dominated states of central and eastern Europe after 1989.

US and EU policy towards the region has recently been driven by a master narrative derived from the “war on terror”. In this frame, the Ben Ali regime was tolerated and subsidised despite its human rights abuses and kleptocratic structure because it dealt with fundamentalist Islamic resistance in the 1990s.

Economic growth, education spending and neoliberal reforms seemed to promise a modernised and secular society capable of gradual change. In retrospect, their underside of unevenly distributed benefits, 30 per cent youth unemployment and inequalities are seen to have created the tinders of popular revolt. Tunisia’s ruling family network was distinctive in its control of the tourism-dominated economy and hated for its self-promotion and centralised policing, providing a ready target for generalised popular anger.

Distinctive too compared to neighbouring states is a weaker army and relatively independent trade union movement, the one refusing to intervene for the regime in its last days, and the other capable of calling a strike which gathered a huge popular response. Fundamentalist Islamist groups are conspicuously absent from the turmoil; but no one can be sure how the vacuum will be filled, including by religious leaders returning from exile more attuned to reformist approaches.

Tunisia is a small state compared to Egypt, Algeria or Morocco, lacking oil wealth but more developed in several respects. Poverty, unemployment and recession affect each of them, and other Arab states, too, as Mousa pointed out.

Compared to Algeria’s multiple arenas of power, Tunisia’s political system is much more centralised. There is more scope for political opposition in Morocco, however circumscribed. And in Egypt the media are more diverse and independent, if still corralled, and the labour movement less capable of asserting leadership, despite widespread social conflicts.

Such structural factors are likely to constrain or diffuse revolutionary contagion until the Tunisian situation more fully unfolds. A military coup would stifle contagion, whereas functioning democratic elections would enhance it.

One factor favouring a movement of democratisation is the trans-border Arabic broadcast and social media. As during previous crises in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, the Qatar-based satellite television channel al-Jazeera has played a central role in reporting the Tunisian events. Although banned from the state, its reporters relied on mobile phone photographs, Twitter and Facebook material to chronicle the escalating crisis and bring it to a wider Arab audience.

The impact of this reportage, reinforced by al-Jazeera’s favourable editorial line, should not be underestimated. Nor can the effects of the social media on which it drew so extensively.

Both types of media are new factors in the region’s public opinion, capable of bypassing or outwitting extensive state censorship and creating space for alternative politics. Television is more influential than the weaker printed media, while the social media embolden the emerging youthful and educated middle class. But as a study of new Arab journalism by Lawrence Pintak points out, in analysing media one should be careful about attributing them causal effects, as distinct from influencing or reinforcing emerging social and political movements.

Pintak quotes Rami Khouri, editor at large of the Beirut Daily Star, against conflating mass communication and mass democratisation, since “there remains a large gap between an informed citizenry and an empowered citizenry”. In the Financial Times, Khouri suspects “the Tunisian drama will be seen in retrospect more like the Solidarity movement in Poland that sparked a decade-long process of slow transformation in the Soviet satellites, than the fall of the Berlin Wall”.