Winds of change in Arab world


THE APPARENT stability and solidity of the most autocratic regimes, carefully fostered self-images crucial to their survival, often conceal the reality of feet of clay. As Tunisia’s surprised president Zein al-Abinine Ben Ali discovered to his cost, the social base and machinery of power that sustained him can, like a social dry rot, wither invisibly from beneath a regime. Then, a seemingly trivial spark exposes its weakness and revolution blows in like a gale from a clear blue sky. Deluded victims of their own propaganda, unable to test the pulse of their people in the absence of democratic mechanisms, the Ben Alis and their ilk find themselves rudely and suddenly cast aside. (Though he has reportedly left with $66 million in bullion to sugar the pill of exile).

That hidden vulnerability and the simmering subterranean anger of the masses that Tunisia’s unfinished revolution revealed has sent shockwaves around the autocratic, mostly corrupt, ruling elites who dominate every state in the Arab world. And their cowed peoples, courtesy of extensive al-Jazeera coverage of the masses taking matters into their own hands, are waking up to the real possibilities of people power. Demonstrations have taken place in support of the Tunisian people around the region and newspapers openly discuss the possibility of democratic contagion.

Despite professions of support for democratic change, that prospect will cause anxiety in European capitals and the US because of the fear that genuine democracy in the Arab world may empower extreme Islamism, already the driving forces of opposition movements in places like Algeria, Egypt and Jordan. In the Gulf, strategic concerns about Iran have meant the uncritical toleration of brutal feudal regimes. Such cynical realpolitik was lately reflected in the French defence minister’s offer, after 21 demonstrators had died, to send riot police to Tunis to help put down protests.

Yet the West may have less to fear from the Tunisian uprising. Poorly organised, the Islamists, who did well in 1989 elections and were subsequently repressed, appear to have played little part in the country’s demonstrations, which have been led mainly by young, educated graduates motivated by economic issues and the corruption of the regime, most notably Ben Ali’s family. The country has a stronger secular tradition than most in the region, a legacy of Habib Bourguiba, the leader of the independence movement and Ben Ali’s presidential predecessor, ousted by the latter in 1987.

The appointment yesterday of a new national unity government, including at least three opposition ministers, and pledges to hold presidential elections, to release political prisoners and to investigate the suspiciously wealthy, are important, welcome first steps to restore stability and the rule of law after violence that has left over 100 dead. But the crowds remain rightly sceptical. Too many familiar faces remain in power in key positions and members of the former president’s security detail are still involved in random violent attacks. The government has a delicate but important job to reassure; the revolution remains in the balance.