Tunisia and Egypt: What We *Thought* We Knew *Did* Hurt Us

1 month ago, Eric Goldstein wrote a fine retrospective on Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution on ForeignPolicy.com.  It hadn’t been 1 week since kleptocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after just under 1 month of mounting riots in what had probably been the quietest Arab state since 1960.  Ben Ali’s regime had been a poster-child for “durable autocracy,” the broad theory that an autocratic government could employ certain combinations of mobilizing ideology, redistribution of benefits and spectacles of repression to stave-off popular sovereignty essentially forever.  Ben Ali’s regime wasn’t ideological, but it had been keen to advertise Tunisia’s supposedly exemplary economic development.  Indeed, of all Arab states Tunisia is probably the most-middle class.  (While several oil-drilling “petrostates” on the Persian Gulf have higher overall levels of wealth, several political scientists and economists such as Paul Collier and Michael Ross have convincingly argued that oil-dependence profoundly stunts economic and social–and thus political–development.)  And Ben Ali’s police force had mastered repressive spectacle, sometimes making arbitrary gestures of their impunity just to warn people not to stand out too much.

Then, apparently without giving any indication of discontent beforehand, Tunisia’s government collapsed completely over the course of 1 month.  This revolution was largely the work of 20-somethings who’d had no prior opportunity to develop political experience.  Crucially, when Ben Ali asked the Tunisian Army to fire on protesters in the capital, they abandoned him in disgust.  That was probably not a response most outside observers, inclined by historical anecdote to conceive of the armed forces as an aggregate, pro-incumbency actor, would ever have expected.  Tunisia’s reigning kleptocrat had to flee the country that day.

What I particularly like about Goldstein’s article, aside from some insightful (though admittedly retrospective) observations about Tunisia’s tinderbox status, is his foregrounding of the fact that we were all blindsided by the speed and thoroughness with which the Ben Ali regime fell apart–including the continuation of protests until most of his old cabinet appointees resigned from the interim government.  Following the end of Ben Ali’s 23 years of rule in Tunisia in about 28 days of protests and the much more-dramatic demise Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year “presidency” in  Egypt after just 18 days of peaceful (but violently-attacked) protest, demonstrations have emerged in Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Sudan, Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, and even comparatively-democratic Iraq in response to poor service provision and apparently serious corruption by the Governor of Basra.  The violent repression of demonstrators in Bahrain and Libya follows the same old playbook of post-colonial dictators–but so far those demonstrations just keep spreading…and growing.

Whatever happens as these other bids for revolution metastasize, what has already happened in the Middle East should give us pause.  Twice in the past 2 months, selfish and callous despots who created an outward impression of a normalized society for over a generation were overthrown with little to no anticipation in a series of demonstrations that took less than a month apiece.  It has turned out, as dramatically at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union and the democratization of Eastern Europe, that we didn’t know what we thought we knew at all.  Not only for those of us in academic fields such as political science, political theory or sociology, but for laypersons interested in this busy World as well, the events unfolding in the Middle East should fill us not just with humility but with gratitude.  What we have seen is not all that is, and while the disappointments of the past will never cease to influence the present, they don’t determine what’s possible in the future.  We owe this powerful reminder of both our capacity for agency and the brilliant appeal of Liberalism to the various Arab peoples–a series of nations about whom we have generally thought very uncharitable thoughts over the past decade when we have thought of them at all.  Now we can smirk at our naiveté, and wish that the Arab democrats find the wind at their backs.

If you have a few minutes, a wise friend of mine who specializes in Arab politics was actually in Cairo during some of the grim early days of the revolution, and has blogged much more-eloquently about this, contrasting the banality of official corruption to the unexpected courage and enthusiasm of Egypt’s protesters.  He wrote this entry on February 9th, 2 days before Mubarak’s departure and 2 days before he could let himself believe that all this enthusiasm could prevail.  If you can spare a few minutes, his reflections on the eve of the Egyptian revolution’s success are the fitting last word; he has seen first-hand what the Arab lay revolutionaries are up against.


One thought on “Tunisia and Egypt: What We *Thought* We Knew *Did* Hurt Us

  1. Pingback: The Liberal Ironist

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