Tunisia's Worrying Precedent Arab Rulers Fear Spread of Democracy Fever

A man attempts to set himself on fire in Cairo: The self-immolation that set off the protests that toppled Tunisia's leader has inspired copycats in other North African states.
REUTERS

A man attempts to set himself on fire in Cairo: The self-immolation that set off the protests that toppled Tunisia's leader has inspired copycats in other North African states.

By Clemens Höges, and

Part 2: Will Revolution Spread?


Given such conditions, the question arises whether Tunisia is just the beginning of the end of Arab autocracies as well as just how long the populations in countries from Mauritania to Yemen and from Sudan to Syria will continue to put up with the daily humiliations they face at home.

Events of recent days might hint at the answer to these questions. In Mauretania, Algeria and Egypt, 10 men followed the example of Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor whose act of self-immolation after having been humiliated and shooed from the street like a dog triggered his country's revolution.

Thousands have taken to the streets in Jordan and Yemen as well, demanding that their rulers step down. In the wealthy oil emirate Kuwait, which has systematically discriminated against its Bidoon population for decades, the government sent every citizen $3,500 (€2,600) to nip any possible protests in the bud.

There are two aspects of Tunisia's example that give Arab reformers hope. First, it was the Tunisians themselves who got rid of their despot, not a Western army sweeping in with its own "freedom agenda," as the United States did in liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein in 2003. And, second, it was a grassroots movement that brought about the change of government in Tunisia rather than a highly organized one or an opposition movement co-opted by one charismatic leader, as was the case with the Iranian revolution in 1979. This last point, in particular, has long been viewed by political scientists as a prerequisite for successfully overthrowing a despot in the Middle East.

Nervous Responses

Nevertheless, most Middle East experts are still hesitant to proclaim the dawning of a new era in the Arab world. As they see it, social, economic and political conditions vary too widely for Tunisia's example to be an indication that a revolutionary spark could affect the entire region.

As much as the West may disapprove of them, these conditions are just as real as the region's demographic imbalance, youth unemployment and official corruption. People in the oil states of Libya and Algeria, for example, are gazing toward Europe just as longingly as people in Tunisia, but their governments enjoy resources they can employ when their systems come under serious threat. Algiers quickly stemmed riots over rising bread prices by simply reducing food prices. And in Egypt, which is much poorer than Tunisia, the circle of people who benefit from the existing system is far larger than that of the Ben Ali clan, with its shamelessly opulent lifestyle.

This holds even more true for Saudi Arabia, which has just as many unemployed, frustrated young people as Tunisia does. The country's deeply conservative monarchy doesn't even pretend to have democratic structures in place. But it still distributes its oil wealth more equitably than the Arab republics that proudly display their elections, parliaments and parties.

Since the Tunisian revolution, poorer Arab princes -- who rely more on large security apparatuses than energy resources -- no longer feel truly secure, and their wealthier counterparts have little faith that this tenuous peace will hold. As a result, meeting last Wednesday in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Gulf's oil monarchs decided to send a signal by pledging a total of $2 billion to governments throughout the Arab world for creating jobs and promoting new businesses.

They care a lot about stability and very little about democracy. And, so far, no one in the West has told them to act any differently.

Correction: SPIEGEL erroneously identified the Bidoon population of Kuwait as Bedouin in the original version of this story. We apologize for the error.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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