The Tunisian uprising began as a spontaneous protest against unemployment and the shattered expectations of youth in an increasingly educated society with a growing middle class. In less than a month, street protests swept one of the most repressive regimes in the region into the dustbin of history. As news and images of these protests went viral, with the help of social media, cell phones and satellite television, they turned into an indictment of a corrupt dictatorial regime and into demands for freedom and democracy. And many questions remain: Is a peaceful transition to democracy possible? Will Islamists parties acquire a major foothold in the political system? But my main concern focuses on the implications for other countries in the Arab World, such as Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Syria.
The social and economic underpinnings of the uprising are among the important similarities between Tunisia and these other countries. The entire region is suffering from a pronounced “youth bulge,” a period in their demographic development characterized by a historically unprecedented share of youth, between the ages of 15-29. The demographic pressure on education systems and labor markets that this youth bulge represents is seriously aggravated by the collapse of an economic model that essentially guaranteed jobs in the bureaucracy and the state sector to anyone who obtained a university degree—and in some cases even a high school diploma. These long-running policies that were introduced in the 1960s not only resulted in bloated bureaucracies but also shaped the sort of education millions of young people obtained—an education that emphasizes the formal credentials that are useful to get government jobs rather than the productive skills demanded by an increasingly globalized private sector-led economy. When these policies inevitably reached their limits in the 1980s and 1990s, and governments virtually stopped hiring, educated young people found themselves with devalued and worthless educational credentials. They continued, however, to harbor high expectations about achieving middle class status through formal employment. As these expectations increasingly appeared unrealizable, the anger and frustration of educated youth grew. Despite the fact that Tunisia managed to achieve higher growth rates and relatively more economic dynamism than its neighbors, this was not enough to satisfy the unmet expectations of its youth.
Undoubtedly, besides youth frustration and anger, the most important additional ingredient in the success of the Jasmine revolution was the use of new information technologies to quickly spread news and images and to help organize street protests. This ingredient is also present in abundance in other parts of the Arab World. Cell phones and satellite dishes have become ubiquitous all over the region, and internet access and use is spreading rapidly. Facebook and other social networking sites played a major role in previous protests and social movements in the region, like the “April 6th” youth movement in Egypt that organized strikes and protests against rising food prices in 2008; and the subsequent emergence of Mohamed El-Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as a prominent oppositional figure. Increasing access and use of these technologies will continue to make it possible for mass protest movements to emerge and grow without the need for organized groups such as political parties and labor unions. Repressive regimes have yet to learn how to effectively counter these information-savvy, youth-led movements.
Another obvious similarity between Tunisia and several of its Arab neighbors is the combination of political repression and corruption on the part of the regime and those close to it. Ben Ali’s Tunisia, however, differed in important respects from the Arab regimes in both the form that repression took and the nature of the regime’s corruption. The Egyptian and Algerian regimes for instance read the signs of the information revolution and concluded that restrictions on free speech were virtually impossible to enforce. Therefore, they began allowing a greater margin of freedom for public debate and expression in independent and opposition newspapers, private (mostly satellite) television channels and the internet. While Tunisia could not completely control the emerging media either, it attempted to maintain highly repressive restrictions on public expression, and to block off any meaningful avenues for people to vent their frustrations by criticizing the regime. This was especially true regarding any form of religious speech and self-expression. The enforced secularism of the Tunisian state thus came to be associated in people’s minds with a corrupt and repressive regime that they despised.
Even the corruption of the Tunisian regime is somewhat different than that of its Arab neighbors. While corruption, clientelism and cronyism are fairly widespread in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, for example, they involve a large enough swath of these societies that their fruits tend to be more evenly distributed among the middle classes, especially those with ties to the bureaucracy, the military and the security forces. In contrast, corruption in Tunisia appeared to be more concentrated among the president’s family and his in-laws, who gradually monopolized much of the country’s wealth. Many Egyptians, for instance, consider corruption an evil that they must learn to live with. It, therefore, does not elicit the same sort of anger that the corruption of the ruling clan in Tunisia brought forth.
Another difference between Tunisia and its neighbors lies in the role that the military plays in the political system. Tunisia’s regime built its repressive apparatus on the back of the internal security forces and the interior ministry from which President Ben Ali emerged. Its armed forces remained fairly small and apolitical. This is not the case in Algeria, Egypt and Syria, where the armed forces play a much more important behind-the-scenes role in the political system and where, unlike the Tunisian military, they would probably not hesitate to intervene to quash street protests if they were perceived as endangering the status quo.
Given these similarities and differences between Tunisia and its Arab neighbors, it is impossible to predict whether the Jasmine revolution will influence developments elsewhere in the region. Suffice it to say that the authoritarian regimes of the region have heard the message from Tunisia loud and clear and are bound to react to it. But how? Will they begin instituting genuine democratic reforms to diffuse the frustration and anger of their populations? Or will they simply show greater political timidity in the face of necessary but difficult economic reforms and continue to rely on their repressive security apparatuses to squelch any growing protests?
Ragui Assaad is a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.