Is The Arab World Ready For Regime Change?

Inhabitants of the poverty-stricken central Tunisia region of Sidi Bouzid, chant slogans during a demonstration Sunday outside the government palace in Tunis.

hide captionInhabitants of the poverty-stricken central Tunisia region of Sidi Bouzid, chant slogans during a demonstration Sunday outside the government palace in Tunis.

Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

Some people in Tunisia see their country as the anti-Iraq — a place where regime change proved possible without foreign intervention.

But it's not yet clear that its model of revolution from within will ultimately prove more influential among its authoritarian neighbors than Iraq's experiment with democracy has been so far.

Certainly, leaders throughout the Arab world have taken note of the Jasmine Revolution. Like Tunisia, other countries in North Africa and the Middle East are struggling with high unemployment, rising food prices and dismay about corruption — factors that contributed to unrest in Tunisia.

"This is a moment of near-euphoria in many parts of the Arab world in witnessing what amounted in their minds to a revolution, with the public bringing down an entrenched dictator," says Shibley Telhami, professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland and nonresident senior fellow in Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution.

There have been small demonstrations or self-immolations in countries such as Jordan, Yemen and Algeria.

The Egyptian opposition movement has called for a nationwide protest next week and wants President Hosni Mubarak to dissolve parliament and hold new elections. Like many regional leaders, Mubarak has held power for decades — 30 years in his case — and may come up for election this fall.

There has thus been a great deal of speculation that the revolutionary spirit will spread to other Arab states, but Marc Lynch, who directs the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, told NPR's Liane Hansen on Weekend Edition Sunday that he's skeptical.

"I think that the other Arab regimes have learned the lesson, and the lesson is not be nicer to your people. It's if you see any sign of protest, stop it right away," he says.

The Element of Surprise

Despite wars and outside geopolitical shocks, no dictatorial Arab regime had given up power prior to Tunisia. Instead, they have broken strikes, jailed opposition figures and displayed little temerity about using violence against their own citizenry.

"Just as the public watches and tries to figure out what it can learn from Tunisia, and can it be replicated," Telhami says, "you also have governments looking at this in a systematic and organized way, asking, 'How can I avoid this?' "

As yet, there is no obvious country where a second Jasmine Revolution appears imminent. Were one to occur, suggests William Zartman, former director of Africa studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, it would be much more violent than the Tunisian event.

"Tunisia benefited from the element of surprise," Zartman says. "Other movements have lost that element, and governments are preparing for them."

How Regimes May Respond

If no copycat revolution appears likely on the immediate horizon, authoritarian leaders throughout the Arab world are likely to factor potential spillover effects from Tunisia into their strategic plans for months and years to come.

They will likely respond in one of several ways — or in some combination — Zartman says. The first would be to crack down, blocking public demonstrations and jailing opposition figures, as already happened in Iran over the past 18 months.

Thousands of Jordanian demonstrators attend a protest  Friday against the country's economic policies, demanding "bread and freedom" and that the government resign.

hide captionThousands of Jordanian demonstrators attend a protest Friday against the country's economic policies, demanding "bread and freedom" and that the government resign.

Khalil Mazraawi/AFP/Getty Images

The second would be to move in the opposite direction, providing greater liberalization in the public sphere along the Kuwaiti or Moroccan models, where parliaments are representative if not especially powerful.

The third would be an attempt to retain power, in essence, by buying off discontent by sharing national wealth, Zartman says. Like other oil-rich countries, Libya has attempted to do this, in its case through housing and economic development programs.

For more than two decades, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was able to keep power and retain total political control by providing a relatively high standard of living, at least in urban areas.

Regardless of which approach — or combination of approaches — that Arab regimes ultimately take, they recognize that the Jasmine Revolution means that threats to their power may always be bubbling under the surface. Events in Tunisia have shown that it doesn't take years of building up civil opposition for a regime to crumble, says Leslie Campbell, director of Middle East and North Africa programs for the National Democratic Institute, which promotes free elections.

"The one thing they know they can't count on is not facing serious turmoil or an uprising because of lack of organized political opposition," says David Mack, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State for Near East Affairs under President George H.W. Bush.

Past Responses To Outside Challenges

Geopolitical shocks to countries in the Arab world previously led to periods of change, if not shifts in political control.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 led to the empowerment of Islamic movements within Arab countries, while the collapse of regimes within the old Soviet bloc a year later led to experiments in electioneering, Telhami says.

"Each of these episodes does have a consequence in terms of how governments behave and how societies organize themselves, even if it doesn't lead to a change of government," he says.

History might suggest that authoritarian regimes will adapt and survive again, but the threat presented by the Jasmine Revolution may be a bit different. Unlike the earlier shocks, this one took place in an Arab state. And it centers on issues that go to the root of problems in the Arab world, including the lack of enough jobs to support and utilize a population that skews young.

"The grievances that Tunisians expressed during their revolution are widely shared across the majority of all Arabs who are among the category of the have-not," says Nouredine Jebnoun, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. "Pervasive popular economic misery, alongside corrupted autocratic rule that draws its legitimacy only from the security apparatuses, make the region vulnerable to political turmoil."

Events in Tunisia also were much influenced by technological change. The rise of transnational media outlets such as Al-Jazeera means domestic populations are less easily swayed or influenced by government control of information. And social media were clearly important organizing tools for Tunisian protesters, making up for the lack of strong opposition forces such as unions and dissenting political parties.

"This is the first time we've had this kind of leaderless popular uprising in an Arab country," Zartman says.

A Dampening Effect?

The most powerful effect that Tunisia might have, suggests Leslie Campbell of NDI, is simply to show that "it can be done" — that authoritarian regimes are vulnerable in the face of popular uprisings.

That's why there's still a battle raging over how to interpret the Jasmine Revolution. Regimes in other countries are seeking to preserve some sense of invulnerability through spin, Telhami says.

"There's been quite a bit of narrative writing by people who are threatened by the idea that the public can simply overthrow a government — the authoritarian leaders in other parts of the Arab world," he says. "It's not a revolution, but an attempted coup. The public would not have succeeded if not for the military."

And the Jasmine Revolution's meaning is still up for grabs in part because its work is not yet done. The country still does not have a stable government in place. And the problems that bedeviled Ben Ali — high unemployment and food costs — have not been solved.

If anything, they could be exacerbated by the recent upheaval. The revolution's failure in practical terms, should this occur, could dampen hopes for regime change elsewhere.

Because of its social cohesion and high levels of education, says David Mack, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, "If there's any place that democracy should work, it would be Tunisia."

But if high food prices give way to food shortages, and if the tourists that the Tunisian economy depends on don't come back, Mack says, "then people are going to take away a very different lesson from Tunisia than the hopeful one that change is possible."

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