Monday, January 17, 2011

The Tunisian 'Revolution'
Tunisia was in many ways the prototypical Sunni Arab autocracy.74-year-old Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali came into power in a bloodless coup in 1987 and ruled a tightly run corrupt little police state with the sort of typical one party rule common to the region. The regime appeared to be stable and Ben Ali seemed to be on track to stick around for awhile.

Yet just last week, on January 14th, he was forced to flee the country by a series of violent riots in Tunis, the capitol, and a caretaker ruling committee headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi was announced.

Some observers are calling this the 'Jasmine Revolution' and touting it as a landmark in Arab democracy. In reality, the chances are it represents nothing but a continuance of the status quo in the Arab world, albeit with different players.

What brought Ben Ali down was not so much a great desire for western-style liberty as economic discontent, high unemployment and anger at the kleptocracy at the top. Ben Ali's fiefdom had the dual misfortune of not having any oil and having a young, underemployed population.Half of Tunisia's population is under 25 years of age, and the country has a 13.5% official unemployment rate..much higher if you break it down by age group. In fact, one of the symbols of the revolt was twenty-six year-old Mohammed Bouazizi committing public suicide by setting himself on fire after police confiscated his unlicensed produce stand in December.

There have been other similar revolutions in the Arab world against the established order before, all done with popular backing from the Arab 'street' under the name of reform. The deposing of King Farouk in Egypt and King Idris in Libya, the Rashid Ali al-Gaylani led Golden Square coup in Iraq in 1941, and even the ousting of President Habib Bourguiba by Ben Ali himself in Tunisia are just a few examples.

All of these revolutions have ended up as variations of the same autocratic dictatorships they replaced.

The Middle East is one of the least free regions in the world, and there seems to be an obvious correlation between that and Islam.The only true democracy in the region is non-Muslim Israel. Lebanon still has democratic elements, but it has become markedly less democratic as Hezbollah assumes more and more control over the country. In fact there appears to be a direct relationship between the destruction of Lebanon's democracy and the flight of Lebanon's Christians who were once a majority in in the country but now number around 30% of the population. Turkey also has democratic elements, but has also steadily become less democratic as it becomes more Islamist and the AKP and Tayipp Erdogan continue to consolidate their control and move the country towards one party rule. Both Turkey and Lebanon, unlike Israel, are places where speaking your mind can get you jailed or even killed.

Iraq has a democracy of sorts that was imposed from without, but it is a tribal society and not a democracy most westerners would recognize as such if they actually lived under it. Iraq, frankly, is now a Shiite Islamic Republic based on sharia where homosexuals are routinely targeted and killed and there is open season on Christians, many of whom have already left. And as the chicanery in last elections showed, even the semblance of free elections looks like it's quickly regressing to the Middle East norm.

Islam is a political system hidden inside a religion that emphasizes conformity and control of every area of private and public life, not personal or political liberty. As such, it is diametrically opposed to the sort of democratic freedom we enjoy in the West and is simply unlikely to take root in a population long conditioned by tribalism and Islam to think in certain ways.

In the Middle East, the strong horse is respected and the weak horse is spat on. And a key part of who's in and who's out has to do with whom is considered a strong horse by what is normally the one functioning arm of government in the Middle East - the military.

Like the Shah of Iran, Ben Ali was tossed out of power in Tunisia because the military had lost confidence in his leadership. They simply stood aside and let it happen and waited for the next strong horse to reappear.

In Tunisia, that could end up being a new government headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi as a figurehead, a military government, or an Islamist one. But it will likely not be an 'Arab Democracy'. Not as we in the West understand the term.

For a very different view of events please see my good friend GrEaT sAtAn"S gIrLfRiEnD.

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