With President Ben Ali gone and the so-called Jasmin Revolution well under way in Tunesia, an interesting if somewhat baffling kind of wishful thinking seems to be taking hold of large sections of the media in both the Middle-East and elsewhere. The line of reasoning goes something like this: Tunesia will take a turn for the better, and here’s to hoping that Algeria, Jordan, Egypt and other countries will too. Some even muse that the ripple of change will spread from Tunesia not only through the Arab world, but to the rest of Africa, the Caucasus and Central Asia too.
Many believe that political change happens when the masses join forces and oust the brutal dictator that rules them. This view is somewhat romantic. More times than not, the ripple of change starts at the top, not the bottom. A dictatorship is never a one-man show. It’s a pyramid of many other powerful actors and factions. A despot is ousted by people that were once high up in the ranks of the regime themselves, or still are, and that inspire trust in the other members of the regime and the military. Albeit that simultaneous popular revolt can be helpful. The old King has outrun his usefulness and has become a liability for the other members of the ruling class. They want another King, and the powers that be hope that the new guy won’t change the state of affairs too much.
In the Middle East, in Central Asia, and in the Caucasus, that state of affairs is marked by a few recurring elements: the political elite and the state are one and the same. And the men that are in charge of the country, are also in charge of its main money makers: its companies and natural resources. The bureaucrats, the military leaders and their families and dependents profit from their combined hold on political and economic power.
As long as bread and oil are cheap, and taxes are not actually expected to be paid (because after all: the regime does not need taxes to enrich themselves) most people are content to accept their overlord’s political oppression, curbing of human rights, corruption and bad state of public services. As long as they are left alone when they keep their head down. It’s as it has always been and as it will always be, they’ll say. Added to that, true political opponents of the regime – of the kind that never was in power to begin with – typically do not inspire much confidence amongst the middle class and the masses. They are not often viewed as a credible alternative to the one that’s in charge right now.
For the most part, the countries that are in turmoil now do not have any form of democratic tradition, nor any reliance on the rule of law. One result is that, once the despot is ousted, public trust that someone who comes out of nowhere – a revolt leader for instance, or parties that have forever been in opposition without governing experience – could actually run the country is very low. Instead, the people would tend to rely more on some (former) number Two or Three from the regime. Because they would trust him to run the country smoothly, with support rather than active resistance from the bureaucracy and military, and because it’s better to have the devil you know, than the one you don’t know.
So, more likely than not, Tunesia and other countries will continue to be ruled by just another off-shoot of a corrupt and incompetent elite. And if he manages to soothe the public with price reductions and a symbolic measure or two, nothing will be heard from the uprising again.
Is this the only option? Of course not. It is possible that a former regime loyalist takes the reigns, but that he is a truly reformed man, who believes that only true political and economic reform will serve his and his country’s people’s long term interest.
Look for the signs. Who stays, and who goes from the Halls of Power in the upcoming weeks? Will oppressive laws be abolished quickly? Will the state loosen it’s grip on the economy and the country’s resources? What happens to the privileges of the elite? Is the unrest a case of the masses, or are the middle and higher classes involved too? It’s developments like these that would separate the reformer from the poseur. Until then, free and democratic countries and their leaders should be very careful about who they support in the political struggle that is unfolding. We don’t know who our friends are yet.