An exhilarating feeling currently sweeps through the Arab world. ”It feels like when the Berlin Wall came down” an overjoyed Tunisian shouted on the radio. The Jasmine revolution overthrew the 23 year long rule of the despotic president Zine El Amidine Ben Ali on January 14th. Its beginning was a desperate protest against a stifled economy, government corruption and the failed hope of liberty.
The majority of the autocratic rulers in North Africa and the Middle East have ruled for a very long time, for such a long time that the people they rule over has been transformed. Fifty per cent of the Tunisian population is born after Ben Ali grabbed power.
Professor Hans Rosling, statistical wizard of the Karolinska Institute, recently compared infant mortality with his Gapminder program. Tunisia had an infant mortality of 21.75/1000 newborns in 2009, compared to the US' 6.81/1000. The same infant mortality as the US in 1972. Tunisians are not the same uneducated, poor and subordinate masses that yielded to the autocrats in the 70's. Rosling also notes that political protests broke out in Thailand, Tunisia and Albania when they reached 7000 USD/capita (PPP). Could that level of development be a democracy threshold?
There could be a point to Rosling's observation. Tunisia's per capita income is almost double that of neighboring Morocco, Egypt and oil rich Algeria. It built a welfare society by hard work and entrepreneurial spirit rather than by pumping oil from the ground. Tunisia scores relatively high in poverty reduction, literacy, education, population control, and women's status. Mobile phone penetration is 95 per cent, with 85 per cent having access to the internet. GDP nearly tripled under Ben Ali's rule.
A clue to why Tunisians rebelled can be found in its economy. The International Property Right Index ranks it at place 46 out of 125 nations surveyed, and the Heritage index of economic freedom ranks it as mostly unfree.
Tunisia's founder Habib Bourguiba embraced socialism and one party rule. The government took over trade and industry and established cooperative farms. When his policies became unpopular, he changed course somewhat. For decades he vacillated between the US and the Soviet Union, Israel and the PLO. In November 1987 economic troubles led to popular protests, bringing Ben Ali to power. Ben Ali instituted a system of crony capitalism. The control of the economy was given to his friends and relatives.
The more the market is supplanted by a system of crony capitalism, the more the very phenomenon of profit appears disreputable. How, apart from some grant of privilege or other underhanded means, could someone have grown wealthy?
This disregards the strength of the human spirit. Mohamed Bouazizi's dream was to sustain himself and his family, but he was unemployed. No one knows the extent of unemployment. The authorities rated it at 15 per cent of the workforce, which definitely is too low. Many newly laureated lucky enough to get a job are underemployed and work at a low wage. Getting an employment is more a matter of contacts, than qualifications.
When Bouazizi started to sell vegetables in street he was harassed by the police, as he did not have a license. It takes 9 procedures, 47 days and plenty of capital to start up a business in Tunisia. He offered to pay the fines the law required, but the police officers were enraged. They wanted their bribes, the same bribes they received from the vast majority of businesses that lack the proper licenses. The beaten and humiliated Bouazizi made recourse to law, only to find himself ignored and derided. Enough to drive him to his desperate act, igniting the feelings of thousands.
The interim coalition, leading the country up until the elections in two months time, will have a difficult task. Commentators in the Arab world speculate that the army will keep the order through a renewed autocracy. The most inspiring trend is that the protesters are well aware of how much they stand to win. The success, so far, of the protestors is not mainly due to the use of social media. Rather they have held tight to their demands for democracy and a more open economy. In fact, both the government coalition and the demonstrators have held the islamists out of the protests.
The day of rage in Egypt on January 25th signals the spread of the protests, a possible domino effect. There are demonstrations and protests in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen too. Their success in changing the political face of North Africa and the Middle East is dependent on how well they have learnt the Tunisian lesson.
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