Events in Tunisia are moving very quickly, so that nothing I or anyone else says to contextualize events is likely to have a lot of long-term currency. Yet, as someone who has followed this government for a while, and came to the conclusion a few years ago that its staying power could be limited, I’m certainly fascinated by what’s going on.
Here are some initial points:
(1) I do believe that the rapid move from protest to presidential departure in Tunisia shows the brittleness of Arab “secular republics” these days. This is in line with a post of mine a few months ago about the sort of model the Gulf state represents as a contrast. Ben Ali’s quick trip out of the country he has ruled for decades, I believe, is evidence that monarchies with a foot, or at least several toes, in Islamic legitimacy, have had a much better shot at allowing gradual political liberalization than largely military-based secular republics like Tunisia.
(2) For this reason, I think, Algeria and Egypt are definitely worth watching, although I would suspect there to be less of a possible spillover effect into Morocco.
(3) It’s very interesting that Wikileaks cables may have had an effect on political mobilization here. Of course, Tunisians know all about, and have grudgingly tolerated, the amount of corruption that has taken place at high levels of the political system. But I agree with Elizabeth Dickinson that the specifics of the leaked cables, and, more, their sober-headed, rational tone, probably did matter to some Tunisians, even if socioeconomic discontent and the clarity of the state’s repressive apparatus were even more significant.
(4) Clearly, Ben Ali’s recent “re-election” only furthered his unpopularity, rather than bolstering his legitimacy in any way. This can’t be making Hosni Mubarak in Egypt rest very well, after the firestorm his recent “re-election” generated.
(5) Sadly, the level of repression of civil and political rights, and credible opposition, that Ben Ali’s regime resorted to in order to stay in power has left little clear pro-liberalization prospects in Tunisia. This is ironic given that Tunisia has certainly been a home in the past for a lot of sophisticated lawyers, academics and activists committed to democratization and the rule of law. Still, the speed of Ben Ali’s move,s first to pledge he wouldn’t stand for re-election in 2014, and then to leave the country, are something unprecedented in recent Arab political history. This could well mean that there is space for concerned Western governments (hello US, but especially BONJOUR LA FRANCE) to work hard and behind the scenes to try to prevent a purely military government for anything but a short time. Indeed, events in Tunisia should give hope to those who believe that gentle pressures for Arab military “elected presidents” are potentially useful.
(6) This said, of course, the typical Western governmental dynamic will be to favor some sort of stability over the fear of disorder, and, particularly Islamism. Yet this is an important time to acknowledge that order without at least a certain amount of either political legitimacy or political rights, even in a relatively highly-performing economy, holds real risks in Arab countries today.