Monday, 17 January 2011

Tunisia - another test for the west

Over the weekend, the country of Tunisia has seen its president decamp to Saudi Arabia following a populist uprising against more than 30 years of autocratic rule. There has been bloodshed but, proving that his last decision was at least the right one, former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali saw the writing on the wall early and weeks or months of bloody violence may well have been averted.

Various commentators have been quick to jump on the bandwagon proclaiming that a number of other dictators or autocrats across the arab world will be worried that their time too might well be up.

But this is wholly the wrong viewpoint. Tunisia's problems and solution will and must be its own. Of course the opposition to Mubarak in Egypt or Assad in Syria will take some heart. But it is as wrong to view Tunisia as the start of some domino theory in North Africa as it was to look at the changes in Eastern Europe - from Ukraine to Georgia - as being one and the same process. It is journalism as lazy as those who try to find a link between the results of Lower Saxony regional elections and the choice of a new President of Portugal.

Robert Fisk has written an interesting article in today's Independent in which he says that the emergence of a new democracy in Tunisia will depend, to some extent on the West. Our governments have been happy over the years to support the stable dictatorship of President Ben Ali and change (even if it is towards a more liberal democracy) means concern and losing focus on the bigger picture - our worry over Iran.

The biggest decision, however, is for those who seek power in place of the toppled President. Both Speaker Foued Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi have declared themselves interim ruler of Tunisia. Do they really mean to implement the changes that they speak about or do they have their eyes on the main chance - an opportunity to allow their friends and families to take over the wealth creating institutions of state and a massive boost to their Swiss bank accounts?

Rather than sit on the sidelines and pretend it is nothing to do with us or enter the fray all guns blazing (or even seek to tie up the country's natural wealth for our own companies), our Government should seize the chance and offer aid and trade deals to a new government as well as to help them write a new constitution which embodies the history and culture of an arab country with the democratic institutions and the rule of law of the west.

As with any country which has suffered years of autocratic rule, there is, regrettably, no opposition party which is in a position to take over the whole apparatus of state straight away. Elements of the former ruling class will be needed into the future, albeit with those who enriched themselves the most to the detriment of their fellow countrymen stripped of power. Commitment to change (alongside hefty penalties for those who renege) should allow the minor functionaries to help build the new state.

(Declaration of interest - I have worked in the past in seminars where representatives of Tunisian liberal parties were participants.)


martijn said...

Good points. And good to point out the difference between Eastern Europe in '89 -- back then all these countries were partly ruled from Moscow, so what happened may well be considered as the toppling of one (namely the USSR's) government.

And yes, this is the right time to provide aid and, especially, negotiate trade deals.

niklassmith said...

A very good post. Certainly the Socialist International was part of the Western cosying with dictators like Mr Ben Ali, as I write here: (I've linked to your post in mine.)

I think Robert Fisk makes some telling points, but also an unjustified generalisation when he says that the Arab world is "so totally incapable of any social or political progress, that the chances of a series of working democracies emerging from the chaos of the Middle East stand at around zero per cent."

The examples he uses to support this (like Lebanon and Iraq) have their own special problems that make a functioning democracy rather difficult. His point that Arab autocrats lean on Western support is much diluted by this silly generalisation. Why not give democracy a chance instead?