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Last Friday, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia after 23 years as president. He was driven out of the country by the cumulative pressure of a month of protests, sparked by a young man's economic despair and subsequent self-immolation. Much of the reporting on the demonstrations has emphasized Tunisians' economic grievances: unemployment, inflation, and the high cost of living.
But material difficulties were not the central driver in pushing Ben Ali from power. After all, economically motivated riots broke out in Tunisia in the early 1980s but did not bring down the government of then President Habib Bourguiba. And Ben Ali's promises in the middle of the most recent unrest to boost employment and cut the prices of basic goods could not stop the momentum of the protests.
On a more fundamental level, Tunisians are protesting dictatorship. They have had just two presidents since the country's independence from France in 1956. The first was Bourguiba, who led the independence battle against the French and then erected a secular, single-party authoritarian regime. The second was Ben Ali, who engineered Bourguiba's ouster in 1987, when it appeared that Bourguiba had grown too old and detached to govern effectively. Despite his early rhetoric emphasizing political pluralism, Ben Ali cracked down against free speech and any potential dissent. He cited the danger posed by the country's Islamists, who gave some cause for concern over the extent to which, if elected, they would respect democracy and the relatively equal rights Tunisian women had achieved after independence. During the 1990s, he eliminated the Islamist movement and consolidated an even darker and more repressive dictatorship than that of Bourguiba. Ben Ali retained Bourguiba's governing political party, renaming it the Constitutional Democratic Rally. The name was a cynical choice, for Ben Ali's Tunisia would come to have zero press freedoms, a censored Internet, monitored phone and e-mail communications, and only token opposition in a toothless parliament.
Yet these were not necessarily the features of the regime against which tens of thousands of Tunisians demonstrated last week. Ben Ali's was a particularly insulting dictatorship. The state-run media participated in grotesque displays of hagiography and helped produce a cult of personality around the president, whose portrait hung everywhere. The media lauded his initiatives as unambiguously and gloriously advancing the interests of all Tunisians, with Ben Ali the ever avuncular and enlightened ruler.
The reality was much more grim: dissidents were tortured and everyday Tunisians struggled to build livelihoods, while the families of the president and those connected to him enriched themselves and flaunted their wealth. The Ben Ali regime was contemptuous of its citizens, treating them as too unsophisticated to entrust with freedoms—and betting that they would be too meek to call the regime to account for its excesses.
This calculus held, however tenuously, for more than two decades. Few saw last week's events coming. In this regard, the fall of Ben Ali had much in common with the street protests that swept communist rulers from power in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. No one predicted those governments would collapse, either—yet in 1989, the world witnessed what Timur Kuran, the Duke professor and economist, would later call "now out of never." Kuran argued that under such dictatorships, citizens are required to act in public as if they are content with the status quo. If they do not, the wrath of the security apparatus falls upon them.
But people bear an internal cost—to their sense of autonomy and personal integrity—of pretending that the status quo is acceptable. And when the cost of pretending becomes intolerably high for a few citizens, sudden and surprising mass protests can erupt. The actions of these few can trigger similar actions by others, who, when they see how many others feel as they do and are willing to show it publicly, join in the opposition. The larger the number of protestors becomes, the more others are willing to join them.
When Mohamed Bouazizi, distraught after authorities shut down his vegetable stall for operating without a license, set himself on fire in the city of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, the act was so dramatic—so beyond the parameters of normal experience—that for some Tunisians the costs of continuing to behave as if they approved of Ben Ali became unbearable. These were the first protestors, who rioted in the streets of Sidi Bouzid. Their actions triggered bandwagoning by thousands more who joined the demonstrations, emboldened by the sight of their fellow citizens daring to confront the regime.
As Ben Ali flew to exile in Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi assumed temporary command of the state; he quickly stepped down and ceded power to Fouad Mebazaa, the head of Tunisia's parliament. Mebazaa has assembled an interim coalition government and claims that new elections will be held in the coming months. Yet instability remains, with the military increasingly moving to confront and sideline the police and security services loyal to Ben Ali.
It is not yet clear how, or even if, the political dust will settle. Officials in the ruling party, the executive branch, and the security services have an enormous stake in the status quo and will try to preserve it. It appears that elements of the military pushed Ben Ali to depart the country, perhaps in the hope that sacrificing him and making modest concessions to the demonstrators—new elections, broader press freedoms, more leeway for the opposition, and so on—will suffice to restore order and leave the status quo more or less intact.
This will be a tough sell. In 1987, Ben Ali's rule was welcomed because most Tunisians were convinced that the aging and erratic Bourguiba was on a dangerous collision course with his Islamist challengers. Ben Ali retained grudging support throughout the 1990s because of the bloody civil war in neighboring Algeria between its secular single-party regime and its own Islamist opposition. To many in Tunisia, tolerating Ben Ali seemed like a small price to pay to avoid such a fate. But Algeria's war is long over; it provides no political cover to Ben Ali's successors and those in his inner circle who are attempting to cling to power. Although demonstrators did not articulate specific demands beyond Ben Ali's departure, cosmetic changes to the state are not likely to be enough to satisfy most Tunisians today.
But it is unclear who or what is a viable alternative. For a generation, Ben Ali suffocated the political arena to such a degree that there is no force capable of governing Tunisia other than the ruling party and the military. The country's handful of legal opposition parties has not been allowed to develop real constituencies and nationwide organizational structures. And the members of the Tunisian Islamist movement—which, for better or worse, constituted a real political alternative in the 1980s and early 1990s—are in no position to govern. Many of these Islamists have adopted more moderate views that could make them an attractive force, but these figures have been in exile for years. It is difficult to imagine a short-term future for Tunisia other than sustained instability as the protectors of the regime battle street protesters, or a military takeover to stem the anarchy threatening the nation.
Rulers of Arab countries whose political systems most resemble Tunisia's—the secular single-party authoritarian republics of Egypt and Syria—undoubtedly watched Ben Ali's fall with knots in their stomachs. Internet users and bloggers throughout the region reveled in what Tunisian protestors had achieved, calling for copycat actions elsewhere. The monarchies of Jordan, Morocco, and the Gulf states also have cause for concern.
Yet the dominoes may not fall so fast. Tunisia's military is smaller, more professional, and less politicized than the militaries in Egypt and Syria. Reports suggest that the Tunisian military refused to fire on citizen protestors; militaries in Egypt and Syria, however, are much closer to the ruling regimes and may not be so hesitant to shoot. They might not even need to—if Tunisia descends into anarchy, publics in nearby countries may be reluctant to destabilize their incumbent regimes.
Arab dictators have proven resilient in the face of similarly daunting challenges. In the 1980s and 1990s, as democratization spread across the globe, the rulers of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria retained their power through combinations of modest liberalization, cooptation, and repression. At the same time, many Arab regimes enjoy Western support due to their moderate stances toward Israel, oil resources, assistance in the war on terror, and the fact that they face powerful domestic Islamist opponents whom Western governments are not eager to see take power.
True, Ben Ali's Western backers were not there for him in his hour of need: France would not receive him into exile, and U.S. President Barack Obama applauded the dignity and courage of the protestors. But Tunisia is a peripheral interest for Washington and its allies. It does not have much oil and has no Islamist movement waiting to assume power. Were the regimes in Egypt or Jordan on the line, Western support for the status quo might well be more vigorous.
For Washington, the quick fall of Ben Ali is a reminder that stability can be deceptive. Although it is necessary to work with existing, if unsavory, regimes to advance regional objectives, it is impossible to predict when these regimes' hold on power may unravel. And when it does, the absence of strong political institutions that are capable of managing transition can lead to a climate of dangerous instability. Atrophied, disorganized opposition groups make achieving stability even more difficult. Thus, although it may be a delicate and difficult task, the United States should encourage the development of stronger, more autonomous political institutions, as well as credible alternative power centers within its authoritarian allies.
For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.