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DEBORAH JEROME: Good afternoon and welcome, all, to this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call to discuss Tunisia and the popular uprising against now-ousted President Ben Ali, who was shuttled off to Saudi Arabia on January 14th.
I am Deborah Jerome. I am the deputy editor of CFR.org. And here to answer your questions are Jared Cohen, an adjunct CFR fellow, who, among other things, has written about how technology can empower citizens in repressive regimes; and Steven Cook, a CFR senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies. Steven, by the way, has been following the events in Tunisia on his blog, which is called "From the Potomac to the Euphrates," and it is well worth checking out. You can find it on the CFR.org website.
I would like to kick this off with a multipart question for both of you. Even though things are still unsettled -- there is already a lot of talk about the possibility of Tunisia's example spawning a wave of similar uprisings in Egypt, Algeria and other countries. But I am curious to know what you think is the likely outcome of the so-called "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia itself. Is it likely that Tunisia will see the emergence of a pluralist, stable democracy?
And Jared, social media clearly had a role in fanning the flames of Tunisia's protests. Does it have a role in building a new and better government?
STEVEN COOK: Thanks very much, Deborah. And thanks to everybody who is spending some time with us this afternoon to talk about Tunisia.
Deborah, to answer your questions in order, I think I would say: Maybe, maybe, and maybe. We have just gone through phase one of the Tunisian uprising, and that was the ousting of longtime strongman, President Ben Ali. Now is the hard part. And transitions from one type of political system to another are contingent. They are not linear, and may not necessarily end up as liberal democracies. They can end up as narrower, nastier dictatorships. And how the interim civilian leadership deals with this six-month interim period in organizing elections, and importantly, how the Tunisian military establishment, which has been thrust into a critical role in Tunisian politics--how they deal with this transition period will tell us a lot about the future trajectory. But at this point, it is unclear what is going to happen.
The opposition is, obviously, not satisfied with the unity government, and are clearly trying to press their advantage in demanding not only, obviously, that Ben Ali go, but that there be a fundamental restructuring of the Tunisian political order. That would be extraordinary. And we will have to see how long this kind of stalemate will go on before the military acts or the civilians crumble under the weight of these demands.
In terms of a wave for the rest of the region, clearly, the Tunisian situation is being watched very, very carefully. I will let Jared talk about how Twitter and Facebook and Al-Jazeera covering these events wall-to-wall have had an effect on the region writ large. But clearly, opposition groups in places like Algiers, Cairo, Amman, and others are seeking to learn lessons from the Tunisian uprising.
I will be in Cairo next week, and January 25th is National Police Day in Egypt, and there are calls for massive protests in front of the Interior Ministry. Now, there are always protests on Police Day, but it will be interesting to see whether events in Tunisia have given these annual protests a certain amount of momentum. I certainly would expect that they would.
At the same time, the regimes in the region are also drawing lessons from Ben Ali's fate. And I would imagine that--in fact I would bet that--the Egyptians, for example, will try to make accommodation for some demands from below, while continuing to use the iron fist against their own opposition.
So this is exhilarating, it is extraordinary, but there is no real reason to believe that the region is going to be swept by similar uprisings. Revolutions are rare, and all the factors and variables need to come together all at the same time to make what happened on January 14th happen. And of course, President Ben Ali made a series of mistakes that enabled his ouster.
With that, I think, Jared, why do not we get a sense of how social media was or was not affecting the situation in Tunisia and around the region.
JARED COHEN: Thanks, Steven. And just to echo Steven's comments earlier, I am really appreciative of everybody jumping on this call.
Let us start with what technology did not do; technology did not cause the revolution in Tunisia, technology did not drive the revolution in Tunisia. We all know there are high food prices, discontent with Ben Ali's government, a variety of other factors.
But what is interesting is that everybody wants to label this as: was this a Twitter revolution; was this not a Twitter revolution? The reality is, there is no such thing as a Twitter revolution. The reality is this is just what revolutions look like now.
Throughout history, whenever you have had a revolution, a smart movement uses smart tools, right? So a smart movement will utilize whatever tools it has at its disposal. And these are the new tools of the day, and so any movement that is trying to be effective is going to leverage these tools as much as possible.
And so what we have entered into is a situation in which revolutions are using more sophisticated tools than the ones we remember from 1989 or even the one that we remember from the early 2000s.
Now, here is where technology matters tremendously, and here is where I would argue technology can be incredibly important. If you accept the fact that a successful revolution requires people to go into the streets who are willing to risk their lives for what they believe in a sustained way, that to me is something that was very, very distinct in Tunisia. What technology does is it can serve as an accelerant to individuals who have made that choice by providing them with a lot of volunteers inside and outside the country who are going to support their cause either by retweeting or posting or capturing images and disseminating around the world.
The other thing that technology does is pick up where the mainstream media is either slow to respond, does not have a capacity to respond, or it is not responding. And so if you look at the coverage in Tunisia, a lot of the content that we saw in the media in the early days was being pulled off of Twitter feeds, being pulled off of YouTube, being pulled off of Facebook, and so forth.
And so what technology does it allows any individual on the ground to be a citizen journalist. Even individuals that do not have access to the proxy and circumvention technology to get information out of the country are able to disseminate it within the country, and it eventually gets to individuals who have the capacity to get it out. And that content is so important because it drives the mainstream media towards a small country like Tunisia that they might not otherwise be paying close attention to. This is certainly what happened in Moldova in April of 2009.
The other thing that technology does is it makes weak ties stronger. So in a place like Tunisia where Ben Ali was very repressive, individuals who otherwise would find it too risky to organize offline are able to use technology as an additional tactic. It is is not a silver bullet, but it is an additional tool that allows them to build stronger ties.
Another feature is that technology creates space for unlikely leaders. And when technology becomes part of a revolution, it allows anybody--from the person on the street willing to take the bullet to the person who stays at home in their house in Tunis disseminating content and helping it get out of the country--but you do not need a central figure necessarily to spark a revolution, because technology can create space for additional people.
Now, of course, there are challenges, because when the revolution is over and you have succeeded at ousting a president, there is a vacuum left. And, as Steven very correctly mentioned, the next chapter has not actually been written yet. And Tunisia could end up better off, it could end up worse, or it could end up in a state of chaos.
And to the other point about what is going to happen in this next chapter with technology--one of the things that was very interesting about Moldova and is similar in the case of Tunisia, neither Tunisia nor Moldova are were countries that are in the news every day.
And in some respects the exaggeration of how much this revolution was driven by technology works to the Tunisians' advantage, at least for the ones that are seeking greater freedoms and democracy, because it adds a particularly alluring aspect to this story that will keep people paying attention over the next several months in ways that will help ensure accountability and transparency for the election that takes place following this revolution.
That, to me, was one of the reasons why, when the communists called for reelections in April of 2009 in Moldova, they actually had to have elections that were relatively free and fair and resulted in them losing power. And I am hopeful that something similar could happen in Tunisia. You certainly cannot guarantee it.
And then lastly, what technology does that is so unbelievably important is it provides a window and visibility into what is happening in Tunisia for people in other parts of the region. So one of the things that is so distinct when these revolutions happen is that people start e-mailing and contacting each other from around the world wanting to know how they did it. And it does not necessarily mean that anything is going to happen as a result of it, but--to this question of whether it is going to actually have an impact in the rest of the region--the only way that I can answer certainly is by saying people are watching in ways that they would not have been available if the technologies we see today were not present.
JEROME: That is great, Jared, thank you -- and Steven too.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions.
And our first question comes from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters.
ARSHAD MOHAMMED: Hi. Thanks very much for doing the call. Two questions: One, Jared, can you address the extent to which you have seen any efforts in Tunisia or elsewhere for governments to crack down on digital media, social media? In other words are there any discernible ripples elsewhere where other governments are saying, "Hey, we need to crack down or prevent this kind of communication?"
And then the other question is for Steven. To what extent do you think the United States may try to use the events in Tunisia to buttress its arguments that autocratic regimes in the Middle East need to open up? And to what extent do you think, if they do make that argument, Arab regimes may be more open, to that? Or, conversely, do you think that they may, in fact, draw the opposite lesson and simply crack down to avert a Tunisian outcome?
COOK: Jared, you want to go ahead and start with the first one, and then I will pick it up?
COHEN: Yeah, of course.
COOK: Okay, great.
COHEN: Yeah, of course. So I think there are a couple of pieces. Governments that are more autocratically inclined either block everything outright, or they block it during specific events. And the challenge for a lot of these autocratic governments that block around specific events is that right now there are no events that are sort of a result of people doing something following what happened in Tunisia in their countries.
And so they are in a little bit of a guessing game. So I think you can expect all the governments that censor or are more autocratically inclined to be watching very closely, and, the moment that there is an event or a protest, to potentially react and possibly even overreact. This could potentially have very dangerous consequences.
To your other question it is a bit of a game of cat and mouse. So all of these different revolutions--whether they are seen as successful, or whether they are seen as unsuccessful--none of them are totally unsuccessful, even Iran, they put out a whole bunch of best practices on the public domain and serve as a valuable case study of what works and what does not work.
So in some respects, activists and regimes are in a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game. A lot of activists around the world have learned what works from Tunisia. Now governments in repressive societies will try to account for that and try to outfox them and anticipate what they might do. And populations anticipating that will try to go one step further. So it is a cat-and-mouse game that is really difficult to predict and really difficult to understand.
What we can anticipate is that the advent of these tools just exacerbates what is already an environment that is very prone to surprises.
MOHAMMED: Can I follow up on that with just one quick thing? Do you have a granular enough knowledge to take us on a tour of the Middle East and describe what countries block all access to things like Facebook and Twitter, and which ones do not.
COHEN: I can give you some broad generalizations. I mean, obviously, Syria and Iran do a fair amount of blocking. Obviously, Egypt does a fair amount of blocking. I would say that the ones that stand out the most are Iran, Syria, Egypt and Libya.
And I would argue Yemen would try to block but does not necessarily have the capacity to do so, nor is there really the access, which is prevalent. But those would be the ones that stand out.
Steven, I am not sure what your thoughts are.
COOK: Well, yeah, and Saudi Arabia certainly does a fair amount of blocking. And Egypt, a place that I am deeply familiar with, having just finished a book manuscript on it, blocks and has an enormous effort on the part of the relevant ministries to monitor what is being said, both on indigenous websites, indigenous Twitterati, and what is being said about Egypt outside of Egypt as well. So once they encountered in 2004 the power of the blogosphere, the Egyptians ramped up pretty quickly to try to get a handle on this, at least in terms of monitoring.
COHEN: And also, Steven, to add one piece to that, it is blocking, monitoring, and I would add a third category--infiltration.
COHEN: This is something we saw a lot in Iran in June of 2009. Revolutionary Guards posing as activists. Basically, security forces taking on other identities to try to do a Trojan horse-style approach to identify individuals and dismantle dissident networks.
COOK: And on to your question about the United States. I think there is a real opportunity for the Obama administration to pick up where Secretary Hillary Clinton left off last weekend or the weekend before in Doha, where she made very strong statements about the region's leaders needing to get out ahead of the massive discontent that is evident throughout the region with real economic reform and, yes, real political reform.
It is easy to say that in a place like Tunisia, which is a secondary ally of the United States and where there are no central strategic interests at stake for the United States. The administration has certainly sent signals that it is not going to take the opportunity that Tunisia presents to press the Egyptians or the Jordanians. They may be having conversations privately, but they certainly do not seem to be inclined to do this in any real way. I think that they are concerned that with significant strategic interests at play in places like Egypt or Jordan or Algeria, which has become a very important ally in the global war on terrorism. Suddenly these regimes actually do look unstable whereas they once looked stable. The Obama administration does not want to be a contributing factor to a situation in which they become undone very quickly. So I think what you will find is the administration relying more and more on that kind of bureaucratic infrastructure that has been built over the course of the last decade in order to promote democracy, to have a kind of slow evolutionary reform process.
Now, how these regimes respond, particularly in the case of Egypt, which is particularly sensitive to any kind of criticism and even the light touch of the Obama administration is deeply resented in quarters in Cairo. But I think that the Egyptians will act and the Jordanians will act and others will act. And what they will do is -- and in fact what they have already been doing -- is one, propagandizing their populations and telling them how good things actually are and, two, trying to meet some demands that are coming from below, whether on the economic front or on the political front. The Egyptians suddenly released a number of prisoners the other day.
And at the same time, they will use the iron fist. And I mentioned the planned Police Day demonstrations in Cairo. You can be sure that the area around the Interior Ministry, which is near Liberation Square, the central axis of downtown Cairo, will be flooded with Central Security Forces troops and police. They will try to ensure that these types of large protests that are being planned never coalesce, and will be arresting people and beating people up, as they always have.
So I think it is going to be a three-pronged approach. And it is a classic move on the part of authoritarians to take account of some demands from below while nevertheless protecting the kind of authoritarian core of their regimes.
MOHAMMED: Great. Thank you very much.
COOK: You are welcome.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Corine Lesnes with Le Monde.
CORINE LESNES: Hi. Good afternoon. You pretty much addressed the question about the U.S. position at the beginning. As you know, there were some critiques in France because the government did not react very quickly, to say the least. And I wanted to know what you think about this initial reaction.
COOK: On the part of whom? The French or the United States?
LESNES: On the part of the United States. And, because of the WikiLeaks, it looks as the United States has been in a way ahead of the movement, but those cables were not supposed to be published. So is the United States actually profiting by a better image than the ambiguity they had actually?
COOK: Well, let me just say that in all the discourse going on in Tunisia very little has been said about WikiLeaks. And the Tunisian people did not need WikiLeaks to tell them what was going on around them over the course of the last 25 years. It was abundantly clear that Ben Ali, his family and those around the regime were a bunch of rapacious thieves who were running a police state for their own benefit.
I think in terms of the administration's response. Quite honestly, I do not know why that there has been any criticism of it. It is true that it seems that the administration only discovered what was going on in Tunisia a few days before actually Ben Ali was forced out of the country. But on the evening that he did, the president issued what I thought was an excellent statement in support of the Tunisian people. And by all reports and when I am in Tunisia hopefully next weekend, I will check this out.
But from all reports that statement was warmly received by the Tunisian people, and felt good about the position of the United States, in contrast to the French government, which was on the wrong side of this issue from the very beginning. And that is why I think there is a real opportunity for the Obama administration. There is a fair amount of goodwill towards Washington right now, if it uses its prestige, its gravitas, potentially even some money to kind of help push this process over the course of the six months, the chances of a more democratic outcome are better.
But, like I said, Tunisia is a secondary ally of the United States in the region. Although this is a cost-free policy for the administration to pursue in a vacuum, there are strategic interests in and around Tunisia that are important to the United States, and require some serious thought about how to approach Tunisia given what sensitivities might be in these other places.
It was very, very interesting that after Obama released the statement in support of the Tunisian people, he called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And I think that was somewhat of a signal to the Egyptians that the United States was not going to now turn and press the Egyptians on this issue, in a public way, and that kind of a reassurance on the part of the United State--that it was not going to take advantage of the situation in Tunisia to now make some sort of very public stand about the state of politics in Egypt, which are, quite honestly, terrible.
LESNES: Thank you.
COHEN: And to add a few quick points, and I think on WikiLeaks, the Tunisian people did not need WikiLeaks to let them know how corrupt and repressive the Ben Ali government was -- I actually think the WikiLeaks cables were more useful in educating people that do not follow Tunisia about how corrupt and repressive the Ben Ali government was. Because the first thing that happens when there is a revolution in an age of social networking is that people immediately gravitate toward the country they do not necessarily know a lot about, and want to figure out who was this dictator that was overthrown, what does this country look like. And I have interacted with more people outside of Tunisia that drew value from the documents than people in Tunisia.
And secondly I have spent a little bit of time in Tunisia. I worked in both the Bush administration and the Obama administration. And one of the things that always notice whenever I would head to Tunisia is that there is a tremendous amount of frustration on the part of those working at our mission in Tunisia with regard to just not even being able to do the most basic education initiatives. It is not even being able to do literally the most basic and uncontroversial initiatives that have nothing to do with politics and so forth. And I think that, as Steven mentioned, there is a huge opportunity for the U.S. government to now be able to do the kinds of development initiatives, the kind of capacity-building initiatives that it has longed to do for a very long time. The wild card is, will they actually take advantage of this moment, and will the new government that replaces the vacuum left by Ben Ali actually allow for it?
LESNES: If I may just follow up, I was actually mentioning the critiques to the French government, not the U.S. government, of course.
COOK: Oh, yes. Well --
LESNES: And since Tunisia not a very important ally, how come the U.S. administration had such a good reaction to the situation there?
COOK: Well, I do not think that the United States would be offering forces to Mubarak to try to quell protests in Cairo. But I do think that if you flip it around, the French see North Africa, the former colonial possessions there, as an area of important strategic interest. And French policy has often or always been one that is based on authoritarian stability. And when the Bush administration rolled out its freedom agenda in 2002 and 2003, there was a fair amount of pushback from Europe, in particular from Paris, that this kind of policy would lead to no good. But again, this kind of overreliance on authoritarian leaders and the kind misplaced faith in the stability of authoritarian leaders I think has come back to really hurt the French.
Not to be unfair, I think one of the reasons why the United States is treading softly here is because we are concerned about what potential spillover might be for our own strategic interests. And we have not yet thought that through.
And so I think that is where we are right now. Unfortunately for them, the French got caught on the wrong side of the issue.
LESNES: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Peter Green with the Bloomberg News.
PETER GREEN: Hi. It is mostly a question for Steve. The word we have not heard today is "Islamists." Does this revolution create any opening for Islamists?
And Jared, we know al Qaeda's been pretty good at using Internet and various advanced technologies to get the word out among their circle. Could they be using the technologies that helped the Tunisian revolution in Tunisia and other countries that we are talking about today?
COOK: On the question of Islamists, certainly this popular uprising was broad-based and there was not a strong Islamist element to it, although there were Islamists there.
However, it is interesting that while many people have gone home--the professional class, middle class, and upper middle class that had joined with the demonstrators in Tunis last week--the people holding out and continuing to press the advantage are both trade unionists and Islamists. And of course the Ben Ali regime had done everything possible to suppress Islamists. This more open political environment is certainly an opportunity for Islamists.
But it was so widely suppressed under Ben Ali that it makes you wonder whether people who have come of age during his reign -- whether they are at all attracted to this type of message from the Islamists. Thus far there is no indication, other than from a very small group of people led by the leader of the Islamist party movement, an-Nahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi. It does not seem at this point that he is able to garner a mass following.
But we are at the very beginning of this, and if this situation lingers on groping towards stability but not getting there, and the interim civilian government can not get it together, there is always the possibility that messages coming from Islamists could be attractive. But right now, there is really no indication of that.
COHEN: And I will say about the Islamist piece of this--I think it is important to remember that in a lot of cases radical Islamism is just a mask that people wear because it is convenient. And the most vulnerable situation would be if a new government can not actually form and the situation drags out and you have a prolonged period of time where there is tremendous uncertainty and things fall back into a state of chaos. Wearing the mask of radical Islamism can be a very attractive tactic for individuals inside of Tunisia that, even if they are not necessarily Islamists, use it to attract resources, attention, and support from Islamist organizations outside of Tunisia that would have a capacity to do that.
With regards to your al Qaeda and technology question, I do not think the question is whether al Qaeda and these groups use these technologies. I think the reality is they are. I always say that for terrorists a cell phone can be as powerful a tool as a weapon or a gun, and I believe that very strongly. The reality is that these tools are out there. They are spreading exponentially, and you cannot control who can use them. You can influence the use of them, but you cannot control it. We say one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. I would say that one man's tool of civic empowerment is another man's tool of civic empowerment for destruction. I think that is very important to understand.
GREEN: Is there any evidence that the Islamists are trying to use the power of the Internet to change things or get a foothold in Tunisia?
COHEN: I have not seen it in Tunisia. I think it is pretty safe to say that they are watching. I do not think that they have ever looked at Tunisia as a target the same way they have, for instance, eastern Libya or parts of Algeria, even parts of Morocco and Egypt.
COOK: That is true, although there was -- there was an al Qaeda bombing of synagogues in Tunis early on. I think it was in 2003 or 2004.
COOK: So it is not like it is been completely absent from Tunisia.
COHEN: You have a similar situation in a place like Syria, where the al-Assad regime for such a long time has beaten down the Islamists and repressed the Islamists and made it very difficult for them to exist there, but we know they are there. We just really do not have a lot of visibility into how many of them there are, how organized they are, what their external connections are. I do not think Tunisia is quite the same extreme example as Syria, but I think there is a parallel there in that we do not know a lot about what the Islamist movements looks like inside of Tunisia, because for such a long time they have been so suppressed and had very few instances where they have actually popped their head out of water. The bombings that Steven just mentioned are one example.
GREEN: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Rashaj Singh with Washington Times.
RASHAJ SINGH: Thanks very much for doing this. I have two questions. I want to ask both you two to talk in a little bit more in detail about the larger repercussions of developments in Tunisia, especially for regimes in the region. And which regimes do you think are more susceptible to the kind of developments that happened in Tunisia over the past few days? And also, has this uprising in Tunisia caused international countries to rethink their support for regimes like the one in Tunisia, as they support regimes in Egypt and in Syria and various other countries?
COOK: Let me take the second part of your question first, and then I will take the first part. It does not seem to be the case that the United States and Europe are rethinking their approaches to their major allies in the region. As I said, it was interesting that after Obama released a statement praising the courageousness of the Tunisian people, he then picked up the phone and called Mubarak.
I think that, even though it has not been as vocal as during the Bush administration, there remains an effort to promote and encourage democratic change in this part of the world. But overall, there has not been a rethink as to how to approach overall strategy in the region.
In terms of vulnerability and spillover effects, I think it is pretty clear that the grievances that underlined the uprising in Tunisia are present in places like Algeria, which is also experiencing a wave of demonstrations, although in Algeria this is something that is a regular feature of the political landscape. There is certainly political ferment in Egypt. The combination of the anticipation of the end of the Mubarak era -- although I did see him open parliament in early December, and he actually looked pretty good.
But real broad-based opposition is emerging in Egypt and even Jordan, where there were demonstrations recently even though we think of it as a relatively happy little kingdom that is a solid ally of the United.
I think the point is that it is hard to identify and predict who is next. Revolutions are exceedingly rare. And as I said in my opening statement, all the factors and variables have to come together, including major mistakes on the part of leaders and defenders of these regimes.
But I think the more important underlying point here is that we have assumed that these regimes are stable. And that assumption has been based on the fact that regimes have muddled through these kinds of political challenges before. We were believing that past performance is a guarantor of future stability. And that is a risky bet as far as I am concerned.
To the extent that these regimes rely more and more on coercion to control their populations, I think they are weaker and more unstable because coercion and violence are the most expensive forms of political control and, as we have seen in the Tunisian case, the riskiest method.
COHEN: Let me say something about vulnerabilities. It is really difficult to predict where a revolution is going to take place. And actually there are ways that we can better understand context to at least get us closer.
And I think one of the important variables is the technology factor. So we should start with what we know. We know that in the last 10 years, the number of people that have access to cell phones has risen from 907 million to over 5 billion. We know the number of people that have access to the Internet has risen from 361 million to more than 2 billion. Even in a country like Pakistan, which everybody would agree is very unstable and a high priority, in the last 10 years, cell phone access in that country has grown from 300,000 to over 100 million. So astronomical growth.
Now, the question we need to be asking as we think about this new variable, is where is the sudden influx of technology based on the statistics I just mentioned potentially has the most profound impact?
I co-authored a piece in Foreign Affairs, in which my co-author and I made the argument that it is in societies where there is a weak central government, dire socio-economic conditions, a large youth bulge; in huge diaspora populations living in uber-connected, developed countries that are extremely open; and in countries that have a history of an organized civil society. You know, those would be the types of countries that I would watch for as it pertains to the sudden influx of technology potentially changing the game.
GREEN: Do these countries have an alternative political system in place?
COHEN: Well, I will give it a quick, technology-centric answer to this, and Steven, you would definitely be better to talk more broadly --
COOK: I will give you the old, staid political-science answer. (Chuckles.)
COHEN: One of the things that was most interesting that I forgot to mention in my opening statement is that when Ben Ali went out in public to basically throw his Hail Mary pass, I found it very interesting that he thought the big concession that he could make that could keep him in power was agreeing to stop censorship.
That led me to believe that he certainly has a very keen understanding of how important that issue is to young people in particular inside of Tunisia. But it was also too late. Had he done that six months before or six years before, it may have actually had a profound impact.
One of the interesting things is that a lot of autocratic governments will watch what is happening in Tunisia, and my guess is that the will probably be more vigilant and more inclined to crack down and censor and so forth. And I think what a lot of these governments need to actually pay attention to is the failure of his concession. If you do it too little too late, you might miss an opportunity to buy some goodwill of the population.
Now, on the flip side, if a large, youthful population does not like a leader and the leader issues that concession, he might not like the outcome.
So there is a lot of uncertainty around this. And I would point you to that speech that Ben Ali gave where he basically acknowledged, without saying so, that Tunisians view the freedom to connect as a basic human right.
COOK: And let me just add: After Ben Ali gave that speech, the general tenor of the response was, "We are not out in the streets for YouTube. We want freedom. We want an end to this regime."
Jared, I think you are exactly right that there is a moment when these types of concessions no longer matter to the people, to a society that is engaged in an uprising and trying to throw off a political structure. My answer to the question is, quite honestly, no, there is no alternative system in place and that is exactly the problem that you have in Tunisia right now.
You have a regime that essentially de-institutionalized or created perverse institutions in Tunisia so that there was no opposition, there were no political structures that could be taken over by anybody other than in the formally ruling, or still ruling--depending on the way you look at it--Constitutional Democratic Rally party.
And if for some reason Mubarak would be toppled, the obvious people to step in and take over would be the Egyptian armed forces, because there are no political structures--no parties or organized opposition that could really step in and run the country. And I think that that is a problem that you have throughout the region.
And it is one of the reasons why it strikes me that both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, in their efforts to promote democratic change, have focused some efforts and resources on trying to build up non-civil-society organizations. A place like Egypt has a lot of civil-society organizations -- but no actual political movements and parties. The problem is that you have a tremendous amount of opposition from these regimes to these kinds of efforts.
GREEN: Thank you very much.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Steve Huntley with the Chicago Sun-Times.
STEVE HUNTLEY: Thank you very much.
Steven, to paraphrase your answer to the question about spread, you said maybe but not likely, and mentioned Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan. I wonder if in discussing spread scenarios, the situation in Lebanon is relevant to the discussion, and whether there is there a spread scenario that could potentially disrupt the oil supply lines?
COOK: With Lebanon, my answer is no. I think that the situation in Lebanon is very Lebanon-specific, as is often the case with Lebanon, because of its unique situation and unique politics. It is somewhat of an outlier in the region, and its present political tribulations are a result of another popular uprising, the March 14 movement after the assassination of Rafik Hariri.
But there is very little connection here, and there is no evidence to suggest that people of Lebanon are watching what is happening in Tunisia and trying to draw lessons. I think what they are trying to do is navigate the current political problems in Lebanon.
As far as disrupting oil--it is very unlikely that this kind of situation is going to have an effect on the supply, that it is going to have an effect on politics in the Gulf region. Of course, if there is some sort of disaster in Egypt, it might have an effect on the canal. But as I said, it is unlikely that that is going to happen.
And even if there were some sort of mass uprising in Egypt and the military did intervene, whether on behalf of the regime or in support of society, as the Tunisian military has apparently done, one of the things that they would be sure to keep open and keep operating is the Suez Canal.
HUNTLEY: Thank you.
COHEN: I apologize, I am going to have to jump off.
COOK: Thanks, Jared.
JEROME: Bye, Jared. Thank you so much.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Ellyn Ferguson with the Congressional Quarterly.
ELLYN FERGUSON: Hi. I do not know if this off topic. I was just wondering to what extent concerns about food prices or food shortages may have also played into the unrest in Tunisia.
COOK: Not off topic at all. This is one of the hidden issues that is playing into grievances throughout the region, and this is something that I have been hearing about in my numerous trips back and forth since last May--that the price of food has been going up and up and up. And people at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic scale are unable to make ends meet. And it is one of the major issues.
What we saw in Tunisia, what we are seeing in Jordan, what we have been seeing in Algeria, what we have been seeing in Egypt, is a combination of economic grievances and political grievances all coming together at the same time. It is an issue that is going to be hard for the regimes to get control of. When you had big protests in Jordan last week, the Jordanians immediately took measures to ease the price of food and make it more manageable for people. But the question is, how far relatively poor countries go to mollify these situations without undermining the investment environment that they have worked so hard at Washington's urging to create--making economies that are attractive to foreign investors to be more competitive and integrate them in the global economy.
So there is this kind of very unfortunate feedback loop that they are having to contend with and that they do not have a lot of tools at their disposal to ameliorate.
FERGUSON: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Doyle McManus with The Los Angeles Times.
DOYLE McMANUS: Thanks very much. Steven, you have touched briefly on Algeria, where demonstrations have been a regular part of political life.
Could you talk a little bit about the competence of the regime in responding to those, which is the other key factor? That is question number one. Question number two, Jared talked a lot about how democratic activists can learn from each other. To what extent do we know whether the Egyptian regime or other regimes have tried to learn from China, from Iran, from anybody else how to use technology in repressive ways?
COOK: Right. To answer your second question, first, yes, they have. As I said a bit earlier, once the Egyptians learned the hard lessons of 2004--that the behavior of their riot control police can be splashed across the Internet and picked up by international news organizations--they began to try to control, monitor, and as Jared pointed out, infiltrate these technologies in order to crack down or outsmart those who are using it.
So I think it is abundantly clear that they are trying to learn those lessons from other regimes that have had to deal with these kinds of political challenges.
In Algeria, as I said, this is a fact of life. And the Algerians are nothing if not ruthless. And this is a country with a president, but also a conclave of about 60 military officers who run the country and who have proven themselves willing to be excessively brutal in order to rescue the regime that they founded and constructed and from which they benefit.
The Algerian military was willing to plunge the country into a decade of civil war in order to preserve the regime. So should things get out of hand in Algeria -- and as I said protests are a common feature of Algerian political life -- and internal security forces are unable to handle it, we could see another situation in which the military intervenes, but in a very different way than the Tunisian military intervened because the difference is--and this is something that I wrote about today at foreignpolicy.com's Middle East channel--the Tunisian military does not have that kind of organic link to the regime. There is not everything at stake for them in the regime.
So to your question, yes, I think they are competent, but competent not necessarily in a very good way.
McMANUS: Thanks. Just to sharpen the first question, about learning from other regimes: Do we have any evidence that the Egyptians have actually sought advice or gone on technical missions to places like China and Iran to see how it is done?
COOK: Well, certainly not Iran, since there are not diplomatic relations between the countries. But there was a time a couple years ago that the Egyptians were just in absolute awe of the Chinese, and there was constant traffic between Cairo and Beijing. You know, the China model is deeply attractive to the Egyptian regime. It is economic development without parallel political change. And that is something that they would very much like.
Whether they have sought advice directly from the Chinese, I do not know. What I have been told is that there is a quite extensive, robust apparatus for monitoring the Internet and social media sites and trying to do what they can to undermine them.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Shaun Waterman with the Washington Times.
SHAUN WATERMAN: Yes. Hello, Steven.
WATERMAN: Just going back to the Islamists, Nahda seems to be the main Islamist party. Where are they on the kind of spectrum of these organizations?
COOK: Well, I would say if you take the Muslim Brotherhood, they are more moderate than the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example. They have accepted family status laws in predominantly secular Tunisia and so on. It is certainly a gradation of Islamism that are considered to be moderate. But in the context of Tunisian politics, from Bourguiba to Ben Ali, they are clearly beyond the pale and to be suppressed.
Like I said, it remains to be seen whether they can be a force, given how they have been repressed and driven from the country.
WATERMAN: Do you think that there is a danger that they might get swept away by more radical forces if they are a part of this coalition?
COOK: I think there are obviously always these kinds of risks. I think everything is going to depend on how Tunisian politics unfolds over the course of the next six months and how these elections turn out. So, for example, if you have a reconstituted regime that is primarily made up of the Constitutional Democratic Rally and figures around Ben Ali, and Nahda signals its willingness to cooperate, participate, whatever, there is always the possibility that you will get offshoots from this organization that may be more radical.
I mean, this is a phenomenon that is quite common. It is particularly common in a place like Egypt, where there has been a fair amount of opposition to the brotherhood's engaging in secular politics. So that is a pattern that I can see unfolding, but it really all depends on the quality of politics going forward from now until elections and then thereafter. That is why this moment is really the hardest one.
WATERMAN: And could I just ask one other question? You seem to be suggesting that U.S. policymakers got this one about right. Could you say a little bit more about that? I mean, obviously they want to welcome progressive change, but they do not want to scare their friends in the region. Could you say a little bit about that dilemma?
COOK: Well, take it back to the Bush administration. For all the kind of full-throated support for democracy and freedom, which I think was the right policy to pursue, the United States has always looked towards evolutionary change. There has always been this concern that rapid collapse of regimes ca not possibly be in the interest of the United States, because it could sow chaos and bring to power people who are inexorably opposed to the United States and its interests in the region.
So the policies have always been geared towards a gradual evolution, building the institutions necessary for a peaceful transition to democratic politics. And I think that is the policy the Obama administration is now pursuing. It could not do anything other than welcome change in Tunisia. But at the same time, it is signaling to its friends, as you pointed out, that it is not looking to push them over the edge, either.
WATERMAN: Thanks very much.
COOK: My pleasure.
JEROME: I think that brings us smack up to the hour.
COOK: Thank you. I need a glass of water.
JEROME: (Laughs.) Okay.
COOK: Let me just say in closing, thanks to those of you who are still on the line. I am happy to answer additional questions. I am heading out to Cairo tomorrow morning for a week, and hopefully making it to Tunis by next weekend. So look for blog posts and articles based on that, and feel free to ping me. Thanks very much. Have a good afternoon. Bye bye.
JEROME: Thanks very much, everyone. Bye.
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