This posting is the first in a series that examines the Arab Spring. Now that 3 autocrats have been deposed and free elections held in Tunisia, it makes sense to ask where the democracy movement in the Arab world is heading. Will the Arab Spring be successful? Does it represent a new "wave" of democratic change in a region that has not been known for democratic governance? What approaches best help us explain the origins and development of the movement?
The postings in this series take 3 forms. One focal point is to examine individual countries and try and ascertain whether they will be able to establish a stable democracy and, if so, when. The second focal point is to assess the extent to which existing theories of democratization, almost all of which have been developed by Western scholars, actually explain what is taking place in those Arab countries where citizens have opposed authoritarian rule. The final postings will tease out the implications for US foreign policy in what is shaping up to be a very different Arab world than the one many analysts have traditionally known.
It is appropriate to begin with Tunisia, where Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation in the town of Sidi Bouzid became the catalyst for the Arab Spring. In less than a month between December 2010 and January 2011, and in a non-violent manner, demonstrators enraged by government corruption and Bouazizi's death, toppled the regime of long-time dictator, Zine al-Din Bin Ali.
If we begin with the assumption that the first phase of the Arab Spring involves the removal of autocratic rule and replacing it via free and fair elections, we now have the results of the recent Tunisian elections. These results are, in many respects, very promising.
First, the elections were held without significant disruption. There were protests prior to the elections that the main Islamist party, Ennahda (Harakat al-Nahda) had behaved unfairly and "rigged" the elections by receiving large amounts of funds from conservative Arab Gulf states that wanted the the party to win. After the vote, there was some minimal violence in one one town (Sidi Bouzid - the origins of the Arab Spring) where Ennahda was accused of manipulating the vote. Aside from this incident, the elections occurred without any serious problems.
Ennahda won 89 of 217 seats in the new parliament (41%) which constitutes an impressive showing. Before jumping to the conclusion that this vote was somehow an indicator that Tunisia might become an Islamic republic, we need realize that the party reflects much more to its supporters than its Islamist credentials.
Ennahda has attracted many members of the urban lower middle classes, similar to the social base of Islamist movements in many other Arab countries (see my "Ideology, Social Class and Islamic Radicalism in Modern Egypt" for earlier data on the Muslim Brotherhood's social base in Egypt). The reason for this social support extends beyond religion.
For many Tunisians, secularism is synonymous with the country's Francophone elite, many of whom reject Islamic culture. There is certainly a social class element in the secular-Islamist divide because secularists are often more well off than those who are drawn to Islamic culture. Islamism acquires its strength both due to Ennahda's valorization of traditional culture and because it offers a voice for the have-nots, especially the urban lower middle classes. A vote for Ennahda is less about voting for religion in the formal sense of the term. Social class is partially disguised as "religion," meaning that many Tunisians expressed their dissatisfaction in the elections with the more prosperous members of society who are frequently Francophone, secular and generally Western in orientation.
What many observers have missed is that, what is often perceived as a "secular-Islamist" divide, actually represents a struggle between the haves and the have-nots. As with Islamist parties in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere, many less fortunate Tunisians, especially those with aspirations for upward mobility, associate secularism with that social class which benefited under the regimes of secular autocrats, such as former dictator, Zine al-Din Bin Ali.
I would also underline that we should not separate social class from Islamist ideology. For many supporters of Islamism, the issues of economic sustenance and maintaining an authentic (asil) heritage reflect two sides of the same coin: social justice, on the one hand, and Tunisia's identity as a nation-state and who will define that identity, on the other. In other words, we cannot separate religion (understood as much as traditional culture as formal religion), social class and identity politics.
So what are the prospects for Tunisian democracy? One important indicator of the direction of political change in Tunisia can be seen in the defensive position adopted by Ennahda and other Islamist parties regarding the issue of women's rights, individual freedoms and a commitment to abide by electoral results. While some would argue that Ennahda merely used "progressive rhetoric" to win more votes, many observers believe that it will not try to impose Islamic law on Tunisian society. The party seems to realize that to do so would provoke a serious negative response among secularly minded youth and the educated middle classes.
Moving beyond the parliamentary elections, we need to examine larger historical-structural variables when assessing Tunisia's prospects for democratic change. Tunisia is considered by many to be the most progressive Arab state, if by progressive we mean politically tolerant and endowed with well developed human resources. For all his faults, former president Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987) promoted education – including education for women - literacy and universal health care, birth control and family planning, and a moderate form of Islam.
Gender equality is all too often ignored when analyzing democratic transitions. Unlike many Middle Eastern states, women were highly educated in Tunisia under Bourguiba’s rule. Prior to the 2011 Revolution, women held 23% of the seats in the Tunisian Parliament (a higher percentage than in the US). Tunisia has a strong civil society as evidenced by a robust trade union movement, women’s organizations and extensive use of social media. Over 3.5 million Tunisians are regular internet users, 1.6 million are Facebook users and there are hundreds of internet cafes, known as “publinet.”
Unlike Syria and Libya, where the "father leaders" destroyed all meaningful elements of civil society and repressed all efforts at autonomous political and social behavior, Tunisia under Bourguiba was more tolerant. As his rule demonstrates, not all autocrats are cut from the same political cloth. A certain amount of institution building occurred under authoritarian rule that can provide support for Tunisia's nascent democracy.
The prospects for a consolidation of democracy are strengthened by the fact that Tunisia does not suffer from significant social cleavages. It does not have ethnic differences (such as Iraq and Syria), confessional differences (such as Egypt and Iraq), or tribal cleavages (such as Yemen and Libya). It also benefits from a relatively large middle class. Indeed, per capita income in Tunisia is has been relatively high (currently at $4,070), despite its being a relatively resource poor country.
My prediction is that Tunisia will develop a government based on a stable parliamentary coalition. Tunisia will most likely approximate the Turkish model where there is an uneasy but stable coexistence between Islamist and secularists. Indeed, the October parliamentary elections in which neither the Islamists not secular forces were able to dominate suggests such as outcome. Because Ennahda did not win a majority of the votes in the elections, it will be forced to form a collation with a set of secular center-left parties. We can call this new form of governance, a contested coalitional democracy.
In a broader analytic sense, how do we assess Tunisia's so-called Jasmine Revolution? What factors facilitated the overthrow of authoritarian rule? Clearly, economic variables represent a key "tipping point" in the Arab Spring. Mohammed Bouazzizi engaged in self-immolation. Like many other politically conscious Tunisian youth, he experienced tremendous frustration working as a street pedlar and not being able to make a living and provide for his extended family.
After having been forced off the street by the police for many years because he didn't have the necessary money to bribe them, he was already highly frustrated and angry. The final straw came when he was forced to stop selling his vegetables yet again by a government inspector who took the scales from his cart when she discovered that he had no license. After being unable to retrieve them at the town's municipal offices, he poured gasoline on his body and set himself on fire.
Why wasn't the state able to suppress the demonstrations engendered by Bouazizi's death? One key factor was the refusal of the military to crush the demonstrators and its withdrawal from the political sphere after the flight of former president, Zine al-Din Bin Ali. Hence the coercive apparatus in Tunisia should be viewed as more professional than patrimonial. Unlike Egypt, the military is not involved in day to day politics which bodes well for Tunisia’s short term future.Many theorists of democratization avoid comparative historical analysis. If we consider Turkey, we see that the nation-state spent many years under the rule of what was euphemistically referred to in the early post-colonial period of the late 1940s and 1950s as "guided democracy."
Despite periodic elections, Ataturk's Republican Peoples' Party controlled the Turkish polity until the elections of 2002 which brought the AKP to power. Prior to 2002, the army had removed any regime that it considered threatening to the secular principles of Kemalism and its own corporate interests. Neverthless, many of Ataturk's policies resulted in important institutional development that paved the way for the current consolidation of democracy.
In terms of institutions, during his years as president, Bourguiba promoted limited development of an incipient civil society. More importantly, he stressed the importance of education, including the education of women. In the 1960s, his regime pursued family planning. These policies created a strong presence for women in Tunisian society. Women even were able to form some civil society organizations which established a degree of semi-autonomy from state control.
In other words, the institutional legacy of quasi-authoritarian regimes can be an important factor in establishing the groundwork for the transition to democracy. In the recent Tunisian elections, 50% of the candidates were women. This is not only remarkable for the Middle East, where limited number of women occupy public office, but remarkable for advanced industrialized democracies where women do not constitute such a high percentage of candidates.
The economic development literature constitutes a popular approach to the study of democratic transitions. This literature traces its intellectual pedigree to the late Seymour Martin Lipset and his seminal 1959 essay, "Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy," and to the 1966 study by Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Unlike the writing of many current theorists, such as Adam Przeworski, Fernando Limongi and their colleagues, Carles Boix and Susan Stokes, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and Christian Houle (who will be discussed in later posts), their models are, in certain respects, much less sophisticated than those of Lipset and Moore.
A political sociologist, Lipset was not burdened by the rational choice (rational actor) theory (RAT) that informs much of the current economic development and democracy literature. Rather than create the somewhat artificial binary of authoritarian elites and oppositional mass publics, Lipset cast a much broader conceptual net.
Instead of focusing on economic development in the narrow sense of per capital income/GDP, Lipset included such variables as literary and media access, urbanization, the size of the middle class in relation to other social classes, and the structure of income distribution. Lipset offers a multivariate approach contra the more unidimensional approach followed by many current theorists of economic development and democracy. Unlike Lipset, Moore's analysis opted for a comparative historical approach that was based on several countries whose development he studied over time. Above all, Moore emphasized the need for a strong (entrepreneurial) middle class and a resolution of what he called the "peasant problem," namely integrating the peasant population into the process of economic modernization.
Turning to Tunisia, we see that both Lipset and Moore offer many analytic insights that help explain its transition to democracy. Literacy rates and urbanization are high as is media consumption. Salaries are also relatively high. Tunisia's Gini Index is actually better than the US, having improved between 1995 and 2005. Tunisia has a large and politically sophisticated middle class and a diversified economy.
As Dankwart Rustow pointed out in a famous 1971 article, "Transitions to Democracy: Towards a Dynamic Model," the conditions that bring about the fall of authoritarianism are not the same as those than sustain democratic governance. While the economic development literature may be able to help us understand why democracies are able to consolidate themselves, it cannot easily explain the dynamics of the key "tipping points" that have led to the coalescing of the popular uprisings that challenged authoritarian rule in the Arab world.
To situate Tunisia's transition to democracy in a still broader context, we need to return to the education policies of the Bourguiba regime and the demographics of Tunisian society. Even though it does not suffer the "youth bulge" that characterizes many other Middle Eastern nation-states, it still needs to provide employment for the large cohort of educated youth that are the product of the education system introduced by the Bourguiba regime.
The social requisites and historical institutional analysis that have been used to explain Tunisia's move towards democracy can also benefit from demographic analysis. The work of Stimson Center demographer Richard Cincotta is important here in that he points to the significance for political stability of the maturing of the Tunisian population, which now has a median age of 29. Cincotta demonstrates a correlation between authoritarian rule and a large youth demographic between the ages of 15 and 29. The decline of the youth bulge tends to support political stability and democratic governance.
Still, we need to better understand the dynamics of the processes suggested by demographic analysis. If rational choice or rational actor theory (RAT) has told us nothing else, it is the need to focus on individual preferences and choices. While Mohammed Bouazzi was not the selfish utility maximizer that characterizes human actors in RAT (he was known for giving some of his produce to poor families), he was interested in bettering his economic condition as well as that of his family, as seen by his support for his family and paying the university tuition for one of his sisters. Ultimately, it was his choice to burn himself to death that provided the spark for the much larger conflagration that became the Arab Spring.
Looking to the future, the Achilles heel of Tunisian political development is and will continue to be the political economy. The state has few resources at its disposal and tourism - a major source of external funds – has been severely compromised by the recent political instability. The return of many Tunisians who were working in Libya has reduced foreign remittances as has the slowing of the economies of southern Europe where many expatriate Tunisians live and work.
If the current unemployment rate of 15% persists, it may not bode well for continued support for democracy, especially among those Tunisian youth who do not have much hope in the future. A key variable will be exogenous in nature, i.e., whether the EU, US, Turkey and neighboring Libya provide investment capital for the Tunisian economy.
A stagnant economy will most likely place more strains on the political coalition that is currently in the process of formation. Ennahda supporters may call for greater efforts to regulate the economy and even for the appropriation of the wealth of the upper classes. Such actions would certainly undermine foreign investment and dampen European Union support for the Tunisian government.
If Tunisia's democracy is not to become a "spectator sport" for the US, EU, and Turkey - the main stakeholders in the success of its fledgeling democracy - they would all do well to move as quickly as possible to prop up its economy. Mobilizing an international coalition to achieve this end makes the most sense. While Tunisia is a small country in the larger Arab world, the demonstration effect of its becoming a successful democracy should not be underestimated.