Tunis, Cairo and beyond: susceptible authoritarians may yet really topple, but questions abound

Updated Friday 8am Mubarak's second television address shows that he will fight on and try and turn the tables on the protesters. Even if he steps down in September he will have ample possibility to orchestrate counter demonstrations, divide the opposition, foment chaos in the country, repress the protests and lock up people, or put his imprint on the transition to his successor and possibly new institutional arrangements.
Eberhard Kienle
29 January 2011

Tunis, Cairo, and Beyond 

As protests in Tunisia enter their second month and similar demonstrations in Egypt gain momentum it is still too early to tell where popular unrest of a magnitude unseen in decades will ultimately take the two countries, the other member states of the Arab League, and the Middle East at large.

Ben Ali’s forced departure and demonstrations across Egypt remind us of a few simple but forgotten truths. Most basically but surprisingly for many ‘Westerners’ these events illustrate the capacity of Arabs and Muslims to resist domination and to act collectively and effectively under very heavy constraints and dangers for their life and safety. This capacity, of course,  has been obvious to anybody with a sense of history and some recollection of  the student demonstrations under the Egyptian monarchy, the Iraqi revolution of 1958, the Algerian struggle for liberation in the 1950s and 60s or the demonstrations and counter demonstrations in Lebanon since the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. If social fragmentation associated with peripheral capitalism and related factors complicate effective collective action they do not preclude it, especially where need, frustrations or expectations create strong new solidarities among the deprived or the hopeful. However, dubious claims about the allegedly natural affinity of Arabs and Muslims for authoritarian rule, be it as ruthless dictators or willing victims, have continuously obscured the fact that they are historical actors like everybody else in this world.

At the same time, the Jasmine revolution and similar events in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen show that current opposition and resistance in Arab countries is not more violent than were popular movements in Europe such as the ‘colour revolutions’ in its Eastern or May 1968 in its Western parts. Nor are opposition and resistance expressed in Islamist terms, thus invalidating the ludicrous claim that authoritarian regimes are ramparts against Islamism often considered tantamount to terrorism. No doubt Islamists may still come to the fore and try to influence the course of events. That they will manage to usurp the movement for change and like decades ago transform it into an Islamic revolution cannot be ruled out but is at best one scenario among many others. Historical conditions are so different that apparent analogies hardly fit current developments on the ground. Also, the future influence of Islamists will very much depend on the attitude of the US and Europe towards the new regime in Tunisia and in the ongoing standoff in Egypt,  and later their readiness to support development efforts in the Middle East in efficient and appropriate ways. More generally, Ben Ali’s departure also shows that efficient and consequential collective action is possible under authoritarian rule, and that under favourable conditions supposedly stable regimes may succumb to such action, in particular if legitimated by crucial external actors such as the United States.

Finally, events in Tunisia and Egypt illustrate once and for all the collected shortcomings of European policies towards the MENA area such as the Euro-Med partnership and its avatars. In spite of consistent criticism the European Union and its member states continued to naively assume that even without the simultaneous opening of their own markets trade and economic liberalization in the Southern Mediterranean would entail sufficient economic growth in the countries concerned, produce trickle down effects to cater to the needs of all including the unprivileged, and even promote political liberalization and democratization. In Tunisia the EU by now undoubtedly helped to produce a political opening, but not quite in the way it had intended.

However, beyond driving home some truths that had not been shared by everybody the current events in Arab countries leave us with a number of uncertainties that probably will be clarified only as history continues to unfold.

First, with regard to Tunisia Ben Ali’s departure does not in itself indicate or guarantee the victory of the ‘Jasmine revolution’. Many of his former mates remain in prominent positions and probably continue to wield significant influence and power. By now key ministries have changed hands, but the prime minister, the rank and file of the police, the armed forces and the secret services, and the vast majority of members of parliament are products of the ancien regime. Certainly, the chief of staff promised to protect the revolution but this support has not been tested yet. At this point in time certainly nothing precludes that the winds of change will continue to blow and rid the country completely and for good of Ben Ali’s former associates. Alternatively, however; change may stall and what seemed to be a full scale revolution may give way to a ‘pacted transition’ reminiscent of the end of Franco’s rule in Spain, the return to the barracks of the Brazilian military or the early decades of post-Pinochet Chile. Probably disappointing for many revolutionaries in the short term, it would not necessarily be the worst solution in the longer term, depending on how such a ‘historical compromise’ would work out in detail. In the worst of cases, of course, such power sharing could allow the survivors of the ancien regime to regroup, turn the tables on the revolutionaries, and rebuild Benalism without Ben Ali.                   

Second, with regard to Egypt and other Arab countries outcomes are far more uncertain still, simply because developments are in full swing, in their early stages or yet to come – or not. Days of anger and unrest with tens of thousands of people in the streets who wreck the headquarters of the regime’s party, the National Democratic Party (NDP),  need not bring down a regime that in principle can count on the support of  huge armed and police forces. President Hosni Mubarak may try and stick it out, hoping that his and his forces’ staying power is stronger than that of the demonstrators who face enormous challenges in terms of communication and coordination especially as the regime shuts down internet and mobile phone services.

However, Mubarak’s options are also increasingly limited. Following unusually blunt statements by Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama he will have to try everything to avoid bloodshed in the streets of Cairo, Suez and other places. After Secretary Clinton called for an orderly political transition he may have to do more than simply appoint a new government and repeat the same vague and empty promises for social and democratic change that he has made for decades. 

Most likely he will drag his feet as much as he can and seek to impose an arrangement as favourable as possible for himself and the key constituencies of his regime. For him and many others important material interests as well as personal safety are at stake. His second television address  shows that he will fight on and try and turn the tables on the protesters. Even if he steps down in September he will have ample possibility to orchestrate counter demonstrations, divide the opposition, foment chaos in the country, repress the protests and lock up people, or put his imprint on the transition to his successor and possibly new institutional arrangements. The violent attacks Wednesday against protestors on Tahrir Square are part and parcel of these last-ditch attempts to save his regime. They were clearly orchestrated by a regime that in the past already never hesitated to use the same tactics of intimidation, even though at a smaller scale in elections and on other occasions. The message is ‘us or chaos’. It does not seem the attacks have affected the resolve of the demonstrators who nonetheless, like the regime, face growing demands for a return to normal life by those Egyptians most affected. But even if the protests should cease there is little chance for the regime to escape growing pressures for reform. 

However, faced with a delicate situation created or not anticipated by Mubarak the army may progressively distance itself from the ageing president. The army has no better democratic credentials than Hosni Mubarak, his son Gamal, the NDP or any other component of the regime but it has not been called in for decades to quell unrest. Egyptians identify it with the defense of their country while they identify the police with harsh repression  Moreover, the world view of the military hierarchy is compatible with part of the social grievances expressed by the demonstrators. It stands for the old statist semi-socialist social contract that many Egyptians find difficult to replace with economic liberalism as preached by Gamal Mubarak, his business and remaining technocrat friends. For the moment, at any rate, the army is far more popular than the hated riot police, though only as long as it will not use violence against the protesters. Friday night when the  police had deserted central Cairo and the army took up positions around Tahrir Square and the state television brotherly exchanges could be observed between soldiers and ordinary people, perhaps demonstrators, some of  who danced on top of the tanks. In the meantime the army’s promise not to break up peaceful demonstrations including the marches of a million people across Egypt planned for today confirms its will to de-escalate the situation and to appear as a neutral force. However, such action on the ground does not mean that the army is siding with the protesters. Apart from a genuine concern for stability typical of many officers the army or parts of it may have shown temporary flexibility to better contain the protests. Reminders today that the curfew will be enforced as of tonight indicate anything between a balancing act on the part of the army or its ultimate loyalty to the embattled president. A possible divorce between the army and the president is a medium term option, possibly expressed in his declaration not to stand again the September presidential elections. If it happens it will be based on considerations such as future military aid from the US and defending its role and privileges in the country. Calls for reform from the US administration and more discrete contacts with the army are crucial to the fate of the regime and the opposition.     


Indispensable to maintain order, the army will be in a stronger position than ever to influence the selection of the official candidate for president later in the year. It is increasingly likely that Husni Mubarak will not be this candidate. If still in the country by then Gamal Mubarak who never had the support of the army will probably be wise enough not to stand, all the more as some of his friends and supporters in the business community seem to have already fled abroad. The appointment of two officers, Ahmad Shafik as new prime minister and Omar Sulayman as vice president, illustrate the open and stronger political presence of the army; the new cabinet includes none of the business people identified with the previous government and Gamal Mubarak. Whether leaders of military background would be able to steer Egypt out of the crisis and solve its many problems is of course an entirely different question. Whether they would be willing to organize free and fair elections and return to the barracks is yet more uncertain.


However, tHhe growing visibility of the military does not necessarily preclude the rise of other actors. If the protesters assisted by international support and tolerated by a regime or an army reluctant to defy the US manage to extract political concessions some more or less balanced power sharing may be on the cards. In this case Muhammad al-Baradai could appear as an ideal compromise candidate for an important position under the current or a new constitution. His social origins and his long civil service career before heading the IAEA make him acceptable to the current regime even though he has become a leading opposition figure. Simultaneously other components of the fragmented opposition ranging from the Muslim Brothers and their potential break away groups to a re-emerging left and representatives of civil society such as the remnants of Kefaya would vie for positions and influence through elections, co-optation or otherwise. The new vice president promises to consult with all forces, an initiative that some may eagerly embrace thus further dividing opposition..


The question is to what extent individually and jointly the resources and organizational capabilities of the opposition would match those of the regime or what remains of it. The officially recognized opposition parties are extremely weak as the regime reduced them to mere democratic decorum. The Muslim Brothers are no doubt stronger but also internally divided. The shutdown of internet and mobile phone services will strengthen their role in protests as they rely on more traditional forms of mobilization. However, their increasing prominence may be used by the regime to play to local and international galleries, present itself once again as the rampart against Islamism and entrench its own position in the current standoff. By the same token, difficulties to communicate electronically may weaken the mainly young people of the facebook generation who initiated the protests. Coordination mechanisms and committees created by the people in the street are in their infancy and rather weak. Nor do the various opposition forces and groups have the same vision for the days when the dust will settle. Never in a position so far even to dream of governmental responsibility their programmes often boil down to slogans and generalities. Ideological stances including Nasserism as a nationalism with strong social components, socialism, liberalisms of sorts, and Islamism need yet to be filled with realistic policy options addressing the disastrous state of education, health services, poverty alleviation, a viable economic strategy guaranteeing employment and growth, and so forth.              


Third, it remains to be seen how new or partly renewed regimes in Tunisia and possibly elsewhere will attempt to redefine their relations with the outside world, in particular the European Union and the United States who had or have strongly supported the former or present authoritarians. Support expressed for political change when it began to unfold may not be enough to make up for earlier support for unelected and unpopular regimes. Over decades the ‘Western’ powers not only propped up unaccountable, corrupt and despotic rulers but also allowed or prompted them to pursue policies which were highly unpopular with large domestic constituencies. The latter are by no means identical with or limited to Islamists and their sympathizers. This applies not only to economic and social polices inspired by neoclassical and neoliberal globalization agendas; it also applies to policies towards Israel and the Arab countries that most Arabs consider less than even handed. Precisely these constituencies critical of policies advocated by the US and the EU have played a major role in recent and current contestations.


On a more theoretical level and within the caveats and uncertainties already referred to we finally have to reconsider some of the more sweeping assumptions we made about the longevity and resilience of authoritarian regimes. Recognizing possibilities for efficient collective action under authoritarian rule only underlines this need. Both Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia and Mubarak’s regime in Egypt (have) lasted for decades; their counterparts in Jordan, Morocco, Syria and elsewhere have not (yet) been challenged or only marginally so. Authoritarianism thus is not necessarily destined to fail quickly or to fail at all. However, authoritarianism may be more successful in resisting gradual political liberalization than sudden shocks or challenges that quickly gain momentum. The claim that authoritarianism could be successful was always partly linked to the ability of the rulers to adapt to changing conditions. In many cases this means to accommodate demands for greater participation and liberties without actually relinquishing power - or to grant with the right hand what will be taken back by the left hand. Neither the repeated constitutional changes enabling Ben Ali to have himself declared re-elected, nor the equally massively rigged 2010 parliamentary elections in Egypt are testimony to such subtlety. Nonetheless, we should grasp the opportunity and determine more precisely yet the conditions under which authoritarian regimes float or sink.        


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