Tunisia, or democracy’s future in jasmine

The homegrown insurrection of a friendless people in Tunisia carries a profound lesson in the understanding of democracy-solidarity in the world as it is becoming, says Goran Fejic.

Goran Fejic
25 January 2011

Jasmine is, according to Wikipedia, the “national flower” of Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines, and has in addition various cultural and symbolic connotations in India, Syria and Hawaii. Tunisia is not mentioned.

Now, as the Tunisian insurrection has just been labelled the “jasmine revolution”, the semantics of the flower may be further enriched to designate a popular uprising with the following key characteristics:

* genuinely homegrown

* belated, but quick and clear in delivering its message

* totally unforeseen by international pundits

* enjoying little or no support from the so-called international community

* opening major new questions, hopes and anxieties for the broader region: “will the jasmine blossom”?
The bushfire speed of the events has probably been much more of a surprise to international analysts than to everyday Tunisians. The latter were sick and tired: of the regime’s lies, of its arrogance and hypocrisy, of empty promises, of blunt and widespread corruption, and (last but not least) of the lack of hope for the burgeoning, boiling, increasingly educated, politicised and massively unemployed youth.

Most of the questions raised by the jasmine revolution will not receive immediate answers. Only when violence recedes and when the dust settles, when political forces in place manage to articulate together some sort of roadmap for the immediate future, will it be possible to gauge the real depth and the democratic impact of the change (see Amy Aisen Kallender, "Tunisia's Post-Ben Ali Challenge: A Primer" [Merip, 26 January 2011]). The time needed to assess regional implications will obviously be longer.

The simplistic equations

The odds are good, however, that the jasmine revolution may activate something positive in Tunis and in the region; events in Algeria and the Gulf are already suggesting this (see Roula Khalaf & Heba Saleh, "Tunisia's 'air of liberty' wafts through Mideast", Financial Times, 21 January 2011).

The most encouraging feature of the event is precisely the first mentioned in the above list: both the deep causes and the trigger of the uprising were clearly domestic. Tunisian democracy and human-rights activists had been left almost alone, enjoying just the toothless empathy of some of their peers in international human-rights NGOs - a detail that certainly adds to their legitimacy. Their very oppressors - Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, his mafia-like extended family and his security forces, were systematically seen as allies of the United States and Europe in the turbulent and unsettling Arab world (see Amel Boubekeur, "Tunisia: beyond illusions of change", 23 October 2009).

Is this not another eloquent example of the double-standards inherent in some of the established western pro-democracy discourse, and of the systematic and overwhelming precedence western democracies tend to give to their own strategic security concerns over democracy-solidarity and democracy-support?  

But the analysis shouldn’t stop at the finding that Ben Ali’s dictatorship was an ally in the global “war on terror”. Tunisia also “radiated”, through dominant (western) international networks - including the international financial institutions (IFI), the image of a secular state, an investment-friendly liberal economy; and hence, could embody the ultimate paradigm of a country with “good governance” (or, at least, “decent governance”).

The case to be made here is in favour of a neater and clearer distinction between two terms that have become increasingly intertwined, blurred and mutually confused in the established post-cold-war discourse of the “international community”: “democracy” and “governance”. To put it simply, having a liberal and investment-friendly economy and being a secular state does not make you a democracy (the same way as elections alone don’t make you a democracy either).

In a globalised world in which democracy is indeed no longer regarded and experienced as a European political and cultural export, the two simplistic equations - democracy=secularism, and democracy=liberal economy - need to be deconstructed. 

In Tunisia, Islamic movements don’t seem to have played any major role in the uprising - an element which has certainly prompted the late, but still welcome denial of western support to Ben Ali (see Olivier Roy, "Where Were the Tunisian Islamists?", New York Times, 21 January 2011). This does not exclude the possibility that Islamic movements will emerge later as part of a democratic coalition, together with leftist or nationalist movements, trade unions and other actors on the political stage.

The relative strength, maturity and credibility of these different forces are largely unclear. Stars, planets and orbits are still to take shape, emerging from the big-bang. Some large foreign investors with close ties to the corrupt regime may need to work hard to recover a degree of political influence.

A different interplay

The Tunisian events expose powerful regional and geopolitical realities. A similar political burgeoning would most likely already have uprooted Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt if the latter had not been so systematically comforted and protected by US “strategic interests”. But there is a wider problem, beyond that of plain interests of state: that of cultural and historical misgivings and misunderstandings. It is partly expressed in those distorted equations which associate democracy too readily with secularism and liberal economy.  

Politics, religion and economics relate and intertwine in different ways across continents and cultures. The number of people living in the democracies of the global south is double today the total in Europe and north America together (just add the populations of Indonesia, Brazil and India to make the point).

There is no reason to assume that the interplay of these three elements (economics, religion and politics) in the new multipolar world will follow the stages and sequences of European history and end up replicating the social contracts that shaped European liberal capitalism and democracy.  

It is important to grasp this point in order to disentangle multilateral democratic solidarity and democracy-support from its current contradictions and failures. And particularly so in the vast region between the Mediterranean and the Pacific.   

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