The Middle East Channel

Après Ben Ali: déluge, democracy, or authoritarian relapse?

The post-Ben Ali era got off to a rocky start last week. Protesters who helped topple the old regime stayed in the streets and railed against the interim government's inclusion of ministers from Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's government and its exclusion of Tunisia's Islamist party, Hizb Ennahda. Prime Minster Mohamed Ghannouchi spent the week walking a tightrope that grew thinner every day, making concessions to keep opposition ministers in the government without sacrificing technocrats from the old regime whose expertise the country needs. Five ministers defected despite those concessions. By week's end, even the police -- some of whom shot protesters last week -- were marching in the streets demanding better working conditions.

This is a critical time for Tunisia's potential transition to democracy, potential being the key word. Tunisia demonstrates the challenges that democracy faces when the transition begins by breaking a ruler, but not the authoritarian structures beneath him. If the interim government cannot survive and organize credible elections in roughly six months, none of the alternatives is attractive. Even if it does succeed in organizing credible elections, the possibility of authoritarian relapse remains real.

The immediate challenge concerns the status of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). It was Ben Ali's ruling party, but it is also Tunisia's ruling party. It is easy for people unfamiliar with Tunisia to underestimate the party's reach. The RCD is the lineal descendant of one of the best-organized nationalist movements in the Middle East and Africa. Its complete unity with the organs of the state at the national, regional, and local levels -- and its presence in every village and town -- give it a rare degree of institutionalized power.

This history convinces many Tunisians that the party must be dissolved in order to make way for a true democratic transition, and the interim government spent the last week responding to these concerns. All ministers affiliated with the RCD resigned their party posts, and the RCD dissolved its political bureau. The government also promised future measures to separate state and the party institutions. Despite these overtures, protesters continue to demand the RCD's dissolution.

These demands are unrealistic and potentially dangerous. Not everyone in the RCD is a corrupt thug, and the opposition parties are too small and too inexperienced to manage the challenges that face Tunisia -- including the challenges involved in organizing credible elections. Moreover, dissolving the RCD will not necessarily make it go away. Its cadres could organize yet another incarnation of the party that has ruled the country since independence.

Instead, the opposition needs to concentrate on preventing an overhauled RCD from dominating the first elections so thoroughly that the party returns to unchecked power. Institutional reform prior to the elections can help. If the interim government can solidify its credibility, it can pursue constitutional changes that establish meaningful checks on executive power before anyone gets elected who might try to thwart them. The interim government can also reform electoral laws that limited the number of opposition seats and forced the parties to fight over them.       

But institutional reform alone will not protect Tunisia from an authoritarian relapse. Ultimately, the opposition must cultivate a political landscape that offers Tunisians a meaningful set of options. Creating those options does more than lay the foundations for meaningful choice over the long term. In the short-term, it also reduces the tensions that could result if Ennahda and the RCD, or its successor, stand as the only two meaningful options.   

As part of its effort to restore calm last week, the Council of Ministers proposed legislation granting an amnesty that would allow Islamist leaders to return to the country and run for office. That the government moved so quickly to develop this legislation is evidence of its keen desire to win Ennahda's support. It also suggests that Ennahda likely will become a legal party in time for the first elections. That would be a healthy development. Ennahda has pledged to support the rules of democratic competition and protect Tunisia's progressive Personal Status Code that gives women a broad range of legal rights. To exclude Ennahda would undermine the government's credibility and invite continued unrest.

However, a bipolar standoff between Ennahda and the RCD would not be a healthy development. Uncertainty about the Islamists' strength will make many Tunisians nervous in the run-up to the first vote. Ben Ali exploited fears of an Islamist victory to boost support for the RCD because voters had no credible non-Islamist alternative. Additionally, if RCD officials become fearful of an Islamist victory in a bipolar environment, they might revert to old tactics to block that outcome. Having a credible alternative, even a coalition that involves the Islamists, would reduce the tensions that an RCD-Ennahda showdown might generate. 

Tunisia must begin developing a more robust set of political parties. Decades of single-party rule and presidential domination produced a small handful of opposition parties with anemic organizational structures, meager finances, and underdeveloped platforms. They all needed the same basic liberties, so all their platforms demanded democracy and the rule of law. The parties never developed fuller programs that offered a substantive alternative to the ruling party or that allowed Tunisians to distinguish one party from another. Many of these parties also developed patently undemocratic internal politics. Intolerance of divergent views and inadequate rules for managing conflict turned these organizations into authoritarian copies of the ruling party they opposed. These cultures alienated public opinion and made the organizations brittle and susceptible to divide-and-conquer tactics. 

It is too much to expect these parties to become strong and independent, with national organizations and differentiated messages, in time for the first elections. Providing a counter to the RCD at this point probably means forming a coalition with shared lists and a formula for apportioning the seats across the parties. That, in turn, means that the parties need to concentrate on cooperating with one another rather than competing against one another. 

At the same time, however, Tunisia's parties must begin to develop real structures and substantive messages. In the short term, this will help them mobilize voters on behalf of their coalition. Over the long term, this party-building work is vital to a consolidated democracy. Members, organizations, and messages create grassroots; grassroots create accountability. The ministers from the trade union who resigned last week did so because they came under pressure from their rank and file. Whether one approves of that decision or not, this dynamic is a healthy one. Leaders who are not beholden to any program or membership can be easily co-opted. More importantly, leaders who have no followers and no program have nothing to give to -- or withhold from -- the bargaining that is the lifeblood of democratic governance.

Christopher Alexander is Davidson College's McGee director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program, an associate professor of political science, and author of Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb.

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The Middle East Channel

Tunisia and the future of democracy promotion in the Arab world

Even as Tunisians struggle to create a new political order, the popular overthrow of Tunisia's dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is reshaping politics across the Middle East. That's the bad news. Arab regimes have often been criticized as sclerotic and archaic; they are neither. Over the past two decades, they have confronted and overcome a wide range of challenges that have caused authoritarian governments to collapse in many other world regions. Arab regimes have demonstrated their resilience in the past, and they continue to do so in the wake of the Tunisian uprising. If the United States and its allies wish to exploit the Tunisian example to widen processes of democratic change in the Arab world, they will need to adapt as well. Tunisia holds lessons both for Arab autocrats and for Western promoters of democracy. Which lessons turn out to be decisive will depend, if only in part, on whether democracy promoters demonstrate the same flexibility and responsiveness shown by Arab regimes.     

Authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have shown remarkable agility over the past two decades. They have absorbed and survived the shock of the political transformations of 1989, the democratization of Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Through trial and error, they have developed strategies for managing pressures for political reform and fending off the democracy promoters of the West, in part by appropriating the rhetoric of democracy and turning it to their own advantage. They have learned how to control Islamist political participation, regulate new media technologies, and broker new divisions of labor between state and market in pursuit of economic development. In several cases, including Syria, they have safely navigated leadership successions that were seen as moments of vulnerability for regimes that built huge personality cults around their leaders. 

Like their democracy-promoting adversaries, authoritarian regimes too have built capacity, honed their best practices, and assessed lessons learned. In the process, they have insulated themselves from a Tunisia-like scenario. They remain repressive but are more permissive toward political oppositions than was Tunisia under Ben Ali. They have created space for moderate Islamist movements to participate in electoral politics, as long as they don't do too well. They regulate the media, both new and old, but offer more scope for political expression. Access to economic opportunity is politicized and personalized, corruption is widespread and corrosive, and inequality is high and growing. Yet in contrast to Tunisia, other Arab regimes have made it possible for larger segments of society to benefit from market-oriented economic reforms.

Now, the challenge to Arab regimes comes from within, a popular uprising that forced a long-ruling, brother autocrat out of power with shocking speed. Not only has every other regime in the region been shaken by Ben Ali's rout and his humiliating search for refuge -- they have already begun to respond. Across the Arab world, regimes are already taking preliminary steps to mitigate the anger of marginalized youth and address unemployment rates that are among the world's highest. Algeria's government has increased its purchases of wheat to prevent bread shortages that might incite protests. In Kuwait, the government is giving every citizen $3,500 (1,000 Kuwaiti dinars) to counter the effects of rising food prices. In Egypt, the government has embargoed new economic reforms that might further erode its already tattered social safety nets. Small-scale protests over working conditions and wage grievances are receiving prompt attention. Presidential hopeful, Gamal Mubarak, who still views himself as the most likely successor to his father, gave a speech calling on the government to do more to raise living standards for Egyptians. In Syria, France's refusal to grant Ben Ali refuge, as well as the West's support for regime change, is being spun in a self-serving fashion as an object lesson for any Arab leader foolish enough to think of the West as a reliable protector. Whom could they have in mind? Saad Hariri perhaps? 

Less visible reactions to Tunisia are no doubt under way, as well. It would not be surprising to learn of conversations between Arab regimes and Western capitals, both offering and seeking reassurance, like the widely reported call last week between Presidents Mubarak and Obama. Nor would it be surprising to learn that Arab regimes are undertaking their own risk assessments and adopting strategies to reduce their vulnerability to a Tunisia-like scenario. 

These measures are only the beginning. There is little question that we will see further and more sustained reactions from Arab regimes in the months and years ahead. As in the past, these may lead to real changes in patterns of authoritarian governance and, perhaps, real improvements in the living standards of Arab citizens. What these early indicators clearly signal, however, is that Arab regimes are determined that Tunisia not become the trigger for a regionwide process of authoritarian collapse. 

If Arab regimes are learning from and adapting to events in Tunisia, is the Obama administration doing the same? What lessons does Tunisia hold for U.S. efforts to promote democratic change in the Arab world? It is early days yet in Tunisia's uncertain path from the breakdown of an authoritarian regime to real democratization. Yet it is already becoming clear that the success of Ben Ali's regime in crushing and fragmenting opposition forces has created enormous obstacles to the construction of a new political order. In so thoroughly dominating a political space, the immediate legacy of Ben Ali's regime -- and a leading threat to its democratic prospects -- is the incoherence and inexperience of his opponents and their flailing attempts to navigate between the Scylla of the old order's restoration and the Charybdis of a descent into chaos that might provoke direct military intervention. If Tunisia is an extreme instance of the weakness of opposition forces, it is hardly alone; other Arab regimes suffer from similar deficits. 

For more than two decades, the United States has worked to overcome these gaps, investing heavily in civil society capacity building and political party development. Unfortunately, as the Tunisian experience has revealed all too clearly, these investments have not paid off. What might improve the opposition's odds in other Arab states? One necessary step is a shift in the focus of democracy promotion programs. However painful it might be, it is long past time to acknowledge that efforts to build the democratic capacity of Arab societies has largely failed. Building democratic capacity cannot, on its own, create the openings that are needed for opposition movements to operate, gain experience, and establish themselves as credible alternatives to current regimes. It is time to change course and adopt a strategy aimed at containing the arbitrary power of authoritarian regimes.

To date, the United States has been reluctant to adopt such a strategy, preferring to promote reform in ways that are less likely to antagonize so-called Arab moderates. Such approaches have their value, but they are far from sufficient; we can see their consequences in the stumbling of Tunisia's opposition as it struggles to construct a democratic political order. 

There are a number of ways that a containment-oriented strategy could be implemented, but one linchpin of such a strategy should be a concerted effort by the United States to secure the removal of emergency laws and security courts that give legal cover to the arbitrary exercise of political power by Arab autocrats. Egypt has lived under emergency laws since 1981, Algeria since 1992. They have been in effect in Syria since 1962. In Jordan, powerful state security courts were established in 1991 when martial law was abolished. Democracy promotion may not be sufficient to bring about the next Tunisia, but what it can do -- by pushing harder to create space for oppositions to develop -- is ensure that if and when the next Tunisia happens, there will an experienced and credible opposition ready to step in and complete the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. That would be good news, indeed.

Steven Heydemann is a senior vice president at the United States Institute of Peace.

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