Tunisia: A wake-up call for Arab leaders

18 January 2011

Tunisia’s unprecedented mass unrest fuels nervousness about a domino effect that could shake other authoritarian regimes in the region

It is a striking symbol of the underlying discontent in much of the Arab world that what started as one man’s protest in Tunisia has created a tidal wave of unrest across the region. Protests have spread to Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Libya.

Tunisia’s president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has already fled the country. Other leaders are using the traditional methods to maintain legitimacy and dampen protest – state handouts coupled with tighter security.

Yemen has slashed taxes, Jordan has cut fuel duty, while Egypt and Libya are trying to tackle the rising cost of food. In the Gulf, fuel and utilities are heavily subsidised as part of the social contract that confers legitimacy on unelected rulers. These tactics cannot work forever. The high level of subsidies encourages waste and for governments without oil wealth, it will be unsustainable in the long term.

The growing role of the private sector and increasing education means citizens will demand a voice. New methods of communication mean the states’ stranglehold on information is loosening and it is becoming easier to anonymously organise protests.

At the Arab League meeting in Egypt in mid-January, the secretary-general, Amr Moussa, said the Arab people were “broken by poverty, unemployment and a general slide in indicators”. He added the Tunisian revolution was the result of “social shocks that many Arab societies are exposed to”.

All eyes are now on Tunisia to see how it handles the creation of a new government. If Tunisia manages to form a government and start to tackle the economic problems at the heart of the protest movement, the unrest will spread.

The danger is that Tunisia descends into chaos. That could further stunt progress in the rest of the region as citizens decide they are better off with the relative peace and security of the status quo than going through a turbulent transition into an uncertain future. Ultimately though, it is a transition that is inevitable.

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