Conflict and Fragility


"The Jasmine Revolution" brings new prospects to the region

10 Mar 2011 - 15:58

Fleeing like a criminal to Saudi Arabia. A scenario where the most feared dictator of the region would abandon power so rapidly would have been fiction just a few days ago. Yet this fiction turned into reality, and Tunisia has made history. An iron curtain came down in Tunisia bringing new horizons to the Arab world.

The promises of Ben Ali that he would leave power in 2014, give freedom to press and internet, and lower food prices were vain. The Tunisians proved that human rights and democracy are universal values, shook up the Arab world, and took by surprise the Europeans who had for too long supported stable friendly regimes.

Will the Tunisian uprising inspire other countries of the region? Demonstrations against the rise of food prices, inflation and the intolerable rate of unemployment, in particular amongst young people, have spread to Sétif and other Algerian cities. Sit-ins took place in Jordan. Arab governments remain cautious fearing that the spirit of the "jasmine revolution" could spill-over.

However, the Tunisian revolution has a specific perfume. It is indeed a well educated, secular and middle-class population that stood up against authoritarianism. Women have since 1956, the right to vote and since 1973 the right to abortion. They outnumber male students in higher education. Tunisia also ranks amongst the countries that have performed extremely well in terms of access, equity, efficiency and quality of education. In addition, the Tunisian economy does not rely only on oil or gas resources. Contrary to its neighboring countries, the middle-class has not been co-opted in sharing the state's resources.

An enlightened authoritarianism allowing access to education and rights for women was not enough. The thirst for democracy and freedom, the anger against a corrupt regime that had not shared the benefits of the economic boom of the touristic Tunisia remained powerful motives to overthrow Ben Ali. Corruption, opaqueness and a crony family clan. The ingredients for a revolt were there but nobody saw them, or did not want to see them; not even the French diplomatic service until the last hours of the Ben Ali regime. Given the lack of ambitious policies towards the region by Europeans motivated by the fear of instability that could bring the Islamists, what happened in Tunisia is revolutionary and opens up hopes for millions of Arab citizens. The most laic country in the region has kicked-out the worst authoritarian leader, on its own.

The curtain fell and the democratic transition will be closely scrutinized by the rest of the world. Several elements will be crucial to its success: dealing with the constitutional legacy of Ben Ali, rethinking the role of the army and organizing elections in a country where the political opposition has been muzzled, imprisoned and in exile during 23 years. The new challenge is for the Tunisian people, be they from the middle-class or more marginalized part of the population, to find the terms of this new social contract.

In this new phase the Europeans need to side with the Tunisian people. Seizing that formidable momentum, let's break away with policies that favored stability. The Union of the Mediterranean is a mirage precisely because it does not deal with the thirst for democracy and freedom of citizens or the need to improve their socio-economic conditions. Europeans have recently supported fiercely the democratic process in Ivory Coast. It is time to show to what extent is the EU able to do the same with its closest neighbours.