Tunisia and Beyond: Democratisation in the Middle East?

Dr Imad El-Anis, Lecturer in International Relations, Nottingham Trent University

Events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and the wider Middle East in the past few weeks have certainly been dramatic and unprecedented. For many people in the region and in the West the key question is what is going to happen next? Unfortunately, it is not easy to tell. What we should be focusing on is how we got to this situation in the first place. Perhaps answering that question will help us at least understand the broad direction the future may take. For many years governments in the Middle East and in the West have valued stability and consistency in domestic politics and international relations over democracy and respect for human rights in the region. It is the same preference which shaped much of the Cold War era for many around the world. Many still see chaos and anarchy as a certainty if authoritarian governments like the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Saleh regime in Yemen are removed. It is a classic case of allowing fear and uncertainty to guide decision-making.

The popular movement which ousted the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia last month should be seen as hope that the alternative to authoritarianism in the Middle East is not extremism. We can see the way that an open, transparent, accountable and inclusive system of government is emerging in Tunisia and how this is not developed by a political and economic elite or by the intervention of Western governments. Instead this is a system which is being created by the people of Tunisia for themselves.

Many in the region view the rising costs of basic commodities like staple foods and fuel as their biggest problem. The global economic recession has hit them hard and the mainstream masses in the region outside of the Gulf oil and gas producing countries live in a fragile balance between an acceptable quality of life and poverty, while many others live in extreme poverty. The economic policies pursued by the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes, amongst others, have simply pushed many people further into poverty or excluded them from opportunities for improving their quality of life. The political and economic elite have harnessed the powers of global economic integration for their own benefit and many have become extremely wealthy. But they have isolated the masses from the same benefits and refused access to opportunities to those outside of their family and business networks. The frustration and despair this has caused for these people, many of whom are well educated, highly skilled and full of energy, cannot be underestimated.

Ultimately, when a government rules its people instead of serving them and when it monopolises the ‘public’ space through abuses of human rights, control of media, decades-old emergency powers, it extinguishes peoples’ sense of rights. More importantly, though, it also extinguishes peoples’ sense of responsibility and ownership. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the popular movements we see taking shape in the region is that people are re-discovering that sense of ownership. There is a realisation that the streets are theirs, the museums and institutions of cultural heritage are theirs, the parks and stadiums are theirs, the relics of their ancestors are theirs, and most importantly the role of looking after and governing themselves belongs to them. Many in the region are saying clearly that no single group has the right to these public spaces and common goods. Many Tunisians and Egyptians continue to demonstrate that they can and will take responsibility for their lives and their lands as well as their own politics. I for one am willing to bet that they will do a very good job of it if they are allowed the chance for democracy. Let us not underestimate the capabilities of the people of the Middle East to govern themselves democratically and to be peaceful and active members of the international community.

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