Across much of the world, including most every Middle Eastern state, citizens and some national leaders are cheering the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s longtime dictator. They are voicing the fervent hope that Tunisia’s revolution will be the first of many dominoes to fall. My advice: Be careful what you wish for.
Arab commentators and others, tapping a wellspring of popular discontent, are calling for more grassroots uprisings. But the truth is, numerous uprisings have been under way for weeks. Rioting citizens are fed up with endemic poverty, repression and unconscionable corruption. In recent days, angry demonstrators in Jordan, Algeria, Egypt and other places have been noisily calling for change.
Nearly all of the states under siege are led by men who live in massive, sumptuous palaces fit for Roman emperors. They also lavish ill-gotten cash on family members. The brother of Tunisia’s now-former president, for example, kept a pet tiger ― while many thousands of young Tunisians, even those with strong educations, remained destitute because there were no jobs to be found.
A little-noticed organizing fact helps explain this problem. Have a look at Transparency International’s corruption perception index, and you’ll find that dictators and repressive or faux democracies rule the world’s 25 most corrupt nations. Vibrant, open democracies govern the 25 least corrupt, with just two exceptions: Singapore and Qatar.
The problem is that in most Middle Eastern states, overturning those calcified, venal dictators won’t likely bring to power anything close to a Western-style democracy. Instead, in many places, hard-line Islamists would take up residence in the presidential palaces.
In Tunisia right now, no strong, visible opposition leaders stand ready to run in elections. Over the last several decades anyone who challenged the despot was arrested or killed. The same is true across the region. The only people who are organized, determined and prepared to fill a power vacuum are the Islamists.
Tunisia is relatively secular, but think back to the two most recent citizens’ uprisings that toppled leaders in the region. Until Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, a man much like Tunisia’s Ben Ali ruled the state. In his place now sits a brutal Islamic regime that threatens the entire world. In Sudan during the 1980s, a civil war and popular discontent laid the groundwork for a coup d’etat in 1989 that brought Omar al-Bashir to power. Now he is under indictment for genocidal campaigns against non-Islamic Sudanese. More than 2 million people have died.
In Algeria this month, thousands of angry citizens rioted in cities and towns nationwide after the government cut food subsidies ― angry that their leaders, as always, lived in highly visible opulence and pharaonic splendor while they starved. Security forces killed at least two people; more than 300 police officers and 100 demonstrators were wounded. During the 1990s, Islamic parties almost took over Algeria’s government, leading the nation into civil war.
In Jordan this month, rioters in the city of Maan set fire to government buildings and police cars. The immediate impetus was the murder of two men, and the police’s failure to arrest the killers. But Jordanian analysts also spoke of the frustration among rural residents about their endemic poverty while their king luxuriates in his sumptuous palace.
Then, last Friday, thousands of Jordanians marched through the streets of Amman and other cities, complaining about high food prices and unemployment. One banner read: “Jordan is not only for the rich. Bread is a red line. Beware of our starvation and fury.” Encouraged by events in Tunisia, the demonstrations continued into this week. An opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, stepped up and began trying to influence the debate.
Other dictators are watching all of this with deep concern. In blogs, on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, thousands of people are cheering on the events in Tunis, declaring that the people are fed up with dictators. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as much last week. Speaking at a conference in Qatar, she declared: “In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand” because of corruption and repression.
This is a dilemma for the world. The United Nations, the Arab League, other world bodies and allied nations must find a way to help Tunisia and any other states that fall. Make sure the people get what they deserve after decades of brutal repression ― freedom and prosperity ― before Islamic radicals muscle their way in so they can destroy the nation and present new threats to the world.
By Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. ― Ed.
(Tribune Media Services)