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ARAB WORLD: How Tunisia's revolution transforms politics of Egypt and region

January 29, 2011 |  7:45 am

Egypt-protests3

The effects of the Tunisian revolt are reverberating around the Arab world. The effects are being felt most immediately in Egypt, but other societies are simmering as well.

Carnegie logo The most obvious effect is the empowerment of the citizen. The individual who felt helpless before the all-powerful state has now discovered that ultimate political power really does lie in his or her hands -- that in spontaneous and collective action, a repressive regime, enjoying widespread regional and international support, can be brought down in a few weeks.

Second, the Jasmine Revolution, like the Egyptian protests, are driven by a wide mix of socio-economic and political demands. They were not led by a particular party or movement, nor had a particular ideological coloring. In that sense, they were more about basic social, economic and political rights, than favoring one political-ideological trend over another. This pattern is now being reproduced. Past upheavals were driven by Arab nationalist, leftist or Islamist parties and ideologies -- the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts are about basic human rights.

Third, the current revolts destroyed the claim that only the Islamist movement had the ideological and organizational power to challenge the authoritarian state. A spontaneous non-ideological citizen’s uprising accomplished in days what Islamist movements have failed to accomplish in decades. Islamists argued that their appeal to God would trump the state’s power; the Tunisian and Egyptian rebels show that the appeal to the citizen was more immediate and more effective. Islamists argued that their religious and mosque networks would secure the masses necessary for political action; the protests show that they could get more numbers and more fervor by appealing to the broad community of citizenship. It has become popular to die in religious jihad; the Tunisians, and now the Egyptians, show that it is equally noble to die in defense of citizens’ rights.

Fourth, there is much for political parties to consider. Islamists should realize that appeals to human rights, citizenship and social justice are more effective than simple appeals to religion and Sharia law. Secular, nationalist, leftist, liberal and other movements should awaken to the fact that even if their parties have been in decline, the citizenry is awakening. The ground for pluralist, citizen-based politics is very fertile, even if the ground has not been tilled for many decades.

In particular, this message should go out most strongly to labor unions that once were at the forefront of social struggle. It should be clear from events in Tunisia, and now Egypt, that issues of employment and social justice are more resonant and more effective in organizing public demand than the ideologies of all the different political trends.

Fifth, the events in Tunisia have changed the calculations of various elements of the ruling regimes. Previous upheavals had indicated that the ship always goes down with the captain. The demise of Saddam Hussein was accompanied by the collapse of his entire ship of state; the removal of the shah included all the officials and elites surrounding him; as did coups in Egypt, Syria, Libya and other Arab countries in the previous century.

Events in Tunisia have shown quite the opposite; indeed, the army realized that to save itself it had to send the ruler away rather than stand by him. The lesson that getting overly involved in politics might weaken military institutions rather than strengthen them is a lesson that was learned by most military establishments around the world in past decades -- including the Turkish military. We hope it is being learned among Arab military officials as well, particularly in Egypt.

Sixth, business elites should examine the multiple lessons of Tunisia and Egypt. Social justice matters. Growing economic inequality, weak social safety nets and reliance on "trickle down," despite modest GDP growth, is simply not good enough for the majority of the population. Nor can the state protect the rich from the demands of the middle classes and the poor. Instead of pressing the state for more monopolies and more unequal profits, business elites should awaken decision makers that growth needs to be more inclusive and that socio-economic development will need to be broadened if it is to be sustainable.

Seventh, the club of Arab rulers is certainly furious at Ben Ali for abandoning his post, and extremely worried about the new wind sweeping through the Arab world. One can expect little encouragement from them for positive change; rulers have acted rapidly to step back from economic austerity measures and dump quick social and economic benefits on their publics, thus hoping to avoid real political change. But as events in Egypt show, this might be too little, too late.

Activists from civil society, media, academia, political parties and enlightened elements within government and the business community should build on the new path that the Tunisians have pioneered, to make sure that the Jasmine Revolution leads to a full and broad reentry of Arab society to the path of democratization and citizens’ rights rather than end in a short and narrow dead end.

Finally, the international community -- particularly the West -- should realize that their support of repressive and corrupt regimes is not only morally reprehensible but also practically short-sighted. These regimes have long lost the support of their people and are more than ever at risk of collapse. The international community should help Tunisia make it all the way to full-fledged democracy; and otherwise, should stand aside to let Arab publics decide their political futures rather than maintain ailing regimes on international life-support systems.

-- Paul Salem in Beirut

Editor’s Note: This post was from an analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center. Neither the Los Angeles Times nor Babylon & Beyond endorses the positions of the analysts, nor does Carnegie endorse the political positions of The Times or its blog.

Photo: A protester in Tahrir Square holds a photo showing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's face crossed out on Saturday in Cairo. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
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