Tunisia just one Arab regime going stale
by Salim Mansur
The hasty departure of Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali for a life in exile reveals how brittle and lacking in public support are most of the Arab regimes.
The swift collapse of Ben Ali's 23-year-old dictatorship unmasked the lie that autocrats in the Arab world — or autocrats anywhere, including Communist China — supported by their military and security network are invulnerable to popular opposition.
It is increasingly evident in our contemporary era that tyranny — irrespective of the left or right — has a relatively short shelf life.
The seemingly invincible Soviet Union imploded some 70 years after its establishment. It could be said this number might well be the benchmark for the duration of any despotic regime, and Arab despots are rapidly approaching this number with Ben Ali's fate exposing their shaky hold on power.
Tunisia's popular uprising has been followed by news of similar unrest in Algeria, heightened concerns about anarchy from Libya's strongman Moammar Gadhafi, protests and sectarian violence in Egypt, discontent in Jordan and tension with fear of sectarian violence erupting in Lebanon.
Since U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia in February 1945, western democracies have viewed the Middle East through the lens of "Arab exception." The rationale for "Arab exception" meant tolerating despots in the greater interest of regional security during the Cold War decades and oil. Subsequently, the reasoning held these despots were preferable to the Islamist alternative.
It was left to president George W. Bush to question the U.S. policy of preferring stability over freedom in the Arab-Muslim world after 9/11, and this might well be his enduring legacy.
But freedom from tyranny in Iraq and Afghanistan was followed instead with the horrendous assault upon it by the dregs of the Arab-Muslim world under the banner of Islam. And the savage violence unleashed by Islamists came as relief to despots fearful on their own of any populist movement in favour of democracy, respect for human rights and freedom.
The path from tyranny to democracy is not a straight and unimpeded line of progress. This lesson has been illustrated yet again in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will be premature to assume the flight of Ben Ali heralds democracy in Tunisia.
The deep-rooted problem of tyranny is it breeds an authoritarian culture. This culture has been nurtured in the Arab-Muslim world over many centuries by rulers in the palace and preachers in the mosque.
The culture of liberty, of respect for the individual based on freedom and equality, is alien or weak across the Islamic world. Hence the irony — while Arabs and Muslims yearn for freedom, there are many among them fearful of how it might unravel their culture.
It is with this fear of when tyranny dissolves and freedom appears anarchical, men in military uniform and religious robes together, or separately, strive to maintain the untenable authoritarian status quo.
But since freedom in our time, when walls separating cultures have tumbled, cannot be long denied, Ben Ali's ignominious flight likely marks the beginning of the end of "Arab exception."