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Why Tunisia revolt could be huge
January 15, 2011|By Daniel Brumberg, Special to CNN
After 23 years of one-man rule, it took only 23 days to topple Tunisia's Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. A dictator who ruled with an iron fist and a surplus of crony-based corruption that even his fellow autocrats in the region found excessive, on January 14, 2010, Ben Ali fled his country like a thief in the night.
To appreciate what has happened in Tunisia, consider one elemental fact: in 60 years, there has never been one case of a successful, popular revolt toppling an Arab regime. On the contrary, despite periodic legitimacy crises, Arab autocracies have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for self-preservation.
Whether by rewriting constitutional rules to serve yet another term, or handing the mantle of rule to a new generation of autocrats, Arab leaders from Morocco to Yemen have defied predictions of their imminent demise.
It took the administration of George W. Bush to partly repudiate a half-century of US support for Arab autocrats. I say "partly" because Bush's "Freedom Agenda" was always very selective.
High-flying rhetoric aside, the fact of the matter is that from 2004, Washington continued to give political and military support to pro-US Arab autocracies. Of the latter, Tunisia was the worst. A police state that tolerated no dissent and boasted a bogus parliament, Tunisian-style autocracy rivaled and in some ways exceeded that of "regional troublemakers" such as Syria and even Iran.
The rationale for US support for Ben Ali was never a mystery. From Washington's perspective, Tunisia played a key role in the struggle against Islamist extremism. As affiliates of Al-Qaeda reasserted themselves in the early 2000s, Washington viewed Tunisia as an island of stability in a regional sea of potential storms.
What is more, Tunisian autocracy seemed to provide a stable framework for a relatively successful process of economic modernization -- one that was educating both men and women, enlarging the middle class, and creating an export-oriented business sector that had secured markets in the European Union. What was not to like?
Every strong state appears weak on the morrow of its collapse. In a process all too familiar to scholars, Tunisia's economic progress spawned a myriad of socio-economic problems. While economic growth averaged 5%, that rate could not match the expanding urban population. Indeed, when you consider that university enrollment climbed from 42,000 in 1986 to more than 357,000 in 2009, you can get a sense of the enormity of the challenge.
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