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THE THRILL AND CONSEQUENCES OF TUNISIA FOR THE ARAB WORLD

The Daily Star - January 19, 2011

by Rami G. Khouri

Two great questions loom after the overthrow of the regime of former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali: How smoothly and how quickly will the Tunisian people transition to a more democratic form of government that can address their grievances and improve their life prospects? How much, and what kind of, impact will the Tunisian popular revolution have on other Arab countries? Both of these questions will require some time before we have clear answers, but several important dimensions already seem clear.

The two most important are that popular grievances and the political governance system in Tunisia broadly mirror the same realities throughout most Arab states. Widespread popular economic distress and political indignity, alongside security-based autocratic rule and top-level corruption and profligacy, make the entire region potentially vulnerable to political turbulence. Tunisia exposed exactly how thin was the police-based rule of the Ben Ali regime, which crumbled rapidly when it met sustained domestic resistance. Some other Arab leaders, whether monarchs or lifelong presidents or something in between, would have not fled the country so quickly; they would have put up a fight to stay in power, partly because they have stronger organic links to major constituencies in society.

The third point is that the 22 Arab countries are not a monolithic entity. Each country has distinct local conditions, socioeconomic development level, patriarchal governance, and political culture (in other words secular, Islamist, tribal, nationalist, pan-Arab, and so on). Moreover, we are really speaking about two distinct Arab worlds – the wealthy oil producers governed by paternalistic welfare states that take care of citizens’ material needs, and the rest of the Arabs who are defined by low-income conditions, widespread un- and under-employment, and political autocracy.

Polling data by Gallup from the entire Arab world, recently published by the Silatech group in Doha, highlights the very strong divergence in worldviews among youth in the rich and the poor Arab countries. It shows, for example, that 15-29-year-old young Arab men and women have a strong desire to migrate permanently in quest of a job and a better life, but this desire is very uneven: It reaches 40-45 percent in some countries like Yemen, Morocco and Tunisia, but only 5-6 percent of youth in the Gulf states. Confidence in their government and judicial system is relatively low among Arab youth – around 50 percent on average, going down to 34 percent in poorer Arab societies – while in the oil-producing states it is 90 percent. A few desperate young men have turned themselves into human torches in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritania, but we are unlikely to see any such thing in Kuwait, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates.

The fourth point most immediately relevant is that we have virtually no experience in the two exciting and historic phenomena now taking place in Tunisia: Arab popular self-determination and transition from autocracy to democracy. The Arab countries have provided a novel form of modern nationhood in which they enjoyed independence without real self-determination (because their citizens mostly never really had an opportunity to define governance systems and state ideologies); and most experience statehood without full sovereignty (because they depend on external powers to keep them in place and solvent).

We are fortunate that Tunisia is the first example of self-determination in Arab populist governance, because Tunisian society is relatively secular with a range of ideological views – from the Marxist and labor left to the Islamist and tribal right – that neatly captures the pluralistic character of the Arab world.

Observers who wonder how Tunisia mirrors the rest of the region would do well to note the core grievances that Tunisians articulated during this transition. These grievances are widely shared with the nearly 90 percent of all Arabs who are poor – and thus they point the way to needed reforms across the region. They are about corruption, lack of political and fiscal accountability, non-credible electoral and political systems, the absence of democratic principles, abuse of power, and excessive reliance on unchecked police power.

Consequently, heading off similar revolts in other Arab countries would seem to require that long-serving rulers make real changes in four principal areas: freedom of media and expression; more honest political representation of citizens in Parliament; greater accountability in government budgets (including ruling and royal family spending); and civilian oversight over the security and intelligence services. These changes will not come easily or quickly.

Tunisia’s ongoing transition will have continuing impact around the Arab world, especially with the massive television coverage from Al-Jazeera-led satellite services. What a thrill – what an absolute, exhilarating thrill – it is after half a century of mass Arab degradation and dehumanization to watch an Arab society begin to make a transition toward something more noble, or simply more normal.





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