The Winds of Democratic Change in the Arab World

The wind of democratic change that struck Ben Ali’s police state in Tunisia is shifting eastward towards Egypt. After decades of corruption and mismanagement, which characterizes the post-colonial Arab regimes in general, the people of Tunisia broke down the glass ceiling that has for long hidden their voices and forced them into a submissive posture. Ben Ali justified his plan to force his countrymen into this unnatural and painful posture by stressing economic prosperity for all. It turned out that the pretense of prosperity was only guaranteed to a small group of well-connected persons around the head of state while the majority of Tunisians, particularly the younger generation, were left out in the cold.

The situation in Egypt is comparable to that of Tunisia, if not worse. The economic openness has evidently benefited a small minority of Egyptians. The Egyptian state has not been able to provide job opportunity to the stream of young Egyptians who join the workforce every year, and unemployment is strikingly high. The two billion dollars the Egyptian government receives from the US government make no impact on the economic development of the country but only help the security forces to keep the population in check. The per capita income in Egypt is half of that of Tunisia.

The economic developments in these two Arab countries that have started to experience the wind of democratic change have been short circuited by widespread corruption and mismanagement. Loyalty to the ruling party is the main criteria for political and bureaucratic appointments and business opportunities are available only to those who are willing to pay kickbacks to few well-positioned government officials. 

The formula of economic but not political development is evidently untenable. The plan to develop the economy by introducing measures of economic liberalization, while rejecting any measures of political liberalization, is an exercise in dishonesty and self-delusion. Economic and political liberalizations go hand in hand, as the latter is essential for the success of the former. A true and meaningful economic development presupposes the rule of law and political accountability, and both are impossible in the absence of a real democracy. The absolute control over the three branches of government and the creation of a police state in most Arab countries have stifled debate over the legitimate use of state power, and have given immunity to the members of the ruling elite who want to betray their public trust and usurp their political power to advance special interests.

In the age of college education, advanced communication, and high rate of population growth in the Arab world, no government is, or can be, sheltered from the winds of democratic change.

The question is not if but when the Arab street will rise up to demand political freedom and equality. Tunisia has proved for the whole world that Arab states are not immune from democratic change. And after decades of experimentation with the model of armed insurrection that only led to bloodshed, destructions, and disappointments, Tunisia offers a new model of change through peaceful protests and popular uprising. 

The Tunisian model provides another important lesson. The quicker the establishment is willing to heed popular demands, the fewer the casualties for both the ruling class and the general public, and the smoother the recovery and reconciliation. The Egyptian regime seems to have understood this lesson and is resorting to crowd control measures, rather than iron fist and brutal force, in dealing with street demonstrations. The Egyptian government must now take serious steps to demonstrate its willingness to accommodate the popular demands for democratic transition.  The stubbornness of the regime would inevitably contribute to turning the winds of gentle change into a chaotic and unmanageable storm.

The winds of democratic change are blowing in the Arab world and Arab states would be better off to accommodate rather than resist. Arab states can choose to either use its refreshingly young energy to build a more inclusive political order and more prosperous economy and society, or can ignore the writings on the walls and, hence, turn the winds into unpredictable storms.