Revolutions, Reforms and Democratic Transition in the Arab Homeland from the Perspective of the Tunisian Revolution

The potential success of the transition to democracy in both Tunisia and Egypt will affect many Arab countries, determining their destinies. Tunisia represents a test case, a laboratory-like situation for understanding the latest developments in the Arab world. In light of the historiographical difficulty in examining events of such a recent nature, it would be of use to Arab researchers and readers to bring together scholarly and scientific analyses about this case in a book to assist in understanding the reasons for the eruption of revolutions in the Arab world.

Analysis focused on the Tunisians at this stage might center on the need to integrate the great transformation in the Arab world into their analysis, a view opposed to the one common at the outset of the Tunisian revolution, which held that the events there were the result of a Tunisian (as opposed to Arab) specificity, attributing the revolutionary movement to Tunisia's links with Europe and pointing to the advanced state of Tunisian civil society as evidence of this specificity. What has happened in Tunisia is objectively linked to the Arab world as a whole, and that region has witnessed the end of one stage and the beginning of another, the elements of which have yet to be made clear. There is no scientific prediction of what will emerge in the wake of the stasis characteristic of Arab political regimes, indicating that the spontaneity of revolutions was a recurring historical question, the eruption of which cannot be predicted.

Commonality in the Arab World

What happened in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries points to the commonality existing across the Arab world, while the differences lie solely in the minor details. The Tunisian case was one of an extended centralized state, despite the changes in the congruence of its history and geography; the modernization it underwent in the Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras, the separation of civil society from the state government, and the assumption of clear roles and forms that allowed for the separation between the state and the regime. The latter becomes especially clear when we consider that the military acted on behalf of the state rather than acting on behalf of the regime or the authority of the individual or the royal family. This is indeed a particularly Tunisian specificity that was witnessed again in Egypt in which the separation between the state and the regime was evident.

The experiences of Tunisia and Egypt will not be replicated in other Arab countries, due to the fact that other countries do not exhibit the same level of social homogeneity, and therefore no clear institutional separation as in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt. The Arab regimes, however, display a degree of structural similarity as it pertains to the impasse that they have reached and the emergence of authoritarianism in the form of long-term ruling families. These characteristics are not uniquely Arab - indeed they exist in other Third World countries, as in the case of North Korea - but are a common feature of the Arab states and have contributed to the formation of a common motivation for revolution.

The Arab republics' reliance on partisanship and blood ties to ensure loyalty was rooted in authoritarianism. The beginnings of this phenomenon can be dated to the Sadat era. Another common feature is the prevalence of political roles being played by leading military and security personnel, which is a trait of the political decay common to a number of Arab regimes. What at first took place in secret began to take place in public and was even boasted about. This was associated with a public corruption that has been paraded as success.

Another common feature of Arab regimes has been the rise of a new business class that did not emerge from among the existing bourgeoisie, but rather from direct relations and organic connections to the ruler. This phenomenon is an old one and had been interpreted by Ibn Khaldun as the "transformation of chivalry to prestige, and prestige into money."

Rejecting Corruption

With the emergence of open communications networks, over the past two decades the Arab citizen has developed a common consciousness that rejects corruption and the intercourse between business and political elites, a factor that has unified the Arab condition of opposition to these regimes. The waning in power and effectiveness of the opposition can be attributed to the spontaneity and popularity of the Arab revolutions and their lack of identifiable leadership resulting from the "eternalization" of the opposition. Because of state persecution and repression, traditional opposition forces had been detached from society, or co-opted, either as a complementary part of the political system or into the regime itself. This situation raised the question of who could lead the change, or who would replace the current ruler. This was the case in most Arab countries.

The "Revolutions, Reforms and Democratic Transition in the Arab Homeland" conference examined the progressive role that can be played by traditional structures in Arab society, such as civil groupings and family networks in the various regions and areas, in sparking social uprisings or revolution. This was the role played by the family of Muhammad Bouazizi when they set out to demand their son's rights, and in Dar'a in Syria when the families protested the army's harassment of their children, who themselves were reenacting what they had seen of the Arab revolutions on television screens.

The suicide of one person or several people will not, in itself, result in revolution; what brought about the revolutionary situation was the sense of total impasse, that the ruler was no longer able to continue with the traditional methods of governance, and nor were the ruled able to bear the methods wielded by the regime any longer.

Forming a Democratic Consciousness

The similarities between Tunisia and Egypt in the periods since the revolution should be emphasized, especially with regard to the gradual nature of the transition to democracy. Revolutions do not lead to a readymade democracy. These two revolutions, however, will have a role in forming a democratic consciousness that will determine the fates of other Arab states, because the success of democracy in both countries will affect several other Arab states and the orientation of existing Arab regimes.

The ongoing protests in city squares may not lead to the toppling of a regime, and the "cloning" of the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences in an unconscious manner may lead to disappointments and disasters. There are differences between Arab countries and between the east (mashreq) and west (maghreb) of the Arab world, especially with regards to social homogeneity, that must be taken into account. The mashreq is non-homogeneous and quite diverse - with regard to sectarianism - the colonial power having played a major role in the formation of minorities. This is in contrast to the maghreb, which seems more homogeneous despite the strong presence of both Arabs and Berbers.

The clash with the regime creates a rift in the society if a part of the society is structurally linked (or linked by interests) with the regime. It is important to take the specific compositions of each Arab society into account in order to understand the Arab revolutions and their chances of bringing about change.

The revolution is not always the event that will take the people from the ideal to the real, as was the case in Egypt. However, a popular revolution, as witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia, is a force that cannot be countered, and that is what took place later in Libya, Yemen and Syria, where the regime sought to quell the uprisings by instilling the fear of civil war, which was insufficient to persuade the people to quietly remain under the yoke of authoritarian rule.

Reform, or Be Forced to Reform

As for the way forward, Arab regimes can either begin to reform or be forced to reform; in the case of the mashreq, revolutions have little hope of success in the current context, given the potential for tribal or sectarian strife. The necessity and inevitability of reform for the mashreq must be emphasized.

It is important to consider the future of the countries in which regimes have been toppled, regarding consciousness of Arab issues in general, and the Palestinian struggle in particular, and about the issues in which the youth who led these revolutions believe.

What is currently happening in the Arab world has imposed on Arab regimes two possible courses of action: the establishment of true democracy in the republics or constitutional monarchies in the states with hereditary transition of power. These revolutions are important in the revival of pan- Arab sentiment and in fostering unity against oppression and tyranny.

This article is based on Dr. Bishara's opening presentation at the "Revolutions, Reforms and Democratic Transition in the Arab Homeland from the Perspective of the Tunisian Revolution" conference at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, April 19-21, 2011.