By Krishna Bhardwaj
“23 years ago or in 1988 exactly, there was a revolution in Algeria to demand lower prices, an end to corruption and to discrimination. 23 years later today, the people are still seeking the same things because the hoped-for political transition never took place. Efforts to move up were successfully botched up. The struggle for democracy was foiled by demagoguery and lack of adequate political foresight. Situations like this, when the people do not know how to prioritise and hit their objectives without delay but start running instead after the hares and the hounds, mixing up important and unimportant issues, usually plays up into the hands of crony totalitarianism. There exists a similar risk in Tunisia so that things might well be back to square one …” The drama unfolding over Tunisia during the past month shows the different shapes the struggle for democracy can take. On 17th January 2011, Tunisia’s repressive president, Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, had to fly away with his family from the country under a popular revolt when the people persistently took to the streets, notwithstanding the president’s decision to dismiss the government in a bid to stem the tide. This was after 78 people had been killed by the president’s security forces, according to official records. While the issue of bread prices ostensibly ignited the spark, fires had long been smouldering under the ashes against a range of other abuses. The issue of living standards was only the tip of the volcano. There were deeper concerns about civil freedoms and corruption, a feature common to other Arab nations. People were getting fed up with incremental relaxation of dictatorial rules. Pictures show that it is the youth who have been spearheading the current protest movement, being probably those that are hardest hit by prevailing growing unemployment.
Tunisia is the northernmost country of the African continent and a member of the African Union. With a population of over 10.3 million, it is hemmed in by Libya on the east and Algeria on the west. The Sahara is on the south of the country which also has a long Mediterranean coastline on the north. Its land area is of 165,000 square kilometres. With activities based on manufacturing for exports and tourism, its GDP has been growing at a decent annual average rate of 5% from 1990. But, as happens in many a dictatorship, the ruling elite has often been oblivious of the facts of life for ordinary people. This is what explains that the president had remained in power for the past 23 years when he was forced into flight to Saudi Arabia in mid-January this year.
A patched-up new government was formed but most of its members were the very persons who had been running the repressive regime against which the wave of protests were launched a month ago when a young unemployed graduate roughed up by police set himself on fire. The latter must have felt that he had come at the end of the tether. It is a subject of speculation currently whether an acceptable alternative government not abiding by the same norms of repression will finally be formed. This is because the revolt in Tunisia has raised fresh hopes of a shift over from similar repressive regimes in other Arab countries. For, if anything, those countries do not openly espouse values like freedom, justice and accountability. There is therefore wide speculation as to which corrupt Arab leader will fall next. As usual in such situations, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.
23 years ago or in 1988 exactly, there was a revolution in Algeria to demand lower prices, an end to corruption and to discrimination. 23 years later today, the people are still seeking the same things because the hoped-for political transition never took place. Efforts to move up were successfully botched up. The struggle for democracy was foiled by demagoguery and lack of adequate political foresight. Situations like this, when the people do not know how to prioritise and hit their objectives without delay but start running instead after the hares and the hounds, mixing up important and unimportant issues, usually plays up into the hands of crony totalitarianism. There exists a similar risk in Tunisia so that things might well be back to square one. It will be a pity if that were to happen at the end of the day because Tunisia finds itself in an enviable position of getting on to true democracy without the support of foreign fleets or invasion by foreign forces as it happened in Iraq, the irrelevance of which has been amply demonstrated.
One good thing about Tunisia at the current turn of events is that it is not riddled with mediaeval religious oppression or extremist radical movements. The army has, unlike the security forces and the police, kept itself at a distance from the struggle for power. Tunisians’ fundamental fight is about the dispensation of objective justice which the past government has failed to deliver. The popular demand is for translating values such as freedom, justice and accountability into tangible laws and appropriate civil institutions instead of going on vesting corrupt and totalitarian powers into a single person. There is a fundamental desire for freedom, democracy and social justice. The risk exists that a repressive government may install itself at the helm and deviate the struggle into a return to the situation ex ante. This is a real risk which, if it were to materialise, would dash all hopes entertained by a wide swath of Arab populations that democracy would generalise to the rest of them in the wake of the events that have swept across Tunisia during the past month.
The shape that this struggle will take depends on the focus of each country’s elite. Where a true elite exists which is based on members having an education in universal and objective values, it will direct its energy to seize actively all opportunities for fair participation in political-economic systems, without renouncing deep-seated cultural sensibilities. This is because there is no reason to assume that democracy will take roots uniquely in western settings; it will do so even more strongly in alternative cultural backgrounds if there is the will to do so.
At one time, we had in Mauritius an elite which could put deeper-seated national objectives above all, cutting across cultural differences without suppressing them. Instead of cultivating this elite for upholding the universal ideals of progress that the nation should have pursued, we damaged it severely on the way. This is what explains our recurring democratic deficit. This is why the vacuum so created keeps projecting mediocre social leaders acting to cushion political shortcomings.
Coming back to Tunisia and the opportunity that might be opening for a wider embrace of truly democratic values in the pan-Arab world, the weaker alternative is to seek support, in the circumstances, from an elite which is relatively poorly educated within much narrower “bounds of good behaviour”. In that case, this elite will necessarily have recourse to extremism and even to religious fundamentalism. Thus, the quality of education received will make the utmost difference in the determination of the future path of society. In this sense, anyone advocating a moron-type conformist future elite is inviting trouble through the waning out of substance.
This quality of the elite has always been the principal factor demarcating those societies which succeed from those which don’t despite all the wealth and resources at their disposal. Not surprisingly, we end up with some societies where the president and the family of his wife have the lion’s share of it all while the wider population is fed on empty words and promises of a brighter future to come, once the powers-that-be have had opportunity to “deal” with the eternal “oppressors”. It took the past 23 years for people to realize the void of this kind of stand in Tunisia’s case. The country may run the risk of having to wait another 23 years for revolting again if it does not take advantage of the rising tide. That will be a long time and no one knows whether power will be even more strongly entrenched by then so as to become unshakable from its even more solid foundations.
* Published in print edition on 21 January 2011