The breathtaking events of the last week in Tunisia have many Westerners puzzled. First, many are asking why such a serene and seemingly stable little state like Tunisia is convulsing while countries like Egypt (the largest in terms of population in the Arab world) and Saudi Arabia are not.
Second, how could a few cables leaked by the notorious WikiLeaks project of Julian Assange be responsible for the overthrow of a government and widespread social unrest in Tunisia, as well as in other Arab states (with large-scale demonstrations in Jordan last weekend)?
I had the good fortune to visit the Middle East in January 2010. As one of 12 American small college professors sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges and the United States Department of State, I spent nearly three weeks in Jordan traveling throughout the country as I took part in a training seminar on “Islam and Middle Eastern Culture.” I learned much on my trip (which was my first to that region of the world).
As a political scientist who has studied and taught European and global politics for over 20 years since I first taught as a graduate student at MU, my inclination was to view the Middle East, Islam and the Arabs through a political lens. However, what struck me most about the Islamic world were the region’s rich historical, archaeological and cultural tapestries. These were riveted into the desert landscape in Jordan as the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Byzantines and then the Muslims came to this juncture between East and West. This resulted in a number of the globe’s major historical power struggles.
Although politics is of prime importance in the Arab world, the ebb and flow of culture and social developments, including the ongoing discussion about the treatment of the Arab and Islamic world’s own minorities such as Christians and Jews, are perhaps as important since the advance of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632. The rise of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa was lightning fast as the Muslims coming from the Arabian Peninsula conquered largely Christian lands (where most spoke Aramaic, the language of Christ and his disciples.) Within 20 to 30 years, the Muslims had conquered the area that we now call the Arab world, stretching from Casablanca to Tehran, and with it brought the new language that has become known as Arabic. It took another 300 years to convert most in the region to Islam.
Some 1,400 years later, the challenge in this part of the world is to see what is actually happening in the Arab and Islamic states, how elites control and run these states (and societies) and how the people are responding to their leaders.
Tunisia is not the hotbed of Islamic activism or Arab nationalism that other parts of the Middle East and North Africa are known for. As a matter of fact, it has been known in recent times as a stable, vacation-like place between troubled Algeria and Libya (both having seen revolutions — the former in the late 1950s in throwing off the French colonial shackles and the latter experiencing a military coup in 1969 bringing its current leader, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, to power.)
Tunisia’s recently ousted leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was in power for just over 23 years. He was symbolic of Arab, and even other African, leaders. Keeping stability and control over Tunisia and its citizens without thinking long-term about the reaction of the people in regard to their needs and hopes most likely led to his ouster. Yet, in the strange world of Arab and African (and authoritarian-managed) political systems the very nature of stability can lead to instability. What would lead a quiescent people to spontaneously rise up and toss their leader or force his abdication? Americans are being told that WikiLeaks brought the Tunisian regime to its knees. What’s more, the US government is vigorously denying this supposed fact.
However, the populism, which has manifested in deadly ways in Tunisia, was not spurred only by WikiLeaks. The secretive cyber-clearinghouse is actually a small, if even marginally consequential, variable in this historical transformation. Some would argue that the nascent populism on Arab and Islamic streets, as well as the growing impact of globalization, is what led to the rebellion against the regime in Tunis. Rami G. Khouri, a Palestinian-American and one of the Arab world’s leading journalists at the Daily Star in Beirut (who I met and interacted with in Amman last year — see his intriguing globally syndicated columns), argues that the revolt of the masses has been coming for some time and that the response in Tunis could be mirrored in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and other “Arab security states.” He said recently, "I’ve been saying for years that we cannot predict when, where, how and by whom transformations from autocracy to democracy will start in the Arab world, but we know for sure that they will start one day. It is possible that Tunisia will emerge as that starting point, just as Lech Walesa and the Gdansk shipyard electricians who started the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980 ultimately led to the collapse and transformation of the Soviet empire a decade later."
We might not be witnessing the democratization of the Arab world, but certainly, we are witnessing a transformation on the Arab street and in Arab and Islamic communities as well. Some will view WikiLeaks as a key tool for holding governments (both democratic and nondemocratic) accountable. Others will see this as a type of cyber-bullying: a nuisance at least and a direct and highly problematic challenge to free and stable governance at worst.
The recent events in Tunisia and the Middle East suggest that change is afoot in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Certainly, this change might be subtle in most states, but it can explode onto the scene as it has at times in the past with revolutionary fervor as in Iran in 1979. As Khouri recently noted, the three transformations in the past week in the Arab world included a peaceable referendum in Sudan, a cumbersome, yet democratic negotiation for power in Lebanon (in spite of the specter of Hezbollah’s paramilitary power over the state), and the revolt in Tunisia. All suggest varying models of political change, but the populism linked to change cannot be denied. Neither can the need for attention to the lack of civil societies in most Arab states.
The Jordanians under King Abdullah are grappling with openness in the society and attempting to allow for more freedoms in press, speech and other realms of society. However, the problems of foreign intervention and the inability to solve the Palestinian-Israeli question, has led to a kind of “one step forward, two steps back” development not only in Jordan, where 60 to 75 percent of the population are Palestinian, but throughout the region as well.
Americans and others in the West should take note of this past week’s events. They are important for the long-term U.S. engagement in the Middle East and North Africa and they will continue to presage mixed outcomes for the U.S. in the region (from military and security matters to global economic activity). The challenge to U.S. foreign policy will come when we decide to what extent we support true Arab and Islamic populism vis-à-vis the security states that help our interests in the region and even then, we might not be able to understand if either choice will yield good results for us or our Arab and Islamic allies in the long run.
Kurt W. Jefferson is professor and chair of the political science department and director of the Center for Engaging the World in the Churchill Institute at Westminster College in Fulton, where he has worked since 1993.