Tunisia: Lessons of Authoritarian Collapse

Thomas Carothers
In the 1990s dictators fell by the dozen and we got used to receiving the startling news that another longtime strongman—seemingly entrenched in power indefinitely—was suddenly history. With democracy’s spread having slowed over the last decade we've gotten out of the habit of receiving such news and have forgotten some of the basic lessons of authoritarian collapse. The fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia usefully reminds us of them.

First, sharp political change is often wholly unexpected and unpredicted. If you had asked the most knowledgeable team of experts on Arab politics five years ago, or even just one year ago, to predict the next Arab leader to leave office none of them would have named Ben Ali. I remember vividly in 1998 when demonstrations began to multiply in Indonesia and one of America's top Indonesia experts confidently told me that President Suharto was fully in control, in fact "at the top of his game" and would ride out the turmoil without problem. One month later Suharto was gone. Tipping points in political change are based on psychological thresholds, which are both difficult to predict and measure. Often the very people who know the country best are least able to foresee the change, rooted as they are in old assumptions of stability.

Second, if a leader is relying on "performance legitimacy” as justification of his place in power, the leash can snap with special quickness. Despite his grandiose rhetoric at times about his special role as protector of the nation, Ben Ali was able to stay in power without other forms of legitimacy—such as genuine elections, an appealing ideological vision, religious appeal, or ethnic identity—because of the country’s relative economic success. Once that success faded, and a large mass of citizens felt shut out, his legitimacy became a hollow trunk, ready to snap in the first hard wind.

Third, the power of citizen protest is extraordinary. No matter how well-armed and well-organized the regime, when large numbers of citizens are suddenly demonstrating in the streets of the capital and are willing to take bullets the regime is in serious trouble. Shortly after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania in 1989, which also occurred just weeks after demonstrations broke out, a Romanian friend in Bucharest could not get over how little it ended up taking to drive the dictator out. All those years we put up with his horrors, he said, believing his apparatus to be invincible. And then we finally go into the streets, shout and throw some rocks, and the next thing we know he's on a helicopter in panic, flying away.

Fourth, although the international community often has little to do with sudden authoritarian collapse, it can play a critical role in the immediate aftermath. No Western government has pushed Tunisia hard on democracy and human rights in the past 10 years and none can take any credit for the end of the dictatorship. The United States and other Western governments can, however, play a vital role now.

The departure of Ben Ali does not necessarily signal a democratic transition. Some authoritarian systems offer up the ouster of a president in the hopes of keeping the rest of the repressive system in place. They promise elections that will be held but then quietly shut off the oxygen to the political transition process once the international attention fades. Washington and other Western capitals should press now to get specific commitments from the new Tunisian leadership that not only will elections be held, but that they will be meaningful—that there will be genuine space and time for political parties to organize and campaign; freedom of expression, association, and movement will be respected; the elections will be administered by independent authorities; and international observers will be allowed. 

Washington largely missed the boat on helping Tunisians during their dark years of dictatorship; let's not miss the chance to make up for that now with meaningful pro-democratic engagement.




Author: Thomas Carothers is the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a leading authority on democracy promotion and democratization worldwide as well as an expert on U.S. foreign policy generally. He is the author or editor of eight critically acclaimed books on democracy promotion as well as many articles in prominent journals and newspapers.

Comments (6)  

said hassib
0 #1 COMMENT_TITLE_R E Tunisia: Lessons of Authoritarian Collapsesaid hassib 2011-01-16 00:14
Trabloussi familly does exist in every arab country . In Morocco we are very lucky we do have more than one , we have the Fassi Fihry , the king aunties and their relations and other inner corrupt circles. you can find members of these clans at all the top levels . their corruption and greed is legendary . The King is mostly loved but the hate for his inner circles is growing .
0 #2 Similarities betweeBenali's regime and the royals in Morocco Slawi 2011-01-16 00:40
There are many similarities between the Benali’s regime and the royals in Morocco. I hope that the regime in Morocco took notice what happened in Tunisia and will change its habits of corruption, mismanagement, and greed.

Wikileaks cables talked about the predominant role of the ONA in the Moroccan affairs, a holding company run by King Mohamed VI. How they extract bribes and concessions from real estate developers. ONA controls almost everything in Morocco.

What happened in Tunisia is a wake up call for all despots and dictatorial regimes. They must provide more freedom to their people or sooner or later they will face a similar fate.

” While corrupt practices existed during the reign of King Hassan II, XXXXXXXXXXXX explained, they have become much more institutionaliz ed with King Mohammed VI”- Extract from a Wikileaks cable.
man en blanc
0 #3 No one wants to see Morocco in flames.man en blanc 2011-01-16 00:59
Our king MUST take drastic actions to break the monopolies that his inner circle hold on just about every sector of our economy!

Every Moroccan knows that the game has been rigged for a longtime now, and the wealth accumulated by few "privileged" insiders is ill-gotten. I am reminded of Honore de Balzac's -ever so timely- quote : "Behind every great fortune there is a great crime".

"Reforms" must stop being just a buzz word. An empty word that lost every sense of its meaning. Time is of the essence here.

Now that France showed some cohones by limiting the movement of the Tunisian family and cronies of Ben Ali, and watching for any suspicious fund transfer, the king inner circle must revisit Reagan's famous words : you can run, but you can't hide!

The joke in the Arab World these days : Ben Ali's plane was stopping at different Arab Capitals to pick up more passengers!

Please Dear King : an earth-shatterin g action must be taken NOW! DRAIN THE SWAMP!
Hamal Mghrebi
0 #4 Fear is in the airHamal Mghrebi 2011-01-16 01:25

I sense a bit of nervousness in the Arab leaders that is starting to show. Do they fear a imminent and a potential similar fate as Ben Ali? Is this just a smoke screen to dupe the Arab population and calm it down? Whatever it is, it is a too little too late. The Arab population has opened its eyes and can no longer be played with.
0 #5 Muammar Gaddafi Muammar Gaddafi condemns Tunisia uprisingMorcelli 2011-01-16 04:04 Quote
0 #6 COMMENT_TITLE_R E Tunisia: Lessons of Authoritarian Collapseborsa 2011-01-16 19:38
I think it's too early to be overly optimistic with what is happening in Tunisia.

Removing a leader doesn't constitute a revolution, as things stand Ben Ali's regime is still largely in power. The BIG step forward will only occur when full democratic elections are held in which all parties are allowed to vote and not only the ones which Ben Ali deemed "legal" this means Tunisia's Al Nahda's must be allowed to participate in the political process.

The Tunisians have made a brave step forward but they need to push on and not be duped into accepting anything less otherwise the sacrifices they have made will be wasted.

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