Tunisian uprising fires a warning

Tunisia's revolution has been closely watched in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Libya.


Elation has been met with trepidation in Egypt, where Tunisia's uprising is being seen as a rare chance to break the shackles of autocratic rule that could plunge the country into the unknown.

As demonstrations raged in Tunis, and the stock market fell, Egypt's security police were deployed in larger than usual numbers throughout Cairo, where the capital's youth have been speaking optimistically of a second popular revolt in the Maghreb.

Social media sites have been popular, both as a mobiliser and messenger. Themes have included the perils of Arab dictators losing touch with their charges and the demonstrated ability of dissent to force change.

There has so far been no galvanising event. A cafe owner who attempted to self-immolate outside the People's Assembly today did not cause any discernible momentum for change.

Hosni Mubarak seems well aware of the potential for street unrest to escalate into the biggest threat to his 30 year rule. Sensing the presence of European provocateurs who may wish to push the issue, the foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, warned western powers to stay out of Egypt's affairs. He also described fears that the Tunisian revolt could mushroom into other Arab states as "nonsense". The president's office was forced to deny TV reports that the supreme defence council had been called for an emergency meeting, highlighting the jittery mood in the country.

Some analysts cautioned that Egyptians should be careful what they wished for. "There is a [divergence] between hopes and the actual situation," said Professor Abdullah al-Ashaal of the international law and political science faculty at the American University in Cairo. He said radical change was necessary in Egypt, but not in the manner seen this week. "I hope that Egypt does not repeat what we have seen in Tunisia, because it would result in clashes between Christians and Muslims, the rich and poor, the authority would collapse and the society would erode.

"The lack of political freedom and the corruption infuriated the Tunisian people and left no loophole for dialogue. It made the confrontation between the street and the government a vertical confrontation and this is most peculiar. This may take some time, but it is coming."

Others spoke of the Tunisian crisis having a more short-term revolutionary effect in the Arab world. Taalat Rumaiah, the editor of Egypt's al-Distoor newspaper, said the situation on the streets of the capital was controlled but would not take much to ignite. "Everyone knows the unemployment here and the disastrous economy. So we can expect things to replicate in Egypt. It's possible that two or three other Arab regimes could fall this year because of popular uprisings."

Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said that at the very least, the Tunisian revolt would likely be a death knell for Mubarak's mooted plan to nominate his son, Gamal, as successor. "This will be very much rejected," he said. "It may trigger a wave of anger. There is a mood for change, but the opposition here is not unified. It needs to be a revolution from below, from the young, the workers. The workers could be the trigger for this, but I am not sure that people will draw from the lessons." Martin Chulov


Algeria is captivated by the crisis enveloping its near neighbour and is being monitored more closely than elsewhere in the Maghreb for signs that Tunisia's uprising may spread.

At least four people are reported to have set fire to themselves in the five days since the autocratic regime in Tunisia began unravelling. Demonstrations have taken place in many Algerian cities, in parallel with those happening across the border. High food prices and unemployment have been key themes of the protests, just as they were before Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year regime fell.

Protests over civic services and a lack of government services have mushroomed on the streets of the capital, Algiers, but are so far more town hall gatherings than violent rampages. Some observers say that could soon change.

"There is a simmering rage here that could explode at any moment," said Faisal Mattawi, editor of the newspaper al-Watan. "Opposition and dissent is being suppressed in aggressive ways. The situation here is similar to Tunisia and it could become identical. The interior ministry is using the internet and text messages to comment on the crisis in Tunisia, but they are also doing all they can to suppress dissent and the use of media to be a conduit for an uprising."

There are differences in the respective societies that have led other analysts to suggest Tunisia's uprising won't fully capture Algerians' imaginations. Hugh Robert, of the International Crisis Group, said: "There is no doubt that Algerian public opinion has become detached from the government on many levels. But it is mainly on the level of sentiment. The regime is very concerned, but I don't see a simple domino effect.

"In many ways the respective situations are quite different. In Algeria things haven't linked up with the trade union movement. [Protests] haven't had the support of the middle classes. There is an element of common ground though – an experience of tyranny. The sociology of the protests is less coherent and therefore less of a challenge to the regime in Algeria."

Algeria's government is battling a 10-year-old Islamic insurgency. Its army remains strong – by many measures stronger than the president. Tunisia's Ben Ali was a one-man rule. The Algerian leader's power is shared between the military and other institutions and he has not been the lightning rod for hate that his counterpart was. Martin Chulov


In the royal enclosure of King Mohammed VI in Rabat, the Mechouar, the rebellion against Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has provoked serious concern. "I think all the Arab regimes are shaking and Morocco especially," said Aboubakr Jamai, editor of the now defunct Casablanca independent newspaper, Le Journal.

Morocco officially expressed "profound solidarity" with the people of Tunisia while saying that "the stability of this country is essential and fundamental to regional security and stability, particularly in the Maghreb".

Authorities have watched events nervously, banning pro-change demonstrations outside the Tunisian embassy while Ben Ali was in power but allowing celebrations to mark his fall. State television kept coverage to a minimum, but many Moroccans watched events live on al-Jazeera. The country's semi-democracy is run from within the palace walls, where a clique of advisers interpret the will of King Mohammed VI while an elected parliament presents a democratic face to the world.

The reforms and democratic optimism that Mohammed VI brought with him when he took over from his father in 1999 have gone into reverse in recent years.

Ben Ali was a dangerous model for Morocco, proving that authoritarian rule could work as long as there was economic growth and the west was kept happy, according to Jamai. "Fortunately the process of Ben Ali-zation has not gone too far, so there are still escape valves," he said. "But this is a very, very strong wake-up call. My hope is that the elites and others will realise that we had better have a serious democratisation process because if this sort of thing happens in Morocco it will be hell."

Cables from the US embassy in Rabat reveal that corruption is rife while "palace interference" in municipal elections last year to keep moderate islamists out of power in major cities.

Moroccan businessmen complained the palace used state institutions to "coerce and solicit bribes" from real estate investors and that "major investment decisions were in reality made by three individuals" named as King Mohammed, the head of his private secretariat Mohamed Mounir al-Majidi and Fouad el-Himma, heads of the Party of Authenticity and Modernity. The army was deemed "plagued by corruption". Giles Tremlett


Tunisia's Jasmine revolution has been keenly watched in Syria, one of the most repressive of the Arab regimes, though the chances of a re-run of Tunis in Damascus are slim. Syria's benchmark experience for dealing with serious unrest remains the Hama events of 1982, when the security forces killed thousands in crushing an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. Syrian Islamists are largely behind bars or in exile, and liberal and democratic activists neutralised by surveillance and repression.

The Syrian military and security services are dominated by the ruling Alawite minority, which would see a sectarian or clan interest in defending the presidency and the state against the Sunni majority, especially after the lessons of Iraq's internecine struggle and communal fissures in Lebanon next door. "The fear of civil war based on religious affiliation is the greatest legitimiser or bulwark of authoritarianism in Syria," commented Syria watcher Joshua Landis. It is relatively easy for the state to change direction, since critical comment is unlikely. On Sunday the government raised a heating oil subsidy it had previously cut - an apparent response to economically-driven unrest in neighbouring Jordan, Tunisia and elsewhere. On Monday the government announced a plan to help 420,000 impoverished families. Official Syrian comment has been confined to lecturing Tunisia sternly on the perils of relying on fair-weather foreign allies. Events there, said the pro-government daily al-Watan, were "a lesson that no Arab regime should ignore, especially those following Tunisia's political approach of relying on 'friends' to protect them." Ian Black


Libya's most striking official reaction to the Tunisian drama has been Muammar Gaddafi's expression of "pain" that Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee suddenly when he had belatedly offered to stand down in 2014. But solidarity was perhaps to be expected from the Arab world's longest-serving leader – in power for a record 42 years in September. Libya too has a young population and high unemployment. But its oil resources mean it is a far wealthier country than its north-western neighbour. Its creaking system of peoples committees is less sophisticated than Tunisia's "managed democracy" complete with real opposition parties and highly-developed rights for women. Recent Libyan engagement with the wider world since giving up the terrorism associated with the Lockerbie case means it is more open than in the pastto outside influences and anxious to attract western investment. Still, Gaddafi's reformist-minded son and presumed heir, Seif al-Islam, has had to back down in the face of opposition from the old guard in the security services and revolutionary committees.

Libya is also extremely corruptby international standards, though there is less of the flaunting of wealth by the elite than in Tunisia. Libya's army and security services, based on still strong tribal loyalties, would almost certainly step in with force in the event of serious political upheaval and possibly take over the country completely.

Gaddafi's al-Fateh revolution in 1969 was typical of such events in the Arab world in the 20th century – a military coup modelled on Egypt's Nasser and his "free officers", and not a mass phenomenon. The extraordinary images from Tunisia will be deeply unsettling in Tripoli. Ian Black


A leading Sudanese opposition figure who called for a "popular revolution" if the government did not reverse price rises was said to have been arrested yesterday as the ruling regime in the Arab world's largest country grew even more jittery over the prospect of a Tunisian-style uprising. Baton-wielding police firing teargas had already quelled protests last week after Khartoum cut subsidies on petroleum products and sugar.

Last night's reported arrest of Hassan al-Turabi came a day after the Islamist leader's party threatened to take to the streets if the government did not remove its finance minister and dismantle parliament over the decision to raise prices on a range of goods.

The foreign ministry of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government released a tentative statement at the weekend saying it welcomed the political change in Tunisia and respected the political will and social aspiration of the Tunisian people to choose their political future. Ben Quinn

• This article has been amended. The original claimed that Tunisia is Libya's north-eastern neighbour. This has been changed.

Why China Does Capitalism Better Than the U.S.

One of the great ironies revealed by the global recession that began in 2008 is that Communist Party-ruled China may be doing a better job managing capitalism's crisis than the democratically elected U.S. government. Beijing's stimulus spending was larger, infinitely more effective at overcoming the slowdown, and directed at laying the infrastructural tracks for further economic expansion.
As Western democracies shuffle wheezily forward, China's economy roars along at a steady clip, having lifted some half a billion people out of poverty over the past three decades and rapidly creating the world's largest middle class to provide an engine for long-term domestic consumer demand. Sure, there's massive social inequality, but there always is in a capitalist system. (Income inequality rates in the U.S. are some of the worst in the industrialized world, and here more people are falling into poverty than are being raised out of it - the 43 million Americans officially designated as living in poverty in 2009 was the highest number in the 51 years that records have been kept.)
Beijing is also doing a far more effective job than Washington is of tooling its economy to meet future challenges - at least according to historian Francis Fukuyama, erstwhile neoconservative intellectual heavyweight. "President Hu Jintao's rare state visit to Washington this week comes at a time when many Chinese see their weathering of the financial crisis as a vindication of their own system, and the beginning of an era in which U.S.-style liberal ideas will no longer be dominant," wrote Fukukyama in Tuesday's Financial Times under a headline stating that the U.S. had nothing to teach China. "State-owned enterprises are back in vogue, and were the chosen mechanism through which Beijing administered its massive stimulus."
Chinese leaders are more inclined today to scold the U.S. - its debtor to the tune of close to a trillion dollars - than to emulate it, and Fukuyama notes that polls show a larger percentage of Chinese people believing their country is headed in the right direction compared to Americans. China's success in navigating the economic crisis, says Fukuyama, was based on the ability of its authoritarian political system to "make large, complex decisions quickly, and ... make them relatively well, at least in economic policy."
These are startling observations from a writer who, 19 years ago, famously proclaimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union heralded "the end of history as such... That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
Fukuyama has had the good grace and intellectual honesty to admit he was wrong. And he's no apologist for Chinese authoritarianism, calling out its abuses and corruption, and making clear that he believes the absence of democracy will eventually hobble China's progress. Still, he notes, while they don't hold elections, China's Communist leaders are nonetheless responsive to public opinion. (Of course they are! A Party brought to power by a peasant rebellion knows full well the destructive potential of the rage of working people.) But the regime claims solid support from the Chinese middle class, and hedges against social explosion by directing resources and investment to more marginal parts of the country.
China's leaders, of course, never subscribed to Fukuyama's "end of history" maxim; the Marxism on which they were reared would have taught them that there is no contingent relationship between capitalism and democracy, and they only had to look at neighbors such as Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore to see economic success stories under authoritarian rule - although the prosperity thus achieved played a major role in transforming Taiwan and South Korea into the noisy democracies they are today. Nor were Beijing's leaders under any illusions that the free market could take care of such basic needs as education, health care and infrastructure necessary to keep the system as a whole growing.
But Fukuyama is also making a point about the comparative inability of the U.S. system to respond decisively to a long-term crisis. "China adapts quickly, making difficult decisions and implementing them effectively," Fukuyama writes. "Americans pride themselves on constitutional checks and balances, based on a political culture that distrusts centralised government. This system has ensured individual liberty and a vibrant private sector, but it has now become polarised and ideologically rigid. At present it shows little appetite for dealing with the long-term fiscal challenges the U.S. faces. Democracy in America may have an inherent legitimacy that the Chinese system lacks, but it will not be much of a model to anyone if the government is divided against itself and cannot govern."
Money has emerged as the electoral trump card in the U.S. political system, and corporations have a Supreme Court-recognized right to use their considerable financial muscle to promote candidates and policies favorable to their business operations and to resist policies and shut out candidates deemed inimical to their business interests. So, whether it's health reform or the stimulus package, the power of special interests in the U.S. system invariably produces either gridlock, or mish-mash legislation crafted to please the narrow interests of a variety of competing interests rather than the aggregated interests of the economy and society as a whole. Efficient and rational decision-making it's not. Nor does it appear capable of tackling long-term problems. (Comment on this story.)
China is the extreme opposite, of course: It can ride roughshod over the lives of its citizens. For example, building a dam that requires the forced relocation of 1.5 million people who have no channels through which to protest. But China's system is unlikely to give individual corporations the power to veto or shape government decision making to suit their own bottom line at the expense of the needs of the system as a whole in the way that, to choose but one example, U.S. pharmaceutical companies are able to wield political influence to deny the government the right to negotiate drug prices for the public health system. Fukuyama seems to be warning that in Darwinian terms, the Chinese system may currently be more adaptive than the Land of the Free.