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Carnegie Endowment: Tunisia: Lessons of Authoritarian Collapse

Author: Thomas Carothers
January 14, 2011

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Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that the recent uprising in Tunisia demonstrates the potential for citizens to rise up against authoritarianism.

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.

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