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Media Conference Call: Tunisia - Repercussions for the Region

Speakers: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow For Middle Eastern Studies, Council On Foreign Relations, and Jared Cohen, Adjunct Fellow, Council On Foreign Relations
Presider: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor, Cfr.Org, Council On Foreign Relations
January 20, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations


OPERATOR:  Excuse me, everyone.  We now have our speakers in conference.  (Gives queuing instructions.) At the conclusion of the presentation, we will open the floor for questions.  At that time, instructions will be given if you'd like to ask a question. I would now like to turn the conference over.  Ms. Deborah Jerome, you may begin.

DEBORAH JEROME:  Thanks very much. Good afternoon and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations media conference call to discuss Tunisia and the popular uprising against now-ousted President Ben Ali, who was shuttled off to Saudi Arabia on January 14th.

I'm Deborah Jerome.  I'm the deputy editor of  And here to answer your questions are Jared Cohen, an adjunct CFR fellow, who, among other things, has written about how technology can empower citizens under repressive regimes; and Steven Cook, a CFR senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies.  Steven, by the way, has been following the events in Tunisia on his blog, which is called "From the Potomac to the Euphrates," and it's well worth checking out.  You can find it on the website.

A heads-up to everyone:  Jared has to leave at 4:15, so please make sure that you get in any questions to him before he has to go.

I'd like to kick this off with a multipart question for both of you.  Even though things are still unsettled there is already a lot of talk about the possibility of Tunisia's example spawning a wave of similar uprisings in Egypt, Algeria and other countries.  But I'm curious to know what you think is the likely outcome of the so-called "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia itself.  Is it likely that Tunisia will see the emergence of a pluralist, stable democracy?

And Jared, social media, you know, clearly had a role in fanning the flames of Tunisia's protests.  Does it have a role in building a new and better government?

So, guys, over to you.

STEVEN COOK:  Thanks very much, Deborah.  And thanks to everybody who's spending some time with us this afternoon to talk about Tunisia.

Deborah, to answer your questions in order, I think I would say:  Maybe, maybe and maybe.  We have just gone through phase one of the Tunisian uprising, and that was the ousting of long-time strongman, President Ben Ali.  Now is the real hard part.  And transitions from one type of political system to another are, you know, contingent.  They are not linear, and they hardly -- and they may not necessarily end up as liberal democracies.  They can end up as narrower, nastier dictatorships.  And how the interim civilian leadership deals with this six-month interim period in organizing elections, and importantly, how the Tunisian military establishment, which has been thrust into a critical role in Tunisian politics -- how they deal with this transition period will tell us a lot about the future trajectory.  But at this point, it's unclear what's going to happen.

The opposition is, obviously, not satisfied with the unity government, and are clearly trying to press their advantage in demanding not only, obviously, that Ben Ali go, but that there be a fundamental restructuring of the Tunisian political order.  That would be extraordinary.  And we'll have to see how long this kind of stalemate will go on before the military acts or the civilians crumble under the weight of these demands.

In terms of a wave for the rest of the region, clearly, the Tunisian situation is being watched very, very carefully.  I'll let Jared talk about how Twitter and Facebook and Al-Jazeera covering these events wall-to-wall have had an effect on the region writ large.  But clearly, opposition groups in places like Algiers, Cairo, Amman and others are seeking to learn lessons from the Tunisian uprising.

I'll be in Cairo next week, and January 25th is National Police Day in Egypt, and there are calls for massive protests in front of the Interior Ministry.  Now, there are always protests on Police Day, but it'll be interesting to see whether events in Tunisia have given -- have given these annual protests a certain amount of momentum.  I certainly would expect that they would.

At the same time, the regimes in the region are also drawing lessons from Ben Ali's fate.  And I would imagine that -- in fact, I would bet on that the Egyptians, for example, will try to make accommodation for some demands from below, while continuing to use the iron fist against their own opposition.

So, you know, this is exhilarating, it's extraordinary, but there is no real reason to believe that the region is going to be swept by these similar types of uprisings.  Revolutions are rare, and all the factors and variables need to come together all at the same time to make what happened on January 14th happen.  And of course, President Ben Ali made a series of mistakes that enabled his ouster.

With that, I think, Jared, why don't we get a sense of how social media was or was not affecting the situation in Tunisia and around the region.

JARED COHEN:  Thanks, Steven.  And just to echo Steven's comments earlier, I'm really appreciative of everybody jumping on this call.

Let's start with what technology didn't do; which is, technology didn't cause the revolution in Tunisia, technology didn't drive the revolution in Tunisia.  We all know there's high food prices, discontent with Ben Ali's government, a variety of other factors.  But technology is absolutely relevant, right, which we all know.

But what's interesting is everybody wants to label this as:  was this a Twitter revolution; was this not a Twitter revolution?  The reality is, there's no such thing as a Twitter revolution.  The reality is, you know, revolution -- this is just what revolutions look like now.

Throughout history, whenever you've had a revolution, a smart movement uses smart tools, right?  So a smart movement will utilize whatever tools it has at its disposal.  And these are the new tools of the day, and so any movement that is trying to be effective is going to leverage these tools as much as possible.

And so what we've entered into is a situation in which revolutions just are using more sophisticated tools than the ones we remember from 1989 or even the one that we -- ones that we remember from the early 2000s.

Now, here's where technology matters tremendously, and here's where I would argue technology can be incredibly important.  So if you accept the fact that a successful revolution requires people to go into the streets who are willing to risk their lives for what they believe in a sustained way, that to me is something that was very, very distinct in Tunisia.  What technology does is it can serve as an accelerant to individuals who have made that choice by providing them with a lot of volunteers inside of the country and outside the country who are going to support their cause either by retweeting or posting or capturing images and disseminating around the world.

The other thing that technology does is it picks up -- it picks up where the mainstream media is either slow to respond, doesn't have a capacity to respond or it is not responding.  And so if you look at the coverage in Tunisia, a lot of the content that we saw in the media in the early days was being pulled off of Twitter feeds, being pulled off of YouTube, being pulled off of Facebook and so forth.

And so what technology does it allows any individual on the ground to be a citizen journalist.  Even individuals that don't have access to the proxy and circumvention technology to get information out of the country are able to disseminate it within the country, and it eventually does get to individuals who have the capacity to get it out.  And that content is so important because what it does is it drives the mainstream media towards a small country like Tunisia that maybe, you know, at first they might not otherwise be paying close attention to.  This is certainly what happened in Moldova in April of 2009.

The other thing that technology does is it makes -- it makes weak ties stronger.  So in a place like Tunisia, where Ben Ali was very repressive, individuals who otherwise would find it too risky to organize offline are able to use technology as an additional tactic.  It's not a silver bullet answer, but it's an additional tool that allows them to build stronger ties.

Another feature of this is technology creates space for unlikely leaders.  And what that means is, you know, when technology becomes part of a revolution, it allows anybody from the person on the street willing to take the bullet to the person who stays at home in their house in Tunis, you know, disseminating content and helping it get out of the country -- but you don't need a central figure necessarily to spark a revolution, because technology can create space for additional people.

Now, of course, there's challenges to that because when the revolution's over and you've succeeded at ousting a president, there's a vacuum left.  And, you know, as Steven, I think, very correctly mentioned, we don't -- the next chapter of this hasn't actually been written yet.  And, you know, Tunisia could end up better off, or it could end up worse, or it could end up in a state of chaos.

And, you know, to the other point that someone mentioned about the kind of mix of what's going to happen in this next chapter with technology, one of the things that was very interesting about Moldova that I think is similar in the case of Tunisia, neither Tunisia nor Moldova -- Moldova especially were -- are -- were countries that are in the news every day.

And in some respects, you know, the exaggeration of how much this, you know, revolution was driven by technology, I think, works to the Tunisian people's advantage, at least for the ones that are seeking greater freedoms and democracy, because what it does is it adds a particularly alluring aspect of this story that will keep people paying attention to Tunisia over the next several months in ways that will actually help ensure accountability and transparency for the election that takes place following this revolution.

That, to me, was one of the reasons why when the communists called for reelections in April of 2009 in Moldova, they actually had to have elections that were relatively free and fair and resulted in them losing power.  And I'm hopeful that something similar could happen in Tunisia.  You certainly can't guarantee it.

And then lastly, what technology does that's so unbelievably important is it provides a window and visibility into what's happening in Tunisia for people in other parts of the region.  So one of the things that's so distinct when these revolutions happen is people start e-mailing and contacting each other from around the world wanting to know how they did it.  And it doesn't necessarily mean that anything is going to happen as a result of it, but to this question of is it going to actually have an impact in the rest of the region, the only way that I can certainly answer that is by saying people are watching in ways that they wouldn't be able to watch and follow and interact with the people on the streets if the technologies we see today weren't present.

JEROME:  That's great, Jared, thank you -- and Steven too.

Let's open this up now to questions from the media.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  At this time, we will open the floor for questions.  (Gives queueing instructions.)

And our first question comes from Arshad Mohammed with Reuters.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Thanks very much for doing the call.  Two questions.  One, Jared, can you address the extent to which you have seen any efforts in Tunisia or elsewhere following the events in Tunisia for governments to crack down on digital media, social media?  In other words, are there any discernible ripples elsewhere where other governments are saying, hey, we need to crack down or prevent this kind of communication?

And then the other question is for Steven.  To what extent do you think the United States may try to use the events in Tunisia to buttress its arguments that autocratic regimes in the Middle East need to open up?  And to what extent do you think, if they do make that argument, or to what extent do you think Arab regimes may be open, or more open, to that?  Or, conversely, do you think that they may, in fact, draw the opposite lesson and simply crack down -- crack down more to avert a Tunisian outcome?

COOK:  Jared, you want to go ahead and start with the first one, and then I'll pick it up?

COHEN:  Yeah, of course.

COOK:  Okay, great.

COHEN:  Yeah, of course.  So I think there's a couple of pieces.  It's -- one, it's -- governments are -- you know, governments that are more autocratically inclined, they either block everything outright, or they block it during specific events.  And the challenge is, for a lot of these autocratic governments that block around specific events, is right now there's no events that are sort of a result of people doing something following what happened in Tunisia in their countries.

And so, you know, they're in a little bit of a guessing game.  So I think you can expect all the -- you know, any government that, you know, censors or is more autocratically inclined in the region could be watching very closely, and the moment that there is an event or a protest, to, you know, potentially react and possibly even overreact, I would say, which could potentially have very dangerous consequences.

The other piece of this that I think is -- you know, is really a -- to your other question is, it's a bit of a game of cat and mouse.  So all of these different revolutions, whether they're successful, whether they're unsuccessful, what they do is they -- I would argue none of them are totally unsuccessful, even Iran, because what they do is they put out a whole bunch of best practices on the public domain and serve as a valuable case study of what works and what doesn't work.

So in some respects, activists and regimes are in a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game.  So a lot of activists around the world have learned what works from Tunisia.  Now governments in repressive societies will try to account for that and try to, you know, outfox them and anticipate what they might do.  And, you know, populations anticipating that will try to go one step further.  So it's a cat-and-mouse game that is really difficult to predict and really difficult to understand.

What we can anticipate is that the advent of these tools just exacerbates what is already an environment that is very prone to surprises.

QUESTIONER:  Can I follow up on that with just one quick thing?  Do you have a granular enough knowledge to sort of take us on a tour of the Middle East and describe what countries block all access to things like Facebook and Twitter, and which ones don't?  I mean, if you have --

COHEN:  Yeah, I mean, I can give you some broad generalizations.  And Steven, if I'm -- if you have anything to add on this, just feel free to interrupt me.

COOK:  Sure.

COHEN:  I mean, obviously, Syria and Iran do a fair amount of blocking.  Obviously, Egypt does a fair amount of blocking.  You know, the -- you know, those are sort of three that I would have added to -- (inaudible).  I would say that, you know, the ones that stand out the most are Iran, Syria, Egypt and Libya.

And then other countries in the -- in the -- I would argue Yemen, you know, would try to block but doesn't necessarily have the capacity to do so, nor is there really the access, which is prevalent.  But those would be the ones that stand out.

Steven, I'm not sure what your thoughts are.

COOK:  Well, yeah, and Saudi Arabia certainly does a fair amount of blocking.  And Egypt, a place that I'm -- (chuckles) -- deeply familiar with, having just finished a book manuscript on it, there's both blocking and an enormous effort on the part of the relevant ministries to monitor what is being said, both on indigenous websites, indigenous Twitterati, and -- Jared, is that the right term, Twitterati? -- and --

COHEN:  (Inaudible.)

COOK:  -- and what is being said about Egypt outside of Egypt as well.  So once they -- once they encountered in 2004 the power of the blogosphere, the Egyptians ramped up pretty quickly to try to get a handle on this, at least in terms of monitoring.

COHEN:  And also, Steven, to add one piece to that, it's blocking, monitoring and I would add a third category of infiltration.

COOK:  Right.

COHEN:  This is something we saw a lot in Iran in June of 2009.  It -- you know, Revolutionary Guards posing as activists.  You know, we -- you know, people -- you know, basically, you know, security forces taking on other identities to, you know, basically, you know, try to do a Trojan horse-style thing or a Trojan horse-style approach to identify these individuals and dismantle these dissident networks.

COOK:  And on to your question about the United States.  First, let me apologize to you.  I think I might have gotten an e-mail from you yesterday asking a question or two.  And my apologies for not -- for not getting back if it was in fact you, Arshad.

But the United States, I think there is a real opportunity for the Obama administration to pick up where Secretary Clinton left off last weekend or the weekend before in Doha in which she made very strong statements about the region's leaders needing to get out ahead of the massive discontent that is -- that is evident throughout the region with real economic reform and, yes, real political reform.

It's easy to say that in a place like Tunisia which is a secondary ally of the United States, where there are no central strategic interests at stake for the United States.  The administration has certainly sent signals that it's not going to take the opportunity -- the opportunity that Tunisia presents, for example, to press the Egyptians or the Jordanians.  They may be having conversations privately, but they certainly do not seem to be inclined to do this in any kind of real voluble way.  I think that they are concerned that, you know, with significant strategic interests at play in a place like Egypt or Jordan or Algeria, which has become a very important ally in the global war on terrorism, that they don't want to -- suddenly these regimes actually do look unstable whereas they once looked stable, and they don't want to be a contributing factor to a situation in which they become undone very quickly.  So I think what you'll find is the administration relying more and more on that kind of bureaucratic infrastructure that's been built over the course of the last decade in order to promote democracy, to have a kind of slow evolutionary reform process.

Now, what, how, you know, these regimes respond, I think, particularly in the case of Egypt, which is particularly sensitive to any kind of criticism and even the light touch of the Obama administration has been -- is deeply resented in quarters in Cairo.  But I think that the Egyptians will act and the Jordanians will act and others will act.  And what they will do is -- and in fact that they've already been doing -- is, one, propagandizing their populations and telling them how good things actually are; two, trying to meet some demands that are coming from below, whether on the economic front or on the political front.  The Egyptians suddenly released a number of prisoners the other day.

And at the same time, they will use the iron fist.  And I mentioned the Police Day -- the planned Police Day demonstrations in Cairo.  You can be sure that the area around the Interior Ministry, which is near Liberation Square, the central axis of downtown Cairo, will be flooded with Central Security Forces troops and police, and they will try to ensure that these types of large protests that are being planned never coalesce, and will be arresting people and beating people up, as they always have.

So I think it's going to be a three-pronged approach.  And it's a classic move on the part of authoritarians to take account of some demands from below while nevertheless protecting the kind of authoritarian core of their regimes.

QUESTIONER:  Great.  Thank you very much.

COOK:  You're welcome.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Corine Lesnes with Le Monde.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Good afternoon.  You pretty much addressed the question which was about the United States position at the beginning.  As you know, there was some critiques in France because the government didn't react very quickly, to say the least.  And I wanted to know -- to know what you think about this initial reaction.  And also it --

COOK:  On the part of whom?  The French or the United States?

QUESTIONER:  About the United States, on the part of the United States.  And -- because of the WikiLeaks, it looks as the United States has been in a way ahead of the movement in contributing to the movement, but those cables were not supposed to be published.  So it's -- is the United States actually profiting by a better image than the ambiguity they had actually?

COOK:  Well, let me just say that in all the discourse going on in Tunisia very little has been said about WikiLeaks.  And the Tunisian people did not need WikiLeaks to tell them what was going on around them over the course of the last 25 years.  It was abundantly clear that Ben Ali, his family and those around the regime were a bunch of rapacious thieves who were running a police state for their own benefit.

I think in terms of the administration's response, I -- quite honestly, I don't know why that there's been any criticism of it.  It's true that it seems that the administration only discovered what was going on in Tunisia a few days before actually Ben Ali was forced out of the country.  But on the evening that he did, the president issued what I thought was an excellent statement in support of the Tunisian people.  And by all reports and when I'm in Tunisia hopefully next weekend, I'll check this out.

But from all reports that statement was warmly received by the Tunisian people, and felt good about the position that the United States was in, in contrast to, for example, the French government, which was completely on the wrong side of this issue from the very beginning.  And that's why I think there's a real opportunity for the Obama administration, because there is a fair amount of goodwill towards Washington right now, to use its prestige, its gravitas, potentially even some money to kind of help push this process over the course of the six months to one that is -- where the outcome, the chances of a more democratic outcome are better.

But, like I said, Tunisia is a secondary ally of the United States in the region.  And while in a vacuum, this is a cost-free policy for the administration to pursue, there are strategic interests in and around Tunisia that are important to the United States, and I think are -- require some serious thought about how to approach Tunisia given what sensitivities might be in these other places.

It was very, very interesting that after Obama released that statement in support of the Tunisian people, he called Mubarak, he called Mubarak.  And I think that that was, at least the way I read it, somewhat of a signal to the Egyptians that the United States was not going to now turn and press the Egyptians on this issue, in a -- in a public way, and that -- kind of a reassurance on the part of the United States that we weren't going to take advantage of the situation in Tunisia to now make some sort of very public stand about the state of politics in Egypt, which are, quite honestly, terrible.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

COHEN:  And to add a few quick points, and I think on WikiLeaks, the Tunisian people didn't need WikiLeaks to let them know how corrupt and repressive the Ben Ali government was -- I actually think the WikiLeaks cables (and others ?) were more useful in educating people that don't follow Tunisia -- (laughter) -- about how corrupt and repressive the Ben Ali government was.  Because the first thing that happens when there's a revolution in an age of, you know, social networking and so forth is people immediately gravitate toward the country they, you know, don't necessarily know a lot about, and want to figure out who was this dictator that was overthrown, what does this country look like.  And I've interacted with more people outside of Tunisia that drew value from the documents than people in Tunisia.

And secondly, you know, I've spent a little bit of time in Tunisia. I worked in both the Bush administration and the Obama administration.  And one of the things that always -- that I always notice whenever I would head to Tunis is there's a tremendous amount of frustration on the part of those working at our mission in Tunisia with regard to just not even being able to do the most basic education initiatives.  It's not even being able to do literally the most basic and, you know, uncontroversial initiatives that have nothing to do with politics and so forth.  And, you know, I think that, as Steven mentioned, you know, there's a huge opportunity for the U.S. government to now be able to do the kinds of development initiatives, the kind of capacity-building initiatives that it's longed to do for a very long time.  The wild card is, will they actually take advantage of this moment, and will the new government that replaces the vacuum left by Ben Ali actually allow for it?

QUESTIONER:  If I may just follow up, I was actually mentioning the critiques to the French government, not the -- not the U.S. government, of course.

COOK:  Oh, yes.  Well --

QUESTIONER:  And actually, since you noticed as well that statement, how did you explain this -- actually this very accurate reaction?

COOK:  I'm sorry.  I missed that last part.

QUESTIONER:  To what do you attribute this very -- since it's not a very important ally, so why do you -- how come the U.S. administration had such a good reaction to that -- to that immediately?

COOK:  To the situation in Tunisia --


COOK:  -- as opposed to the French, who had a very bad one?


COOK:  Well, I mean, I think, you know, it -- you know, if you flip it around, well, how would -- I mean, I don't think that the United States would be offering forces to Hosni Mubarak to try to, you know, quell protests in Cairo.  But I do think that if you flip it around, the French see North Africa, the former colonial possessions there, as an area of important strategic interest.  And it's never been -- French policy has often or always been one that's based on authoritarian stability.  And when the Bush administration rolled out its freedom agenda in 2002 and 2003, there was a fair amount of pushback from Europe, in particular from Paris, that, you know, this kind of policy would lead to, you know, no good.  But again, this kind of overreliance on authoritarian leaders and the kind misplaced faith in the stability of authoritarian leaders -- you know, praised by the IMF and the World Bank and so on and so forth -- I think has come back to really hurt the French.

But you know, not to be, you know, unfair, I think one of the reasons why the United States is treading softly here is because we are concerned about what potential spillover might be for our own strategic interests.  And we haven't yet thought that through.

And so I think that's where we are right now.  Unfortunately, the French got caught on the wrong side of the issue -- unfortunately, for them, I should say, they got caught on the wrong side of the issue.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Peter Green with the Bloomberg News.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  It's mostly a question for Steve.  The word we haven't heard today is "Islamists."  Does this revolution create any opening for Islamists?

And Jared, we know al-Qaida's been pretty good at using Internet and various advanced technologies to get the word out among their circle.  Could they be using the technologies that helped the Tunisian revolution in Tunisia and other countries that we're talking about today?

COOK:  On the question of Islamists, certainly this popular uprising was broad-based and there wasn't a strong Islamist element to it, although there were Islamists there.

However, it's interesting that while many people have gone home -- that professional class, middle class, upper middle class that had joined with the demonstrators in Tunis last week have now gone home -- the people holding out and continuing to press the advantage are both trade unionists and Islamists.  And of course the Ben Ali regime had done everything possible to suppress Islamists.  It is -- in this more open political environment, it is certainly a -- there's certainly opportunity for Islamists.

But you know, it was so widely suppressed under Ben Ali that it makes you wonder whether people who have come of age during his reign -- whether they're at all attracted to this type of message from the Islamists.  Thus far there's no indication, other than a very small group of people, and led of course by the, you know, leader of the Islamist party movement, an-Nahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi -- it doesn't seem at this point whether he's -- that he's able to garner, you know, a mass following.

But we're at the very -- we're at the very beginning of this, and if this situation lingers on this kind of, you know, groping towards some sort of stability but not getting there and the interim civilian government can't get it together, there is always the possibility that messages coming from Islamists could be attractive.  But right now, there's really no indication of that.

COHEN:  And I'll say in thinking about the Islamist piece of this -- and I'll answer your technology questions -- I think it's important to remember that in a lot of cases radical Islamism is just a mask that people wear because it's convenient.  And the most vulnerable situations are -- for instance, if a new government can't actually form and the situation drags out and you have kind of a prolonged period of time where there's tremendous uncertainty and things fall back into -- things fall into a state of chaos, wearing the mask of radical Islamism can be a very attractive tactic for --


COHEN:  -- individuals inside of Tunisia that don't necessarily -- you know, even if they're not necessarily, you know, having a background of -- (inaudible) -- it's a great way to attract resources, attention and support from, you know, Islamist organizations outside of Tunisia that would have a capacity to do that.

With regards to your al-Qaida and technology question, I don't think the question is, you know, can al-Qaida and these groups use these technologies.  I think the reality is they are using these technologies.  I always say that for terrorists a cell phone can be as powerful a tool as a weapon or a gun, and I believe that very strongly.  There is -- the reality is, these tools are out there.  They're spreading exponentially, and you can't control who can use them.  You can influence the use of them, but you can't -- you can't control it.  And so I think we should always expect that the same tools that -- you know, we say one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.  I would say that one man's tool of civic empowerment for good is another man's tool of civic empowerment for destruction.  I think that's very important to understand.

QUESTIONER:  Is there any evidence -- Jared, just a quick follow-up -- any evidence that the Islamists are trying to use the power of the Internet to change things or get a foothold in Tunisia?

COHEN:  I haven't seen it -- I haven't seen it in Tunisia.  I would say that they're -- I think it's pretty safe to say that they're watching.  I don't think that they've ever -- and Steven, you know more about the Tunisia specific context than I do.  They haven't looked at Tunisia as a target the same way they have, for instance, eastern Libya or parts of Algeria, even parts of Morocco and Egypt.

COOK:  That's true, although there was -- there was an al-Qaida bombing of synagogues in Tunis early on.  I think it was in 2003 or 2004.

COHEN:  Yes.

COOK:  So it's not like it's been completely absent from Tunisia.

COHEN:  But -- and I think it's -- I mean, it's -- you know, you have a similar situation in a -- in a place like Syria, where we -- you know, the al-Assad regime for such a long time has beaten down the Islamists and repressed the Islamists and made it very difficult for them to exist there, but we know they're there.  We just really don't have a lot of visibility into how many of them there are, how organized they are, what their external connections are.  I don't think Tunisia is quite the same extreme example as Syria, but I think there is a parallel there in that we don't -- I don't think we necessarily know a lot about what the Islamist movements looks -- look like inside of Tunisia, because for such a long time they've been so suppressed and had really very few instances where they've actually popped their head out of water.  The bombings that Steven just mentioned are one example.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Rashajh Singh (sp) with Washington Times.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks very much for doing this.  I have two questions.  I want to ask both you two to talk a little bit more in detail about the larger repercussions of developments in Tunisia, especially for regimes in the region.  And which regimes do you think more susceptible to the kind of developments that happened in Tunisia over the past few days?  And also, has this uprising in Tunisia caused international countries to rethink their support for regimes like the one in Tunisia, as they support countries in -- regimes in Egypt and in Syria and various other countries?  Has this caused a rethink, just because of how volatile the situation is or can be?

COOK:  Let me -- let me take the second part of your question first, and then I'll -- and then I'll take the first part.  It doesn't seem to be the case that, you know, the United States, Europe are rethinking their approaches to their major allies in the region.  As I said, it was interesting that after President Obama released a statement praising the courageousness of the Tunisian people, he then picked up the phone and called President Mubarak of Egypt.

I think that there is -- there remains -- even though it hasn't been as vocal as during the Bush administration, there remains an effort to promote and encourage democratic change in this part of the world.  But overall, there hasn't been -- at least from the -- from the Obama administration at this early stage, there doesn't seem to be a rethink as to how to approach overall strategy in the region.

In terms of vulnerability and spillover effects, I think it's pretty clear that the grievances that underlined the uprising in Tunisia are present in places like Algeria, which is also experiencing a wave of demonstrations -- although in Algeria this is something that is kind of a permanent feature, or a regular feature of the political landscape.  There's certainly political ferment in Egypt.  The combination of the anticipation of the end of the Mubarak era -- although I did see him open parliament in early December, and he actually looked pretty good.

But the kind of, you know, real broad-based opposition that is emerging in Egypt and even Jordan, where there were demonstrations recently, which we think of as kind of a relatively happy little kingdom that's a solid ally of the United has a history of popular demonstration.

I think the point is it's -- I think it's hard to identify and predict who's next.  Revolutions are exceedingly rare.  And as I said in my opening statement, all the factors and variables have to come together, including major mistakes on the part of leaders and defenders of these regimes.

But I think the more important underlying point here is that we have assumed that these regimes are stable.  And that assumption has been based on the fact that regimes have muddled through these kinds of political challenges before.  It's kind of, you know, we were believing that past performance is a guarantor of future stability.  And that is a risky bet as far as I'm concerned.

To the extent that these regimes rely more and more on coercion to elicit political control from their populations, I think they are weaker and more unstable because coercion and violence are the most expensive forms of political control and, as we've seen in the Tunisian case, the riskiest method of political control.

COHEN:  Let me say something about vulnerabilities.  I think it's very important to -- and I agree with Steven completely.  It's really difficult to predict where a revolution is going to actually take place.  And actually there are ways that we can better understand context to at least get us closer.

And I think one of the important variables that is very important to understand is the technology factor.  So let's start with what we know.  We know that in the last 10 years, the number of people that have access to cell phones has risen from 907 million to over 5 billion.  We know the number of people that have access to the Internet has risen from 361 million to more than 2 billion.  Even in a country like Pakistan, which everybody would agree is very unstable and a high priority, in the last 10 years, cell phone access in that country has grown from 300,000 to over 100 million.  So astronomical growth; very, very exponential.

Now, the question we need to be asking as we think about this new variable and understand that this new variable increases the likelihood of surprise in any context around the world, is where is the sudden influx of technology based on the statistics I just mentioned potentially have the most profound impact?

I co-authored a piece in Foreign Affairs -- not in this issue but in the previous one -- where my co-author and I made the argument that it's in societies where there's a weak central government, dire socio-economic conditions, a large youth bulge; huge diaspora populations living in uber-connected, developed countries that are extremely open; and countries that have a history of an organized civil society.  You know, those would be the types of countries that I would watch for as it pertains to the sudden influx of technology potentially changing the game.

QUESTIONER:  Could I just follow up on that for both of you?  Do these countries have an alternative political system in place -- just because the regimes have been repressive that they haven't really allowed the growth of a healthy, vibrant alternative?

COHEN:  Well, one thing that -- I'll give it a quick, you know, sort of technology-centric answer to this, and Steven, you would definitely be better to talk more broadly --

COOK:  I'll give you the old, staid political-science answer.  (Chuckles.)

COHEN:  One of the things that was most interesting that I forgot to mention in my opening statement is when Ben Ali went on -- went out in public to basically throw his Hail Mary pass, I found it very interesting that he thought the big confession that he could make that could keep him in power was agreeing to stop censorship.

That led me to believe that he certainly has a very keen understanding of how important that issue is to young people in particular inside of Tunisia.  But it was also too late.  It was -- it was certainly too late.  You know, had he done that six months before or six years before, you know, it may have actually had, you know, a profound impact.

I mean, one of the interesting things is, you know, a lot of autocratic governments will watch what's happening in Tunisia, and my guess is they'll probably, you know, be more vigilant and be more inclined to crack down and censor and so forth.  And I think what a lot of these governments need to actually pay attention to is the failure of that -- you know, the acknowledgment that that's an important confession, but the fact that it's not -- if you do it too little too late, you might miss an opportunity to actually give that confession and buy some goodwill of the population.

Now, on the flip side, you know, if a large, youthful population doesn't like a leader that tends to be more autocratic and they issue that concession, you know, they might not -- the leader might not like the outcome.

So there's a lot of uncertainty around this.  And I'd point you to that speech that Ben Ali gave where he basically acknowledged, without saying so, that Tunisians view the freedom to connect as a basic human right.

COOK:  And let me just add to that one question, and then I'll -- and then I'll go back to my part of the question.  You know, after he gave that speech, the general tenor of the response was, hey, we're not out in the streets for YouTube.  We want freedom.  We want an end to this regime.

So I -- Jared, I think you're exactly right in -- that there is a moment when these types of quote-unquote "concessions" no longer matter to the -- to the -- to the people, to society that's -- that is engaged in an uprising and trying to throw off a political structure, which leads into the -- my answer to the question, which is, quite honestly, no, there is no -- and that's exactly the problem that you have in Tunisia right now.

You have a regime that essentially de-institutionalized or created perverse institutions in Tunisia so that there was no opposition, there were no political structures that could be taken over by anybody other than in the formally ruling, or still ruling, depending on the way you look at it, RCD.

And if for some reason, you know, Mubarak would be toppled, the obvious -- the obvious people to step in and take over is the Egyptian armed forces, because there are -- there are no political structures -- I should say no parties or organized opposition that could really step in and run the country.  And I think that that's a problem that you have throughout the region.

And it's one of the reasons why it strikes me that both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, in their efforts to promote democratic change, have focused some efforts and resources on trying to build up not civil-society organizations -- you know, a place like Egypt has a lot of civil-society organizations -- but actual political movements and parties that are capable of actually acting like that.  The problem is that you have -- tremendous amount of opposition from these regimes to these kinds of efforts.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Steve Huntley with the Chicago Sun-Times.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much.

Steven, to paraphrase your question about -- answer to the question about spread, you said maybe but not likely, and mentioned -- and mentioned Egypt, Algeria and Jordan.  I wonder if, one, in discussing spread scenarios, the situation in Lebanon is relevant to the discussion, and two, is there a spread scenario that would -- could potentially disrupt the oil supply lines?

COOK:  With Lebanon, I -- it's funny, I got a very similar question earlier today, and my answer is no.  I think that the situation in Lebanon is very Lebanon-specific, as is often the case with Lebanon, because of its unique situation and unique politics.  It is somewhat of an outlier in the region, and its present political tribulations are a result of another popular uprising, the March 14 movement after the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

But there's very little connection here, and there's very little -- there's no evidence to suggest that people of Lebanon are watching what's happening in Tunisia and trying to draw lessons.  I think what they're trying to do is navigate the current political problems in Lebanon.

As far as disrupting oil, very unlikely that this kind of situation is going to have an effect on the supply, that it's going to have an effect on politics in the Gulf region.  You -- of course, if there is some sort of disaster in Egypt, it might have an effect on the -- on the canal.  But as I said, it's unlikely that that's going to happen.

And even if there were some sort of mass uprising in Egypt and the military did intervene, whether on behalf of the regime or in support of society, as the Tunisian military has apparently done, one of the things that they would be sure to keep open and keep operating is the Suez Canal.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

COHEN:  And guys, I apologize, I'm going to have to -- I'm going to have to jump off.

COOK:  Thanks, Jared.

JEROME:  Bye, Jared.  Thank you so much.

COOK:  Speak to you soon.

COHEN:  All right, thank you.  All right, take care.  Bye.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question is from Ellyn Ferguson with the Congressional Quarterly.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  I don't know if this off topic or if you'll be able to address this.  I was just wondering to what extent concerns about food prices or food shortages may have also played into the unrest in Tunisia.

COOK:  Not off topic at all.  This is one of the kind of hidden issues that are playing into grievances throughout the region, and it's, you know, this is something that I've been hearing about in my numerous trips back and forth since last May, that the price of food has been going up and up and up.  And people at the lower rungs of the socio-economic scale are unable to make ends meet.  And it's one of the major issues.

This is -- what we saw in Tunisia, what we're seeing in Jordan, what we've been seeing in Algeria, what we've been seeing in Egypt, is a combination of economic grievances and political grievances all coming together at the same time.  And that is -- it's an issue that it's going to be hard for the regimes to get control of.  When you had big protests in Jordan last week, immediately, immediately, the Jordanians took measures in order to ease -- ease the prices of food and bring it down and make it more manageable for people.  But the question is, how -- how far can relatively poor countries go to, you know, to mollify these situations without, at the same time, undermining the investment environment that they have worked so hard at Washington's urging to create economies that are attractive to foreign investors, that -- you know, to make them more competitive and integrate them in the global economy.

So there is this kind of very unfortunate feedback loop that they're having to contend with and that they don't have a lot of tools at their disposal to ameliorate.

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  And that's Steve?

COOK:  Steven.  Steven with a V; Cook, no E.


COOK:  Thanks.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Doyle McManus with The Los Angeles Times.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks very much.  Steven, you've talked -- you've touched briefly on Algeria, where, as you said, demonstrations have been a regular part of political life.

Could you talk a little bit about the competence of the regime in responding to those, which is the other key factor?  That's question number one.  Question number two, Jared talked a lot about how democratic activists can learn from each other.

To what extent do we know whether the Egyptian regime or other regimes have tried to learn from China, from Iran, from anybody else how to use technology in repressive ways?

COOK:  Right.  To answer your second question, first, yes, they have.  As I said a bit earlier, once the Egyptians learn the hard lessons of 2004 that the behavior of their riot control police can be splashed across the Internet and picked up by international news organizations, they began an effort of both -- of trying to control, monitor, and as Jared pointed out, infiltrate these technologies in order to -- in order to crack down or outsmart those who are using it.

So I think it's abundantly clear that they're trying to learn those lessons from other regimes that have to deal with these kinds of political challenges.

In Algeria, as I said, this is a fact of life, and the Algerians are nothing, if not ruthless.  And this is a country with a president, but also a conclave of about 60 military officers who run the country, and who have proven themselves willing to be excessively brutal in order to -- in order to rescue the regime that their predecessors going back to the early 1960s, a regime that they founded and constructed and from which they benefit.

So, you know, the Algerians were willing -- the Algerian military was willing to plunge the country into a decade worth of civil war in order to preserve the regime.  So should things get out of hand in Algeria -- and as I said, you know, these are kind of a common feature of Algerian political life -- and kind of internal security forces of police are unable to handle it, we could see another situation in which the military intervenes, but in a very different way than the Tunisian military intervened because the difference is -- and this is something that I wrote about today at's Middle East channel -- the Tunisian military doesn't have that kind of organic link to the regime.  There's not everything at stake for them in the regime.

So I think to your question, yes, I think they're competent, but competent not necessarily in a very good way.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks.  Just to sharpen the first question about learning from other regimes.  So I think, to your question, yes, I think they're competent, but competent not necessarily in a very good way.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks.  Just to sharpen the first question, about learning from other regimes, do we have any evidence that the Egyptians have actually sought advice or gone on technical missions to places like China and Iran to see how it's done?

COOK:  Well, certainly not Iran, since there aren't diplomatic relations between the countries.  But, you know, there was a time a couple years ago -- it's worn off a bit, but -- that the Egyptians were just in absolute awe of the Chinese, and there was constant traffic between Cairo and Beijing, and for obvious reasons.  You know, the China model is deeply attractive to the Egyptian regime.  It is economic development without, at the same time in parallel, political change.  And that's something that they would very much like.

Whether they have sought advice directly from the Chinese, I don't know.  What I have been told is that there is a quite extensive, robust apparatus for monitoring and -- for monitoring the Internet and these kinds of social media sites and trying to, you know, do what they can to  undermine them.


OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Shaun Waterman with the Washington Times.

QUESTIONER:  Yes.  Hello, Steven.

COOK:  Hi.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks for doing this.

I wondered if you could -- just going back to the Islamists a little bit, Nahda seems to be the, you know, main Islamist party.

COOK:  Mm-hmm.

QUESTIONER:  Could you -- I mean, where are they on the kind of spectrum of these organizations?

COOK:  They are -- (chuckles) -- well, I would say if you -- you know, you take the Muslim Brotherhood, they are moderate of the Muslim -- of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example; have accepted, you know, family status laws in predominantly secular Tunisia and so on and so forth.  It's certainly a gradation of Islamist -- (inaudible) -- Islamists that you're considered to be moderate, but in the context of Tunisian politics, from Bourguiba to Ben Ali, clearly beyond the pale and to be suppressed.

Like I said, it remains to be seen whether they can be a force, given how they've been repressed and driven from the country.

QUESTIONER:  I mean, do you think -- if I can just follow up -- do you think that there's a -- do you think that there's a danger that they might get, you know, sort of swept away by more radical forces if they try -- you know, they're part of this coalition, as you say, they've signed on to the personal status law, so, you know, is there a danger that they might be sort of outflanked?

COOK:  I think there's obviously always these kinds of risks.  I think everything is going to have to depend on how Tunisian politics  unfolds over the course of the next six months and how these elections turn out.  So, for example, if you have a reconstituted regime that's primarily made up of the RCD and figures around Ben Ali, even though they've resigned from the RCD, and (Nahda ?) signals its willingness to cooperate, participate, whatever, there is always the possibility that you will get offshoots from this organization that may be more radical.

I mean, this is a -- this is a phenomenon that's quite -- that's common.  It's particularly common in a place like Egypt, where there has been a fair amount of opposition to the brotherhood's engaging in secular politics.  So that is a pattern that I can see unfolding, but it really all depends on the quality of politics going forward from now until elections and then thereafter.  That's why this moment -- this moment is really the hardest one in this -- in this phase of this uprising.

QUESTIONER:  And could I just ask one other question, which is, you know, do you think that -- you seem to be suggesting that U.S. policymakers had sort of, you know, got this one about right.  Could you say a little bit more about that?  I mean, obviously they don't want -- you know, they want to welcome progressive change, but they don't want to scare their friends in the region.  Could you say a little bit about that dilemma?

COOK:  Well, I think it's -- you know, for all of the -- let's take it back to the Bush administration.  For all the kind of full-throated support for democracy and freedom, which I think was the right policy to pursue, the United States has always looked towards evolutionary change.  There's always been this concern that, you know, rapid collapse of regimes can't possibly be in the interest of the United States, because it could sow chaos and bring to power people who are inexorably opposed to the United States and its interests in the region.

So the policies have always been geared towards a gradual evolution, building the institutions necessary for a peaceful transition to democratic politics.  And I think that's what -- I think that's the policy that the Obama administration is now pursuing.  It has obviously welcomed -- it couldn't do anything other than welcome the change in Tunisia.  And it is now -- but at the same time, it is signalling that to its friends, as you pointed out, we're not looking to push you over the edge, either.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks very much.

COOK:  My pleasure.

JEROME:  I think that brings us smack up to the hour.

COOK:  Thank you.  I need a glass of water.

JEROME:  (Laughs.)  Okay.

COOK:  Let me just say in closing, thanks, for those of you who are still on the line.  I'm happy to answer additional questions.  I'm heading out to Cairo tomorrow morning for a week, and hopefully making it to Tunis by next weekend.  So look for blog posts and articles based on that, and feel free to ping me.  I'm at  Thanks very much.  Have a good afternoon.  Bye bye.

JEROME:  Thanks very much, everyone.  Bye.








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