from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Who’s Next After Tunisia?

January 16, 2011

Blog Post

Tunisia's President Ben Ali talks with Qatar emir Sheikh Hamad, Algeria's President Bouteflika and Syria's President Al-Assad as they pose for a family photograph at the Arab League summit in Sirte on March 27, 2010. (Zohra Bensemra/Courtesy Reuters)

Wide discussion of whether the revolt in Tunisia will now spread to other Arab lands seems to me to ignore two key factors: what is unique in the Tunisian case, and the issue of monarchy.

Tunisia was unique in combining a reasonably advanced society (80 percent literacy, $8,000 per capita GDP) with an extremely repressive personal dictatorship. Algeria, right next door, is different: It is a dictatorship, but one ruled by what is known as “Le Pouvoir,” the power—a shadowy combination of military officials. President Bouteflika has been in power for twelve years, but his is more institutional than personal or familial rule, and it is characterized less by the rapacious corruption of the Ben Ali family in Tunis than by immobility and boredom. Riots might convince the military leaders to dump Bouteflika, but it will be harder in Algeria than in Tunisia to remove the regime.

Egypt is a closer case, for the possible candidacy of President Mubarak’s son Gamal to be his successor would suggest a move from military to familial rule. As there are no term limits in Egypt, were the fourty-seven-year-old Gamal to run and win in this year’s presidential election he could follow his father’s thirty years in power with thirty of his own. Moreover, there are persistent stories about corruption in the Mubarak family and the wealth of his sons, and widespread corruption throughout the regime. Here we get closer to the kind of powder that exploded in Tunisia. Libya is a special case due to the unique character of Muammar Qadhafi, but here too rule is less institutional than personal and familial: his sons hold central positions in the regime. Syria is a classic case of familial rule by a son following his father as president for life, but the organs of repression are especially vicious and regime control over them seems strong. If the Tunisian revolt is going to spread, Egypt and Libya are likely the best candidates.

Why not Jordan or Morocco, which are mentioned in some news stories, or the Gulf kingdoms and sheikdoms? I would argue that the issue here is perceived legitimacy. Such systems have two advantages: that the monarch is often viewed as a legitimate ruler who stands above politics, and that the blame for poor governance (inefficiency, corruption, repression) can be cast onto the ministers—who can then be replaced.

Of course the system can break down, for example if the royals appear to be corrupt themselves and to live in overly ostentatious splendor. And efforts to keep the blame with the civilian ministers can fail if they are replaced too often and appear to be nothing but marionettes of the palace. Creating constitutional monarchies where some degree of power is shared with elected politicians has barely been tried in the Gulf (it is most advanced there in Kuwait, which has a real parliament), and the experiment has proved extremely difficult in Jordan and Morocco. But it may offer a better –smoother and even faster– path to a stable democracy than can be found in the fake “republics” of the Arab world. This will be a significant competition to watch. Which kind of system is best able to undertake reform and which will lead more peacefully and sooner to democracy (whether in a constitutional monarchy or republic) and to full respect for human rights?