Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tunisia riots, president of 23 years steps down

I need to grade final exams today, but wikipedia has a pretty good summary of what's been going on in Tunisia over the past month or two. Long story short: President Ben Ali ran the country for 23 years, in party with the help of support from France and the US, who liked that he kept the country from being taken over by Islamic extremists.  Of course, to do that he had to use a little bit of repression, which doesn't always go over well with the locals (note that the above description, with different names and dates, also describes Egypt and other countries in the region).  

Usually Tunisia is pretty calm, thanks in part to government subsidies for basic life needs, but the government started pulling back on that.  In late December, young people started rioting in response to joblessness and so on.  By early January, the protests had spread - 95% of lawyers went on strike, teachers went on strike, etc.  The police, who had started off breaking up riots pretty peacefully, started using riot gear and tear gas, but it didn't help. On January 14, President Ali stepped down.

Some Western observers are calling the events the Jasmine Revolution, following the other color revolutions in the past few years.

After Ali stepped down, Prime Minister Ghannouchi took charge of a unity government dominated by the president's party, but protestors weren't happy with that, so they demanded that members of opposition parties quit the government.  In today's NY Times, it was reported that five or more ministers from opposition parties quit the unity government, which is putting the Prime Minister in a tough spot.  We'll see how long he lasts. 


This is a big event for Tunisia, and an even bigger event given the context of North Africa and the Middle East ("MENA").  I'm trying to think of a previous example in which a long-lived dictators was overthrown by domestic protests and I'm not thinking of any in the past 30 years or so (I'm going to look real quick at some countries in the region on www.rulers.org ). Most of the changes took place in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.   The uprising against the French in Algeria (see the Battle of Algiers) was in the late 50s/early 60s.  Nasser and company overthrew the monarchy or whatever in Egypt in the 50s and has been ruled by Mubarak since 1981. Qaddafi has been running Libya since 1969. Morocco still has a king. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, etc. are still run by kings or sultans or emirs or whatever.  Iraq we know.  Iran had it's Islamic revolution in 1979.  Here's a possible candidate as precedent: Mauritania had President Taya as president from 1984-2005, but he was overthrown in a coup, not an uprising. Things haven't been going great since - a short military government, a short civilian government, another short military government, and another civilian government elected in 2009. 


So some rulers in the area, like Mubarak and Qaddafi, might want to worry.  Both of them are, I believe, grooming sons to be successors. Libya has all that oil, Egypt still gets gobs of aid money from the US. Those factors alone suggest they'll be OK in the short and medium term.  Here is a blogger looking at income levels and so on to say that Tunisia is a more likely candidate for democracy than its neighbors. Some scholars, most famously Przeworski and his co-authors, dispute the idea that high income facilitates transition to democracy, but many others, including Boix & Stokes, say that high income does play a positive role, albeit a small one. 


I should be grading now.  I'll post more if I have time. 

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