Q&A: What's behind the unrest?

Dr Benjamin MacQueen from Monash University talks to SBS about what sparked the riots in Tunisia and Egypt, and whether this unrest is likely to spread across the region.

Dr Benjamin MacQueen from Monash University talks to SBS about what sparked the riots in Tunisia and Egypt, and whether this unrest is likely to spread across the region.

1. What was behind the political unrest in Tunisia?

The spark behind the outbreak of unrest was food prices and unemployment, however this channelled long-standing discontent about the rule of former President Ben Ali, his tight control over the political system and his and his family's control over the Tunisian economy. It is a common trend in Arab politics that the most volatile outbreaks of unrest come when you have a conjunction between a closed political system, economic downturn, an aging president and a large young population.

2. What are the grievances in Egypt? Are they similar to Tunisia?

Egypt faces a similar challenge to Tunisia in terms of the timing of events. The outbreak of unrest in Tunisia has certainly provided a spark, however, there has been simmering unrest in Egypt for many years, and particularly so after the much-criticised Presidential elections last year.

In Egypt, however, the problems are a bit more overtly 'political'. By this, Egypt's economy has been struggling for many years, so the catalyst for events here has not so much been food prices, unemployment or housing shortages but the increasingly heavy-handed tactics of the Mubarak regime and the efforts by the President to smooth the way for his son, Gamal, to succeed him in the coming years.

3. Why has the unrest spread to parts of North Africa and the Middle East?

As mentioned above, it is the conjunction of events. The two most important ones here are economic marginalisation and the so-called 'youth bulge'. Outside Tunisia and Egypt, Algeria and Jordan (with potential for this in Yemen, Bahrain and perhaps even Saudi Arabia) are experiencing similar trends where the economic marginalisation of young people is driving unrest. Unemployment, housing shortages and food prices hit this group the hardest. As the long-standing social contract in the region of less political representation in exchange for state services has collapsed, the most vulnerable Arab states (i.e. the poorest and most populous - Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Tunisia) are susceptible to this sort of unrest.

4. Why are we seeing these kinds of protests now, in this part of the world? The unrest seems to particularly concentrated to Arab nations.

The Arab world is home to very resilient authoritarian regimes. They have relied in part on direct oppression, in part on externalising enemies (i.e. the US, Israel, the Soviet Union and now global terrorist networks), and in part on this social contract of less political representation in exchange for state services. Where other parts of the world have seen greater political liberalisation (such as in Latin America and parts of Africa), this has not happened in the Arab world.

In addition, this region has one of the highest young populations of any region, therefore is susceptible to political unrest when the economy stagnates in the key areas of employment, food prices and housing.

5. Egypt and Tunisia, the two main countries seeing protests at the moment, are both technically democracies, though the efficacy of these democratic systems is questionable. Are these protests a call for greater democratic rights, or something else?

Neither country is a democracy in anything more than name. They have both had tightly controlled political systems, with elections serving to deflect attention away from the direct and indirect means the political elites use to maintain their grip on both the political and economic systems.

The protests are therefore in part a call for greater democratic rights, but represent the breakdown of the system that allowed these regimes to maintain such rule for decades. Calling for democratic reform is more a call for accountability for those who have sold the necessity of their rule in exchange for a measure of economic stability.
However, this is not to say that should a regime bring about economic stability again, people in Tunis, Cairo and elsewhere would not continue to pressure for greater political representation. One has opened the door for the other, and it is likely that a new political arrangement will emerge, one that is more politically open but inherently less stable.

6. What's the role of Islamist parties in pushing for political change in the region?

Minimal. A good analogy here is Algeria in 1988. Similar riots broke out over the pricing of food, leading to a collapse of the single-party government and the opening of the political system. The Islamists were not behind the initial unrest but were able to take advantage of this in harnessing the unrest and running a very successful election campaign as the face of the disenfranchised.

This, however, led to an army coup in 1992, cancelling the electoral process and the outbreak of a civil war between the government and Islamists that claimed over 200,000 lives by its end in 2000.

A similar trend in terms of the Islamists seeking to harness the discontent may happen elsewhere, but I doubt that the subsequent events that unfolded in Algeria will happen in Tunisia. The key exception here is Egypt. With the Muslim Brotherhood as the established central opposition movement, the political and military elite in Egypt will not be reticent to use direct repression should they fear the Muslim Brotherhood being able to harness their potential power.

7. Is this unrest likely to spread further, or is the worst of it over?

We will see more unrest, but it will be a longer, slower burn for Tunisia. Here, the important part begins now in terms of the negotiations over what the new political system will look like. The country has known only two regimes since independence, and this is a complete overhaul of Ben Ali's rule (and, potentially, the personnel from this regime).

Egypt will likely see another spike in unrest, as I think we will in Algeria and Jordan. I doubt it will lead to full-scale revolutionary activity, but constant clashes on the streets for a number of weeks are certainly a distinct possibility.

Most importantly, it represents what I see as the first signs of real change to the failing autocratic system of rule that has dominated the region. This need not necessarily be a fully positive outcome, with greater uncertainty and chaos for ordinary civilians in the context of greater political freedoms. However, it may signal the death throes of Cold War-style authoritarianism in the Arab World, and that is a good thing.

Source: SBS

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