Day: January 16, 2011
With Tunisia in a kind of constitutionally correct and militarily enforced limbo between dictatorship and the possibility of real democracy, demonstrations and rioting are popping up elsewhere in the Arab World. Qadhafi has been reduced to stuttering regret for the impatience of the Tunisians while two unemployed men reportedly tried to immolate themselves in Algeria.
. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is testing the waters while in Jordan people take to the streets. So what might all this amount to, and what determines the course it takes?
With the obvious exception of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, none of the current protests seems to have a clear political matrix. Some people will tell you that is important–without a clearly defined political leadership and goals, nothing much can come of spontaneous protest over food prices and corruption. I don’t believe that. Political leadership often emerges during the events, not in advance of them, and the lack of clearly defined leadership makes it difficult for repressive regimes to decapitate popular movements.
My own view is that the vital thing to watch is the relationship between protesters and security forces. If the protesters attack the security forces, they will respond with violence and more often than not sufficient force to win the day, even if doing so generates another day of protests. The objective of the protesters needs to be the strategic one of depriving the dictatorship of the security force protection that enables it to stay in place.
The way to achieve this is not to attack the security forces but to try to win them over. Often this will be difficult in the capital, where the best and most loyal of the uniformed and non-uniformed security forces are usually deployed. But somewhere on the periphery, likely in the provinces, there will be security forces with little brief for the regime they ostensibly defend. Non-violent protest is what can win them over: sticking flowers in their gun barrels is the international photojournalists’ image of choice. Ben Ali did not flee because there were so many people in the streets. He fled because someone told him the army would no longer protect him.
That of course leaves Tunisia in the limbo I mentioned at first. Now the effort has to become more politically astute, using the demonstrators to guarantee free and fair elections open to serious competition. This will not be easy, in part because the crowds in the street may not see the relevance of elections to what they went there for in the first place: jobs and food above all. That is where political leadership is needed: to show the connection. Otherwise, demonstrations may lead to a non-democratic political takeover that promises more immediate results.