An Arab Spring?

PARIS – Is Tunisia the first Arab authoritarian domino to fall? Or is it a unique case that should not be viewed as a precedent for either the Arab world in general or the Maghreb in particular? The region’s dictators have sought to dismiss the “Jasmine Revolution,” but the spark that started in Tunisia could spread – perhaps in a matter of months or years – to the entire Arab world.

Indeed, the wall of fear has crumbled, the people have spoken, and an “Arab spring” could be at hand. The message from Tunisia, at least so far, is clear: corrupt and authoritarian regimes, beware: unless you reform deeply and quickly, your days are numbered. The greatest danger is that the Jasmine Revolution could go the way of Romania’s anti-communist uprising of 20 years ago, with the old regime’s underlings expelling their bosses in order to stay in power.

But the best analogy for Tunisia today is Spain in the years preceding and following the death of Francisco Franco. By opening itself to the world through tourism, and with its emphasis on education and women’s rights, Ben Ali’s regime created something unique in the Middle East: a vibrant middle class. But the regime, like Franco’s dictatorship, did not treat the members of this new middle class like adults, thereby encouraging widespread frustration.

Given this, it would seem wrong, if not dangerous, to compare Tunisia and its Jasmine Revolution to other national contexts in the region. Nevertheless, if Morocco looks stable today, this largely reflects two factors: monarchy and reform. Led by a group of technocrats surrounding the young King Mohammed VI, a reform process – including political liberalization – has begun in earnest, even if the results still seem modest.