The Tunisian Domino

It has been argued that the Roman Republic fell as a result of the ‘Punic Curse’. At the close of the second Punic War – against the Phoenician city of Carthage – Rome signed an eternal alliance with its former enemy. Later, Rome betrayed the alliance and utterly destroyed Carthage. Not only was the city itself destroyed, but they sowed the fields with salt to prevent any other city arising there. For that betrayal, Rome was cursed by the gods. If the Third Punic War had gone the other way, the entire history of the world would have been different. If European notions of law had been based on the standards of the Greek colony of Carthage, not on Rome . . . but the speculation is pointless. Carthage, now the Arab city of Tunis, has not been driving world events for centuries, until last week.

After the American-led Coalition established democratic structures in Iraq, a wave of reform swept the Arab world. Morocco, Kuwait, Lebanon, and even Saudi Arabia embarked on a few cautious reforms. Libya abandoned its nuclear program. But democracy in both Iraq and in Palestine developed slowly. Growing Iranian influence in Iraq has left Arab states concerned at the risks of democracy and the difficulties which the Coalition encountered in 2006 have convinced them that the US is unlikely to intervene again in a hurry.

But now Sudan has had to concede an internationally supervised plebiscite on the future of southern Sudan, and one of the most established autocrats in the Arab world has had to flee from Tunisia. Is this going to be the beginning of the long-awaited transformation of the Arab world.

Five years ago, autocratic regimes were still able to control access to computers, and thus to the internet. Five years ago, the complete absence of electricity in some poor regions meant that the internet and satellite TV were just dreams. But now people can access the internet and TV on their phones. The autocrats’ ability to control information has been severely hampered. Much of Africa has better cell phone service than America, and is bypassing landlines altogether.

As Latin America discovered in the 1980s and Eastern Europe more rapidly at the close of that decade, democracy can catch fire across a whole region. The wealth and education of these regions reached a point where the ability of governments to manipulate and control media became compromised. As information technology becomes cheaper, the ability of governments to repress freedom slips away. The whole Arab world knows that Tunisia has deposed its government. It began with the self-immolation of a protestor. This has now been imitated elsewhere.

Some Arab states will cautiously renew their reforms. Some others may seek to hold the line where it now stands, with small degrees of freedom in some Arab countries and almost none in others. Will those regimes face the type of protest which saw the President of Tunisia fleeing for his life? We can hope so. This could be the start of something which will change the lives of Arabs everywhere.

Tunisia has enormous potential. It does not depend on oil – an industry which provides few jobs, mostly to foreign engineers. Tunisia thrives on tourism, an industry which provides jobs at every skill level, and brings technology, media and the English language.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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