January 20, 2011

Tunisia - a snapshot of the future?

Marketplace in Tunis (Photo: Rick Francona)

The recent events in Tunisia should serve as a wake up call to other countries of the Arab world. Most people tend to disregard Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, the nations of North Africa* (Arabic: al-maghrib, literally, "where the sun sets"), as only an ancillary part of the Arab world because of the large number of Berbers in the population.

I was surprised at the uprising in Tunisia. I was in Tunis shortly after recently-deposed President Zayn al-'Abadin bin 'Ali took power in a bloodless coup from President Habib Burqibah after a 30-year rule. The transition was taken in stride by the population.

In late 1987, I was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency as the Assistant Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East and South Asia. We liked to say we were responsible for watching Defense Department interests "from Marrakech to Bangladesh." One of our responsibilities was interacting with the defense attachés in Washington. In early November, we had a meeting with the Tunisian Defense Attaché at the Pentagon. I remember his name, Colonel Boudabous, because it means "truncheon" in Arabic - how apropos. Almost immediately after our meeting, the colonel returned to Tunis. Later, it became apparent that he was part of the coup.

Although the newly installed president was pro-American, when I visited Tunis there was an uneasy feeling in the city. I do not speak the Maghrebi dialect of Arabic well, but well enough enough to understand that there was a real sense of frustration in the population about the future of the country. As with many Arab countries, and likely many Muslim countries as well, there is a huge youth population thanks to the high birth rate among Muslims. This growing segment of society is concerned that they will not have jobs, nor will they be able to participate in the social contract of governing their own country. I suspect they are correct.

What has happened in Tunisia over the last week might be a harbinger of things to come across the Arab, and even more importantly, the Muslim world. Tunisia might be representative of the simmering anger and frustration of a generation of youth who believe their political and social aspirations are not being addressed by the mostly corrupt regimes in the region.

It is not just me that believes this. The Secretary General of the Arab League 'Amr Musa highlighted the conditions that led to what is being termed as the 'Jasmine Revolution" (a reference to the flowers that are common in the city of Tunis) in Tunisia. The poverty, corruption and the perceived lack of potential to address political and social aspirations has created a tinderbox of pent-up frustration that might ignite across the Arab world.

Musa's succinct comments were right on target (I'll use the word
"target" regardless of the inane post-Tucson political correctness): "The Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession ... The political problems have driven the Arab citizen to a state of unprecedented anger and frustration." (Note: not my translation.)

Wow! Where have you heard that before? Well, here, if you have been reading.

What has just happened in Tunisia is symptomatic of the situation in many Arab countries. As Secretary Musa says, anger and frustration are rampant in the Arab world. It will not go away soon. In many of the Arab countries, fully one in five citizens are under the age of 20. Who is going to employ these young people, many of them who have educated in the West and exposed to western values? Who is going to allow them input to the political system?

Unfortunately, the answer in most cases is no one. This situation creates a pool of unhappy youth who are easily recruited into Islamist jihadi organizations. The number of young North African fighters in the ranks of al-Qa'idah in Iraq is higher than almost any other group.

Morocco and Algeria, beware.
* Many Middle East analysts include Libya and Mauritania as part of the Maghreb.