The overthrow of Tunisia’s longstanding Ben Ali dictatorship, sparked when 26-year-old vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest after his business was confiscated for lack of approved documents, has led many to wonder if these events may be a harbinger of the region’s future. Lost in the descriptions of Tunisia’s disaffected youth is that Tunisia is arguably the Arab world’s most successful economy, the only one where over the last half century per capita incomes have steadily converged on those of the rich industrial democracies of the OECD.
Arab economies face daunting challenges, most notably with respect to unemployment—educated urban youth unemployment in particular. Yet as Howard Pack and I showed in our book, Arab Economies in a Changing World, across dozens of indicators of economic performance—including those relating to the ease of starting and maintaining a business, precisely the issues that led to Bouazizi’s self-immolation—Tunisia was consistently at or near the top of the regional rankings. From a regional perspective this is clearly not a story of economic incompetence generating an uprising. If anything, it is the opposite: a steadily advancing society chafing under repression.
Tunisia may not be the model for developments elsewhere in the Middle East. Its small size, geographical proximity to Europe (some Tunisians are capable of receiving Italian radio and television broadcasts from Sicily), and large tourism sector (and attendant exposure to Western cultural influences) set it apart from much of the Arab world. But the emergence of Al Jazeera and other pan-Arab broadcast media, together with the rapid expansion of internet-based social media, means that news spreads more quickly and with even greater intimacy than it did only a decade ago.
Many jihadist groups speak of martyrdom. Ben Ali raised political repression to an art form. His government has been brought down by very brave young men who took to the streets knowing that they would be fired upon by the police. The dozens who died are real martyrs.