Counter-Terrorism: The Tunisia Factor


January 23, 2011: The Arab world was recently shaken when, after a month of escalating demonstrations, the Tunisian people overthrew their despotic government. Tunisia was your typical Arab dictatorship, but it crumbled after minimal violence (fewer than a hundred dead). All the other Arab autocrats (both dictators and monarchs) are concerned about this sort of thing. So are counter-terror officials, because in every Arab dictatorship, one of opposition parties is always an Islamic one. Worse yet, the same tools used by demonstrators in Tunisia are also available in all other Arab countries.

The Internet, particularly Twitter, was mentioned as a key organizing tool for the demonstrators. Cell phones able to access the Internet were another key factor. These forms of mobile, and difficult to block, communication are making it possible for unrest to continue, in an effort to prevent the ruling families from organizing a new government that will keep the same crowd (that supported deposed dictator Ben Ali) in power. Some countries, when faced with this sort of thing, simply shut down the cell phone systems. But government troops are dependent on cell phones as well, and the army and police radio systems are not sufficient. In Tunisia, the security forces faced being overwhelmed, and decided to switch sides instead.

Unfortunately for the rest of the Arab world, Tunisia is not your typical Arab country. Tunisia has a high literacy rate (78 percent), and one of the highest rates of education in the Arab world. What has prevented Tunisia from becoming an economic and cultural powerhouse in the Arab world has been decades of dictatorial, and corrupt, rule. This lost opportunity has long been a major source of discontent in Tunisia, and it became a major driver behind the spontaneous, widespread and successful effort to overthrow the dictatorship. It remains to be seen if the Tunisians can continue their success as a new government is put together.

The Tunisian dictatorship ultimately found that its control of the economy, large police force and handouts to loyal citizens was not successful in keeping the population under control. The other Arab dictatorships, whether they have oil wealth or not, use these same techniques to maintain control. In the last two decades, some Arab government have also been able to use fear of an Islamic radical takeover to keep democrats at bay. But now, to their horror, Arab rulers are finding that this method has suddenly failed.

The core problem is that control of the economy by friends and family of the dictator, leads to poor economic growth and high unemployment. Higher education levels led to even more unrest. While many of the unemployed try to emigrate, Western nations (the only nearby ones with jobs to spare) are not willing to accept a flood of unemployed Arabs. And most of the unemployed don't want to leave just to get a job. Arab leaders are now faced with an anger that they know is growing, and that they now know can topple a government like theirs.

The Tunisian situation has not yet caused similar overthrows in the Arab world. While there have been many demonstrations in other Arab nations, in no country has there been enough popular pressure to cause the government to collapse. Just to be on the safe side, some of the dictatorships have given more gifts to the population (like cutting prices on staple goods, or simply making more stuff available or cut taxes). Nevertheless, Tunisia has created another "worst case" Arab dictators have to worry about. That's a good thing, as democracies are less likely to sponsor or shelter terrorists than Arab dictators.


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