Arab authoritarianism makes a comeback in Tunisia

Arab authoritarianism makes a comeback in Tunisia
Counter-revolutionary forces are rolling back the gains of the Arab Spring.
3 min read
29 Dec, 2014
Ben Ali's authoritarian legacy lives on [Getty]

Beji Caid Essebsi has won the presidential elections in Tunisia to become the second-oldest president in the world. The 88-year-old is topped only by Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, 90, who has been in office for more than thirty years.

Essebsi's victory was not a surprise but a natural result of the revolutionary ebb in the Arab region and the failure of the first wave of the Arab Spring. It is a victory that some consider to be part of the consecutive victories of the counter-revolution, and additional proof that Arab revolutions have failed to achieve any real gains over the past few years.

Authoritarianism has revived and modernised itself, while revolutionary forces have suffered from fragmentation and decline.

Essebsi's victory indicates the ability of Arab authoritarianism to revive itself and modernise its methods, while revolutionary forces suffer from fragmentation and decline. During the first two years of the Arab Spring, Arab autocracies fought the idea of change in an attempt to stop the revolutionary wave from reaching their shores and inspiring their citizens.

Authoritarian resurgence

However, in the past two years - after absorbing the shockwave of the first revolutions - authoritarianism began again to reorganise its ranks, and went on the attack. It charged the batteries of the counter-revolution and re-launched it. It rebuilt internal alliances and revived internal centres of power in addition to co-opting all the groups and movements it could. All of this was done to tarnish the revolution and kill the dream of change in the Arab World.

Arab authoritarianism was also successful in reading local, regional and international change.

Locally, the mood of the Arab street changed quite drastically from support for the revolution and demanding change to a desire to return to the stability of the pre-revolutionary state.

Regionally, authoritarianism fed the ghost of extremism and supported radical trends against revolution and change, which have since become synonymous with chaos and violence. Internationally, it has successfully utilised Western hesitation and employed its cards to deter any sympathy with the Arab Spring.

The victory of Essebsi represents the cohesion of the Arab authoritarian alliance and its rise to power, while the revolutionary axis declines.

It also indicates that hopes of achieving meaningful, peaceful change in the region have dissipated - which could open the door to depressing scenarios of chaos and violence, especially since we are no longer dealing with a traditional form of authoritarianism, but a fundamentalist and vicious authoritarianism that does not agree to negotiate or return to its pre-Arab Spring state.

It is an authoritarianism that has no qualms with obliterating everything connected with change, and repressing every person who dreams of freedom and dignity in our region.

Essebsi's victory reflects the ability of authoritarianism to take advantage of the mistakes of its rivals.

Existential battle

This fundamentalist authoritarianism is engaged in an existential battle with change. This has been apparent from the very beginning of the Arab Spring.

It will not agree to a de-escalation and will not grant political concessions. On the contrary, it will do all it can do to stop change by launching pre-emptive strikes against all who support change.

Essebsi did not win because of Tunisians' hatred for the revolution or because of their belief that this alternative failed to find solutions to the economic, political and social problems of the country, in essence the fruit of the previous authoritarian regime.

It seems Essebsi's victory reflects the ability of fundamentalist authoritarianism to take advantage of the mistakes, divisions and imprudence of its rivals. It proves the battle for change in the Arab World is not an easy one, and cannot be won within a few short years.

Essebsi's victory sends a clear message: what fundamentalist authoritarianism cannot achieve through coups, it can achieve through the ballot box.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.