by Harim Peiris
President Ben Ali of Tunisia’s thirty year rule ended late last month, when popular unrest and street protests in that once calm and seemingly idyllic country erupted across the country and brought an unforeseen and abrupt end to a long rule that had provided stability and initially rising prosperity to Tunisia. However the social compact in Tunisia was seemingly to trade rising economic growth for political freedoms and while Tunisia had periodic elections which President Ben Ali predictably and convincingly won, as the economic growth benefits stopped flowing down to an increasingly restive younger generation, the end suddenly came.
Tunisians Inspire the Egyptians
The Middle East, especially Arab North Africa is being governed by long serving rulers, from Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to Mohamed Ghaddafi in Libya. The popular uprising in Tunisia has clearly influenced its other North African neighbors and popular protests have erupted across the region must most notably in Egypt. The political reign of President Hosni Mubarak is over even as the protest leaders organize a million man protest in Cairo, the real issue being whether President Mubarak leaves office immediately or is able to organize a more orderly and democratic transition of power.
Nationalism and Authoritarianism
The Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt and indeed many of the other North African Arab regimes have many features in common.
The first is that they had long serving rulers, who had consequently built up significant and powerful elite constituencies in support of the status quo. Nonetheless, their regimes faced sudden and complete collapse.
The second feature is that these rulers used Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause to create the rationale and ideological base for their continuous and long term rule.
The third feature is that all the regimes were authoritarian and fairly adept at cracking down on political dissent, harassing their political opponents and generally having a dominant near one party state.
The fourth feature in these regimes was the neo feudal characteristic of the immediate and extended family of the ruler playing a role that created a ruling family.
The fifth feature was that they had regular elections which the ruler always won by handsome majorities. They also had token opposition parties that were no serious political threat to the regime.
Lessons for Sri Lanka
The Rajapaksa regime in its defence is somewhat different from the presidencies of Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt or indeed Al Basheer in Sudan. The significant difference is that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is popularly elected, twice in fact in electoral contests that were a reasonable though flawed exercise in democratic choosing of elected leaders. Sri Lanka has flawed but credible electoral exercises. The North African Arab regimes had elections that were essentially sham exercises, rather like what transpired recently in Myanmar.
Having said that the Rajapaksa presidency shows some distressing signs and similarities, of the early days of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes. The groundwork via the 18th amendment’s abolition of term limits is being laid for a very long innings at the top. The first son is being groomed to take over, while brothers number one, two and three, divide up the chairmanship of the legislature, command of the military and control of economic development projects.
Ethnic nationalism is being whipped up and an ethno nationalism ethos being created as the rationale and ruling ideology of the regime. Persisting with emergency regulations and laws permit the continued stranglehold on democratic debate with little tolerance for political dissent.
The real lesson for the Rajapaksa presidency and Sri Lanka is that the formula of nationalism, authoritarianism and populism even with periodic elections wore thin as the consequences of bad governance, neo feudalistic family bandyism and poor economic management took its toll on living standards and frustrated the aspirations of the younger generations.
Now Sri Lankans may not take to the streets and certainly the kind of violence and anarchy seen in Northern Africa ares certainly not really needed or even desirable in Sri Lanka. But the essential lesson that the formula of nationalism combined with authoritarianism does not in itself guarantee longevity in political power is a lesson that those who seemingly advocate such a path for us in Sri Lanka should well take note. (ENDS)