Foreign Policy Blogs

Corruption takes down another leader

This week, the president of Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country amid massive demonstrations against his administration’s authoritarianism and corruption. It was a success for those who believe that corruption should not be tolerated and corrupt officials should be driven from power.

While the protests began after a single jobless youth set himself ablaze as a statement against high unemployment, it was clear that they spread due to broader frustration with the regime’s self-enrichment. It is remarkable that the level of corruption was so egregious that it could motivate thousands of people to take to the streets.

Tunisia has been described as a benign dictatorship, a country ruled with a firm grip but one that did not leave wide trails of suffering and death in its wake. Tunis had the feel of any breezy Mediterranean city, relaxed and secure. It had the highest scores in the region in Freedom House’s 2010 survey of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Of course, the benign side of the regime peeled away in face of threats to its power – such a common weakness of dictatorships.

The challenge in a country like Tunisia is changing the system and not just the figurehead. Ben Ali may have stepped down, but the systemic corruption over which he ruled has benefited many more than the inner circle he takes with him. The tentacles of easy enrichment and also slightly unsavory activity mean that it is likely that only a handful of people in the country with any prospect of leadership will have an interest in establishing a clean and accountable government. Since a handful is not enough to run a country, the unpleasant elements are more than likely to seep back in.

One thing that will be very interesting to watch is the reaction in the region. Ben Ali is the first Arab leader to be forced out in 25 years, and recent events in Tunisia are being closely followed by both neighboring citizens and their leaders. Facebook and Twitter have been credited with abetting the protests, even in this country ranked among only a handful of “internet enemies” by Reporters without Borders – if this can happen in Tunisia, where else might it occur? Will there be talk of another “wave of democracy” in the region, as we heard in the early heyday after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq? And will it be more positive this time around, or unravel just as bloodily? The climate of fear that continues to reign in the streets of Tunis, and the disputes that are already emerging over who is now in charge, do not bode well. However there is room for cautious optimism – if only because that is what has just been demonstrated by the Tunisian people themselves.