Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” Is About Demography, Not Democracy

Street demonstrations aren’t the best way to transform an authoritarian society.

Violent street demonstrations, followed by the toppling of a dictator, are an exhilarating way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society. They are not, however, the best way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society.

While watching Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” unfold, remember this: Street demonstrations can unexpectedly bring extremists into power, as they did in Iran in 1979. They can create unrealistic expectations and then unravel, as did the Orange Revolution that began in Ukraine in 2004. And they can end badly, with reactionary violence, like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square.

By contrast, the most successful transitions to democracy are often undramatic. Consider Spain, after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco; Chile, after the resignation of Gen. Augusto Pinochet; or Poland, which negotiated its way out of communism. All these democratic transitions dragged on, created few spectacular photographs—and ultimately led to stable political systems.

But all those transitions were made possible by authoritarian leaders who recognized that the game was up or who, like Franco, had the good sense to die. Tunisia’s president,  Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali—as of Saturday, a resident of Saudi Arabia—didn’t have that kind of foresight. Instead, he created fake opposition parties and a phony parliament, set up a draconian regime that controlled the Internet and beat up the occasional dissident to keep everyone else frightened. A French friend who was in Tunis a few weeks ago told me that the newspapers were so favorable to the president that stories read as if they had been written by Ben Ali’s mother.

Yet the recent outburst of anger in Tunisia was not only predictable, it was predicted:  I was briefly in Tunis three years ago, and people talked of little else except enormous numbers of educated and unemployed young people. Some thought they would turn into a wave of immigrants; others worried they would gravitate to radical Islam; many feared that the chaos in Iraq put them off the idea of democracy.

A month ago, they turned to street protests. So far, this is not an Islamic revolution—but it isn’t a democratic revolution yet, either. Instead, we are witnessing a demographic revolution: the revolt of the frustrated young against their corrupt elders. Anyone who looked at the population numbers and job data could have guessed it might happen, and, as I say, many did.

Yet if it was so obvious, why wasn’t this explosion anticipated, managed, and channeled into elections? If it could be done in Chile, why not in Tunisia? Clearly Ben Ali and his family were too comfortable and too rich. Unlike the Spaniards or the Poles, he didn’t share a continent with other democracies. The war against terrorism gave him a way to justify his authoritarianism: As an ally in the fight against radical Islam, he neatly avoided American pressure.

But Americans don’t matter much in Tunisia, where France, the former colonial power and largest investor, has indulged and supported Ben Ali for decades, both materially and ideologically. While 18th-century France developed the modern philosophy of democracy, the contemporary French commentariat has developed something like a philosophy of anti-democracy. Dismissing Americans and their naive belief in “democracy promotion,” a columnist in Le Figaro argued only last week that all nations have “a right to their own history,” which is more important than their “right to democracy,” whatever that means.

In this school of thinking, Ben Ali was a model dictator: He defended women’s rights, educated his middle class, prevented the radical Islamists from coming to power—and that was enough. Former French President  Jacques Chirac once declared  that “the most important human rights are the rights to be fed, to have health, to be educated, and to be housed.” By that standard, he concluded, Tunisia’s human rights record is “very advanced.”

Ben Ali clearly came to believe this himself. In public, he spouted phony “reform” rhetoric. Meanwhile, his corrupt entourage (many of whom arrived in France over the weekend, installing themselves in a hotel next to Disneyland Paris) created a stagnant and stultifying society, one in which those educated young men and blue-jeans-clad young women had few prospects and knew it. These demonstrations began with the dramatic public suicide of a university-educated 26-year-old who couldn’t make a living as an illegal street vendor. They grew quickly because so many young people sympathized with his plight.

The French were surprised. The Tunisian elite was surprised. Had they not been surprised—had they, like their counterparts in Egypt or Belarus, not been misled by their own anti-democratic ideology and talk of benevolent dictatorship—we might be watching a peaceful and orderly transfer of power in Tunis instead of street riots. I’m delighted to applaud the departure of Ben Ali. I hope the government that emerges in his wake brings Tunisians greater liberty and prosperity. I wish I felt more confident that it will.