Among the Middle East's authoritarian leaders, there's a mantra: economic development takes precedence over civil freedoms and human rights. Things such as free speech, assembly, association and competitive elections - these will only lead to instability, which will damage the people's principal concern, namely their wallets. Human rights just get in the way.
Tunisia was a poster child for such thinking. Growth stood between 5 and 6 percent in recent years, home ownership stood at 80 percent according to government statistics, and the poverty rate was about 2.5 percent. The latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness report ranks Tunisia 31st, far ahead of most of its Arab neighbors. The country presented itself as a successful Western-looking nation, minus the liberties, of course. Those would come later, maybe.
The long rule of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali supposedly proved that aforementioned mantra that stability comes not from democracy, but from prosperity. Never mind the niggling detail that this domestic tranquility was anchored in repression, the beating of dissidents, torture and fake elections.
Yet it all collapsed with startling speed, with the failure of "trickle-down economics" to produce jobs sparking the unrest. A young college graduate, underemployed as a fruit vendor, set himself on fire and ignited a national revolt. It was not just his economic frustration that led him to this fateful act: He was humiliated by the police, who unceremoniously shut down his business. To say that the riots stemmed only from adisconnect between growth and job creation would underestimate the hunger for freedoms, especially as security forces began to fire on protesters, wounding and killing many.
Ask the crowds still demonstrating in Tunis. They want rights, too. On January 13, Ben Ali tried a last-ditch appeal to calm protesters by pledging to leave office in three years and to lift censorship. Too little, far too late. He left for exile the next day.
After his exit, crowds gathered daily - met with violence from the police, tear gas and beatings - to reject the interim cabinet, which is dominated by leftovers from the previous government. Veteran human rights activist Moncef Marzouki arrived at the Tunis airport from exile in Paris and called the interim government a "masquerade." Supporters and bystanders called for freedom.
Is there a lesson here for the region's other Arab leaders? They too follow the same economy-first dogma. Take Egypt, for example. Last November, the finance minister, Youssef Boutros Ghali, wrote in the Washington Post that what "matters most to ordinary Egyptians is their standard of living." He went on to boast of Egypt's independent media and Internet freedom in what he called a "healthy political space." A few days later, Egypt's parliamentary elections turned farcical as opposition candidates were thrown off ballots, election monitors - even those from participating parties - were barred from polling places and police disrupted campaign rallies. As of this writing, thousands of protestors were still in the streets of Cairo, calling for an end to the regime.
Algeria, statistically booming from natural gas sales to Europe and beyond, has been beset by strikes and self-immolations, while a series of copycat immolations from Morocco and Saudi Arabia are becoming a potent symbol of hopelessness. Wikileaks is credited widely with opening Tunisian eyes to the corruption central to the people's frustration. A 2008 cable from the US embassy in Tunis detailed the lucrative wheeling and dealing of Ben Ali's extended "family." But it's not as if Tunisians weren't already aware of corruption. I've had taxi tours of Tunis in which embittered drivers pointed out lands and projects controlled by relatives of Ben Ali. In Cairo and Damascus it is much the same: pals of the powers-that-be dominate the development landscape. In these countries, citizens have no conduit for their complaints, much less ways to persuade anyone to crack down. The impunity that allows rampant human rights abuses also shields despots from scrutiny of their business dealings.
Tunisia's saga shows there is a limit to the growth-without-freedom model. Prosperity statistics don't erase the degradation of arbitrary rule. Freedoms may not do away with the frustrations of a country's youth, but they at least would offer a channel for influence. Getting rid of Ben Ali is not enough; full respect for speech, association and participation in political life, as well as economic rights, is what is needed.
Daniel Williams is a senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights