Tunis and Beijing, Cities and Transitions

As of the 15th of January, it is clear that there has been a political transition in Tunisia. The long time president, Ben Ali, came to power in a bloodless, even “constitutional coup” (if such things can be; the prior president was declared unfit for office due to senility, according to some sources, and replaced by Ben Ali in accordance with the constitution). Despite this apparent legal framework, the military was (as is nearly always the case in such situations) critical then as it is now.

In 2011 on the 14th of January, Ben Ali flees the country. Initial reports/rumors put him on a plane to Paris or the Gulf. These rumors always exist, but now they are spread to the public through the social networking sites that tend to traffic in this kind of material (i.e. Twitter, Facebook) instead of remaining inside the private confines of embassies and newsrooms. Apparently, his destination was Saudi Arabia.

Ben Ali was pressed out by protests in the streets of the capital, Tunis. In many ways, the story is classic. A lack of economic opportunities and increasing food prices are the background timber upon which an isolated incident can explode into a conflagration that downs the regime. A wrinkle added to this story is new information about the regime’s corruption, presented by wikileaks, had recently come to light. Presumably, many (most? nearly all?) of the people were aware of corruption, but perhaps the fact that this corruption was now common knowledge (I know that you and everyone knows that the regime is corrupt) made a difference.

The spark. A young unemployed university graduate set himself on fire in a small city in the interior of the country (Sidi Bouzid) after local officials/police (*cough chengguan cough*) punish him for illegally selling vegetables on the street without permission. This act sparks protests in that city that are violently put down. Ben Ali replaces the regional governor and promises massive spending on employing university graduates (*cough ant tribe cough*). The protests become more deadly, and by perhaps the 8th and certainly the 12th of January they have spread to Tunis.

Ben Ali flees; the prime minister, Ghannouchi, declares himself president on the 13th (14th?), which lasts for a day or so. The speaker of the legislature is the designated successor in case of an abdication (apparently), and the speaker, Mebazaa, takes power on Saturday. A General Ammar, the top military official, is seen as the one in control, calling the shots and the non-shots, as it were (perhaps telling Ben Ali that the military will no longer fire on the protestors around the 12th).

My arguments tend to focus on the significance of protests in the capital city as a strong indicator or causal factor in the demise of autocratic regimes. Tunis and Tunisia both fit and don’t into the general framework, and that tension is do to a data problem. The Ben Ali regime is a long-lived one. Tunis, in the official city population data of the government of Tunisia, has been growing steadily over time, from 384,000 in 1950 to 711,000 people inside the city limits in 2000. The overall population of the country has grown more quickly, from 3.5 to 10 million over the same time period. As such, Tunis looks, according to this official data, as shrinking in its share of the total population and total urban population of the country. This low level of concentration is associated with long-lived regimes, and so the data fit the model. However, greater Tunis has expanded well beyond its city limits. The population of that area is estimated to be nearly a quarter of the population of the entire country, around 2.5 million people. If this value, rather than the official figure, were the basis of the concentration figures, then rather than pointing towards a long-lived regime, the figures would have predicted a downfall sooner. Of course, there are a number of other factors involved. Tunisia is relatively well-off compared to most non-democracies, has a legislature, and a party structure; all of these point to regime resilience.

A great quotation, from the BBC/Reuters:

1815 Some people in Tunis are reporting that the shops are running out of food. “There isn’t even any flour,” one man told Reuters, “there is nothing. The VIPs have laundered the money and fled and now we are left struggling… My mother will die of starvation. I have not been able to get anything but some pasta and they say they will give us water.” Another one said: “There is no flour, no bread and no water. All the stores are closed; only a few are left open.” And a third added: “There is a lack of security despite so many soldiers in the streets; it is not enough.”

I titled the post Tunis and Beijing because I do think that there are some parallels between the situation that China faces today and that of Tunisia. Tunisia’s economy was growing in real terms in 2010 according to the IMF, and at a decent clip of 3.8% (pdf). Inflation rates were lower in Tunisia than in China today (estimates for 2010 were 3.5% in Tunisia; China’s November rate was 5.1%); of course, food and commodity inflation are higher in both countries. Inequality metrics in China exceed but are comparable those in Tunisia (.40 ~ .50). The over-active local policing units dealing with unemployed college graduates sound eerily familiar to students of contemporary Chinese political economy with the chengguan and ant tribe issues have come to the fore in recent years.

All of which is to say that the unthinkable can quickly become the inevitable when there isn’t even any flour.

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