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Uprisings in the Region and Ignored Indicators

02/09/11 By Ammar Maleki, Rooz Online

What are the underlying factors of the uprising in Tunisia and protests in other countries of the region? Economic problems or political dissents? Although most of the time in such a social predicament the combination of factors plays a role, however, one could ask that which one of economic or political parameter does have an upper hand? and which indicators could help us to have a plausibly objective analysis?

A Glance on Economic and Developmental Indicators

About the Tunisian revolution some believe that it has had roots in economic problems like unemployment and poverty. Another group of analysts relate the protests to the political dissent from the dictatorship. The former have referred their arguments to the initial spark of protest, the suicide of a Tunisian young man who set himself on fire because of the unemployment problem. Despite the fact that it was a shocking start for the movement, yet, reported figures paint a different picture about the economic situation in Tunisia. As illustrated in Table 1, the analysis of various economic and developmental indicators unveils the fact that not only the records of Tunisia are not poor in comparison to its neighbors and other countries1 in the region but in many aspects, Tunisia has a better position. The figures show that Tunisia has better ranking in GDP per capita, Human Development Index, inflation rate, population below poverty line, literacy rate and corruption index than Egypt, Algeria and Yemen. Even in all of these indicators, except GDP and literacy rate, Tunisia is better or almost equal to South Africa and Turkey. Also the unemployment rate in Tunisia, considering the situation in some developed countries like Spain, is not drastically high. Thus, in general, it can be claimed that the economic problems in Tunisia could not be the main fuel of rage to topple the regime.

Now, the question arises on how we can examine other plausible reasons that are linked to the political situation. Regarding the political condition, sometimes a skepticism attitude is seen, questioning the desire of people in these countries towards democracy and whether or not they will appreciate it.

The general belief among some political analysts and many people in the world is that the undemocratic regimes in that region are supported by their nation and there is no reliable indicator to convince them otherwise. But is this a genuine argument or are there indeed any operational indicators that can explain the political factors of a recent uprising in Tunisia and similar protests and movements in the region?

Indicators to Measure the Demand and Supply of Democracy

In order to answer the above question, I will identify some political indicators by which we could plausibly analyze and explain the emergence of such protests. Since 2006, the Economist Intelligence Unit started to produce a biennial report about the state of democracy in 167 countries. They generated an index called "Democracy Index" which is calculated by averaging scores of five defined categories (which in turn are scored in the scale of 0 to 10 based on 60 items2). The score of Democracy Index for each country determines the type of political system in that country; classified as,  full democracies (8-10), flawed democracies (6-8), hybrid regimes (4-6) and authoritarian regimes (<4).

Among five categories3, "Electoral Process and Pluralism"(EPP) measures to what extend the election process is free and fair, how transparent is the allocation of power ,and how acceptable; and whether citizens are free to form political and civic organizations. Another category is "Democratic Political Culture" (DPC) by which the societal acceptance and degree of popular support for democracy is evaluated in a country. In fact, these two are indicators to measure the level of support for democracy by the power-holders and by the citizens respectively. The average score of these two categories for countries in four types of political system are shown in Table 2.

As it is seen and expected, the average score of EPP is extremely low for authoritarian regimes, whereas, the variation between average scores of DPC is surprisingly low. Indeed, the high average score of DPC for full democratic countries is evident to an expected sign of established democracy. However, when comparing the DPC's averages of other types of political systems, an important truth is revealed, in countries with authoritarian regimes the demand for democracy is not overly lower than in countries with democratic regimes. Therefore, it can be argued that if the score of DPC (demand side of democracy) falls around 5.78 - average score published for democratic countries - yet at the same time EPP(supply side of democracy) is scored at the low end, occurrence of a conflict between nation and the government is very plausible. Meaning that a wanted democracy which is not given by the government will be asked by people, sooner or later, violently or nonviolently!

In case of Tunisia and other unrest countries, the reported democracy indicators are as presented below (Table 3), but what are the implications of these numbers?!


We can observe from the table that whereas in those authoritarian regimes the electoral process is completely disrupted, there is a considerable demand for democracy according to their scores of DPC. In case of Tunisia, the score of DPC is 5.63 which is close to the average score of this indicator for democratic countries (5.78). It is interesting that many countries in the region namely Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Morocco and Iran -except Saudi Arabia - have almost similar score of DPC. In the following figure, the scores of two indicators for aforementioned countries are illustrated and accordingly the gap between the demand and supply of democracy can be evidently observed.

Now a better analysis can be presented on why in recent months and weeks in some of these countries, such as Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, we have been observing several movement, uprising and demonstrations. No matter what the initial spark of protest is, either unemployment, poverty or fraudulent election, the underlying demand in all demonstrations has quickly been defined as changing the undemocratic system. If these scores can show a part of the truth at least, then it can be anticipated that the other countries like Morocco, Algeria and Libya can also face the same protests sooner or later.  

The Message of Indicators for Dictators

These political indicators have a serious message for all authoritarian regimes in the region and their allies. The case of Tunisia, in which the economic figures are relatively acceptable, reveals that relying on the positive trend of economic development cannot guarantee the stability of the power position of a dictator. As important as having eyes on economic indicators, is to have an eye on those political indicators which show the volume of the public demand for having a voice and the power of choice. Watch out the numbers dictators!

1)  Spain and South Africa, in addition to other countries in the region, are purposefully mentioned in order to have representatives of all types of political systems

2)  The items are determined by experts' assessments and public opinion surveys. For more information please see "The Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy 2008"

3)  Five categories are: 1-Electoral Process and Pluralism, 2-Functioning of Government, 3-Political Participation, 4- Democratic Political Culture, 5-Civil Liberties

About the author: Ammar Maleki is an Iranian Civil Activist and Public Policy Researcher;

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