29 Jan 2011

Echoes of ‘horizontal democracy’ from north Africa in Davos

It was quite some moment. Applause at the arrival of two new ministers in the Tunisian government alongside the new Central Bank governor at Davos. They made a point to fly here to communicate that Tunisia was not “in chaos” and that it was time for the financiers to stop doing inadvertent harm to their largely peaceful revolution.For one high profile Arab figure this was proof of the lie that 300 million people in the Middle East  did not want people power. “The way in which the west has dealt with us for decades” through strongman dictatorships, is finished forever, he said. “When you make 300 million people irrelevant in the world, then you create the conditions for extremism” he added.

Tunisia’s new infrastructure minister, in office for 24 hours, “We dont need a charismatic leader… This is horizontal democracy”. He told the story of @slim404 detained by the authorities for his online activities against the Ben Ali regime now minister for youth and sport, who livetweeted the interim government’s first cabinet meeting.

And the words on everyone’s lips: who is next? Tunisia’s general level of education is higher than the average in the region. People power might look quite different in Egypt or Jordan or Syria or even Saudi Arabia. The consensus was that the Gulf countries might not face the same pressures because there is no semblance of popular mandate there. Bahrain was mentioned as an exception because of the Sunni monarchy ruling over a predominantly Shia population.

It is not absurd to think of the role of business and financiers. Rmember it was mining companies that facilitated the first secret talks between South African apartheid regime and the ANC at a stately home in Somerset. Egypt has actually done fairly well economically in recent years. The issue is that most of that went to the elite. What this troubled region needs more than anything is to turn an educated mass of young people, many highly educated in to a real middle class.

I was amazed by the sight of a leading US establishment figure asking the Tunisians what they wanted from western governments, businesses and the media.

For now the advice of the new Tunisian Central bank governor (who had to count all the gold to make sure Ben Ali’s family had not taken it) was clear and instructive. “Do no harm”.