By Ayoub AlBahri
Almost a decade ago, the Tunisian Revolution of 2011 broke out. Seeing the outcome of it, several other Arab nations followed course in what has become known as the Arab Spring.
This latter is by far the most important event in the Arab World since Arab nations got their independence after the Second World War.
The Importance of the Middle Class
Defining middle class can be tricky because wealth, culture, average income, Power Purchasing Parity, and social equality differ from one country to another.
But, in absolute terms, most sociological definitions are in line with Weber’s socio-economic terms that fall between the working class (lower class) and the richest class (upper class) of any society.
Karl Marx does as well have his own view on social classes that relies heavily on historical materialism. Nevertheless, Marxism is irrelevant to the study of the Arab Spring societies since none of them is modeled the way Marx preached.
In the Weberian view, however, class is one of the aspects of distribution of power as he believed that “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests” (Weber, 1978: 53).
He further explains power as the chance for an individual or a group of people “to realize their own will in communal action, even against the resistance of others”.
Accordingly, identifying and seizing the right moment to concentrate this power and use it becomes an empirical question for there are no identifiable landmarks or milestones.
In the light of the Weberian definition of power, one can determine that the domination of one class over an entire society would lead to the prevalence of this class and its values over society.
At first glance, this might seem like a stereotypical top-to-bottom approach of aristocracy. In the context of revolutions, however, a middle class is classically perceived as the class that seeks to establish democracy and rule of law.
The reason when thinking in absolute terms is that middle class is usually more educated than the working class, hence understands democracy in values and practice beyond material needs.
Moreover, middle class needs democracy to protect and develop its political and economic rights. Had a society been dominated by the working class, it would need two revolutionary upgrades to reach the same sophistication of demands that a middle class would opt for.
The rich class, on the other hand, has typically kept itself out of the business of revolutions and hard confrontations with the state, not to mention being always a demographic minority.
A crucial factor that contributed to the success of the Tunisian Revolution was the horizontal relationship of members of the Tunisian society, which is thanks to the fact that most Tunisians belong to the middle class.
By contrast, the middle and upper class in Egypt are a minority compared to the working class. This middle-class dominance helped Tunisians identify with each other once ousting the Ben Ali regime became a popular demand.
Unlike the Marxist opinion that middle classes go against history – empirical evidence have proved that this latter has always been a driving engine for societies and an index of development.
In fact, some scholars refer to the global importance of middle class as a driver of change in developing countries as this class is equipped with enough potential to push for more reforms and true democracy.
In the Tunisian context, it took less than a month from the breakout of the protests that followed the death of Mohamed Bouazizi to the departure of Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia (17 December 2010 – 14 January 2011), hence setting an example for the rest of the Arab world.
In addition to the fact that the Revolution was a cross-class alliance in demands and aspirations. The relatively easy and quick mobility of protestors was largely thanks to the dominance of the middle class as the leading majority of the Tunisian population, which in turn aimed at post-materialist demands.
By looking at the previous table; if we were to consider the “vulnerable” and “poor” together in one group. The majority of population in this sample of Arab Spring countries belongs to the vulnerable and poor.
The only exception was Tunisia where the “middle and upper” class is more than half of the population. In fact, the size of this group being 50.7% is more than double of the average, 22.73%, of the four sample countries.
From the opposite direction, the poor in Tunisia were less than 10%, which is less than half of the average for the survey countries being 25.6%.
Libya is not present in the sample because, for political reasons, surveys and pollswere rarely conducted during the Gaddafi era.
Everything considered, some researchers suggest citizens’ satisfaction with the status quo in a given country as one of the criteria of class belonging.
In this respect, statesmen in developing countries more often than not disregard political rights and civil liberties out of the assumption that their citizens would surrender them in return for economic growth (It’s NOT always about the money, stupid!).
This assumption has repeatedly proved to be wrong because personal wealth does not quell citizens’ eagerness to participate in the decision-making process of the state nor makes up for alienating them from participating in governing their country.
In practical terms, monetary welfare does not affect factors of citizen satisfaction with the government such as good governance, trust in the system, perception of corruption, and overall country development.
The authors of the World Bank study who put together the data on the previoustablesuggest that “relying exclusively on objective data to measure welfare dynamics accurately is difficult, if not impossible”.
They also believe that it is better to set national thresholds for every country depending on its circumstances then asking people where they would classify themselves and cross-check that with data. Just like sizing classes, global thresholds of welfare are not easily recognizable either.
Hence, the feeling of deprivation of freedoms and political rights accumulates over time and leads up to confrontation. Still in the context of the Arab Spring, the World Bank noted that by 2010, people in the Arab Spring countries were among the least happy in the world with “dissatisfaction widespread but more pronounced for the middle 40% of the population than the bottom 40%.
That, again, with Tunisia having more than double the average of middle class citizens among Arab Spring countries, it is no wonder that Tunisian middle class was the driving force of change in Tunisia and consequently in the whole region.
Not only did the Tunisian Revolution get Tunisians rid of the autocracy of Ben Ali and his kleptocratic gang, but it also helped them acquire their full political rights to mirror the true ideals of democracy.
This refurbishes the relationship between society and the political elite in the way that the people have the last say, which is the very essence of democracy.
Moreover, Tunisians now enjoy the liberty to criticize openly politicians and public authority figures without fear of prosecution. Before 2011, one would refrain from criticizing the regime even behind closed doors.
What could be worse was to belong to an opposition party that was outlawed by the regime regardless of being right or left.
Such political activity would often lead to arrest, imprisonment, and torture – which is usually followed by deprivation of basic civil rights such as work, healthcare, and holding a passport to name a few.
Though the domino effect of the Arab Spring that started in Tunisia did not produce the same results in all countries, it, nevertheless, helped people realize the amount of power they have.
Even if not all attempts to transition from dictatorship to democracy succeeded, Arab citizens upgraded their political awareness from being passive receivers to critical thinkers.
Furthermore, the Arab Spring contradicted earlier theories that associated democracy solely with the West and that trying to spread democracy as a Western value, rather than a global one, would lead to a clash of civilizations.
Dr. Mohamed Moncef Marzouki, the first post-Revolution president and a human rights activist, tells an anecdote to debunk the statement of “Arabs and Muslims are not fit for democracy”.
He says that an Italian member of parliament once told him: “When Italy first became a republic, Brits used to say that Italy cannot be a democracy. Why? Because democracy has Protestantism for religion while Italy is Catholic.”
Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies