This House believes that Arab revolutions will just produce different dictators

Tuesday February 22 2011
Tunis, Tunisia

MOTION REJECTED by 26% to 74%


This House believes that Arab revolutions will just produce different dictators

In their first free political debate in nearly three decades, Tunisians have rejected the idea that a new set of strongmen might emerge from the uprisings, rocking the Arab world.

At a special session of The Doha Debates an audience of mainly students and young professionals voted 74 to 26 percent against the motion: "This House believes that Arab revolutions will just produce different dictators".

But one student warned, "What we have inherited from the old regime is like cancer… it needs radical surgery to remove it."

Another won applause when he argued passionately that "Tunisians had the quickest revolution in the world and we will have the quickest democracy too".

The debate took place in the heart of the old city in Tunis, less than a mile from where thousands of demonstrators overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14.

Speaking in favor of the motion were Raoudha Ben Othman, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Tunis, and Kamal Ben Younes, Executive Director of the International Studies Association and Institute Tunisia.

Ben Othman warned that a new dictator could emerge even after the country's first free elections in nearly two decades, scheduled for this summer. She blamed a lack of accountability, transparency and a deep-rooted culture that favors loyalty to individuals, whoever they are.

Ben Younes, a career journalist, was equally downbeat about the political future in Tunisia and Egypt, where the ruling military council has promised elections in six months, following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

He said "thousands" of dictators remained inside the security and political institutions in both capitals. "Only their heads have been cut off, not their bodies."  In addition, he warned that Islamists, banned for years, could capitalize on poor and marginalized populations, to secure gains through the ballot box.

Speaking against the motion were Shibley Telhami, professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, and Fares Mabrouk, founder of the Arab Policy Institute, a new think tank supporting democratic change in the Middle East and North Africa.

Dr. Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, acknowledged there were risks in every transition to democracy. But he said an unprecedented sense of popular empowerment, bolstered by the internet, meant Arab governments could no longer ignore public opinion.

"No one can ever put the genie back in the bottle… dictatorships are over… there is an indigenous momentum that is irreversible."

Mabrouk, the youngest speaker on the panel, said Tunisians had to come up with a new political model, combining human rights, dignity, and the rule of law.

"No one wants chaos. Our new model is not Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Even conservatives in our society are looking at Turkey as a possibility."

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