by Brahim Guizani, Ph.D
These days, we Tunisians are celebrating the revolution of January 14, 2011. This event will be one of the main turning points that history books will tell about for centuries to come. Only history will be able to judge how deep are the changes this revolution has brought, and how successful it was. As in any major upheaval, there are always uncertainties, anxieties, and certainly a lot of fear. This is why the chance for success for any revolution will depend mainly on the sacrifices a society is ready to make, and especially on the wisdom of its leadership, whether politicians, intellectuals, unions, thinkers, or civil society. Learning from other experiences, especially successful ones, can smooth the path of any post-uprising transition period. It is indeed the transition process that represents the most dangerous and fragile stage in the history of any revolution, in which self-interest groups try to deviate from it to the detriment of the common good, playing on the pervasive confusion such a society lives through.
I am going to make a comparison between two very sensitive transition situations: Post-World War II Japan and and post-January 14 Tunisia. I think the lessons we can learn from the Japanese case are very important for safeguarding a successful transition of the first Arab Spring country. A transition, if it succeeds, will very likely cause a wave of change over many other countries, especially in democracy-free Arab lands. The keys of success of the Japanese transition process have permitted this almost completely destroyed and defeated East Asian country to overcome its harsh problems and deep humiliation and rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes of two catastrophic atomic bombs.
What is striking in post-WWII Japan, especially for a Tunisian Arab like me, is that Japanese people did not stop at the level of blaming their war enemies, the Americans, for their disastrous fate. They went further by looking courageously into their share of responsibility in their tragedy. The Japanese placed responsibility on their own pre-war policies taken by the so-called ˜militarist' regime, an oppressive authoritarian government they had previously endorsed.
Recall that after surrender brought the hostilities of World War II to a close, Japan found itself with casualties of six million deaths representing one-third of the urban population. 200,000 thousand innocent lives were burned alive by the atomic bombs dropped in on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Despite the fact that Japanese had the clear and firm feeling that only democracy can guarantee a lasting and eagerly aspired peace, political, economic, and social life in post-WWII Japan was not free from turmoils, difficulties, and sometimes dangerous threats.
Like the Tunisians after the revolution, the Japanese had to write a new postwar constitution. This process took two years and the new Constitution has clearly emphasized eternal and inviolated fundamental Human Rights and banned all discrimination. A constitutional court was then established. This process proceeded during a period characterized by an intellectually confused and politically divided postwar Japan. Similar to Tunisia now, at that time the Japanese polity was experiencing a deep political cleavage. After the war, two hostile political groups were sorted out: the Conservatives and the Reformists/Progressives, whose confrontation was always very heated. This is exactly what is going on currently in Tunisia, where the confrontation between the two major political parties, the Religious/Conservatives and the Secularists/Reformists, has rarely calmed down since most the abolition of most political constraints in the aftermath of January 14, 2011.
Similarities between Tunisia and Japan can be found as well in the resurgence of trade unions after both country’s upheavals. After the war, Japanese labor leaders built up a rapidly flourishing assertive labor movement. Unions were mostly controlled by communist-oriented leaders who showed more interest in political agitation than bargaining with the managers of the firms. They constantly went on strikes, and frequently held public parades and demonstrations. Astonishingly, similar to several post-January 14 incidents in Tunisia, they even seized plants and ran them itself.
The Japanese economy after the war was, however, far worse than post-January 14 Tunisia. The economy had been suffering from very huge and threatening difficulties in the days after the surrender. The war has indeed dropped the industrial production to the seventh of what it had been in 1941, leaving thousands without jobs. The reform programs that the post-war governments had to implement forced them to live beyond their means, contributing to an unbearable rise in the cost of living. This increasing budget deficit of the post-revolution governments was the case in both cases.
These striking similarities between Tunisia and Japan show to a certain extent that the odds that follow any upheaval can be even found in the history of a country very well-known for its very calm and disciplined society. However, I believe that it is very crucial for any society experiencing a major change to know the safeguards that can guarantee the success of its turmoiled transition. The Japanese experience can, I think, provide very useful lessons for Tunisians. Here are some of these lessons:
Even though the Japanese political class was deeply divided and the confrontation between the Conservatives and the Progressives was very heated, in an environment characterized by a fragile and close-to-collapse economy, all Japanese agreed upon few things. These few things were of crucial importance to the success of their transition.
The first key to success was economic. The Japanese agreed that economic recovery must take precedence over all concerns. This consensus represented the main reason behind the miraculous quick recovery of the Japanese economy and its amazing boom in the 1960s. Japanese rationalism and hard work will allow this humiliated country to become the second largest economy in the world less than three decades after the war.
The second key to success upon which Japanese agreed was political. The Japanese realized that authoritarian rule of any sort must be avoided if catastrophes such as those caused by the militarist regime just before and during the war, were to be prevented from happening again. Democracy was an ideal on which all could unite.
A third, and by no means no less important, point was the willingness of the Americans, the occupation forces of the time, to accelerate and smooth the transitional process in Japan.
For Tunisia, it is clear that the West, especially the Americans, are showing enthusiasm to assist the transition towards democracy in the first Arab Spring country, maybe the last hope for this Spring to succeed. This was especially apparent in the economic and financial fields through donations and loan guarantees in the international financial markets. However, unlike its Japanese counterpart, the transitional process in Tunisia is still stepping forward very slowly. The political elite seems unaware of the dangerous consequences of this behavior.
Moreover, the economy is obviously taking a secondary place. Except in their populist rhetoric, Tunisian politicians, whether in government or in opposition, are still not showing a serious interest in the deep problems the economy is suffering from, or in developing realistic ways to cope with them. All Tunisians remember that the electoral campaign of October 2011 looked more a struggle between believers and non-believers rather than a debate over economic plans and strategies to improve the economy in the poor regions, the cradle of the revolution.
On the political side, the slowness of the transition-towards-democracy process and its accompanying growing economic troubles, has noticeably harmed citizens' faith in the whole process. Recently, there are many voices who started openly showing nostalgia for the ousted authoritarian but more stable pre-January 14 regime. A few other voices even call for a military coup.
I do not agree with opinions, which I find very shallow and lacking wisdom, that prophesy the Somalization of Tunisia. I believe that the Tunisian citizenry, well-educated and having a long history of civilization at its background, will be capable to find its way to safe shores. The path toward a stable, liberal, and democratic state is already smoothed by an apolitical national army. However, this enthusiastically aspired-to goal will still depend on the maturity of the Tunisian political elite, either in power or in opposition. Unfortunately, this elite is still imprisoned in the jail of its inherited ideological quarrels and tendency toward childish actions.
Brahim Guizani is an assistant professor at the University of Tunis and an alumnus of the Tohoku University in Japan. He would like to thank his friend Hitomi Oikawa for her kind collaboration for the writing of this article. This piece represents the author’s own opinions and not the views of Tunisia Live as a publication.