Nicaragua and lessons from the 'Arab Spring'

Nicaragua and lessons from the 'Arab Spring'

Nicaragua is in the throes of a bloody anti-authoritarian uprising. President Daniel Ortega has refused to step down or call early elections, and the protest movement that began in mid-April has led to mounting violence.

Tunisia had a similar uprising in 2011. Surprising parallels with Nicaragua suggest that those events may offer lessons for the international community on the importance of supporting dialogue and long-term transition planning.

As in Tunisia, Nicaragua’s crisis began with a single incident that inflamed deep resentment toward the government. In Nicaragua, it was the abrupt reform of the social security system; in Tunisia, it was a slap delivered by a policewoman to a young fruit vendor who refused to pay a bribe. Thanks to social media and key societal groups – in Tunisia, labor unions and professional associations; in Nicaragua, students, farmers, and the business community – localized protests rapidly transformed into a broader movement calling for the dictator to step down. Like then-Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Ortega quickly attempted to placate protestors while also accusing them of being vandals and terrorists. On the streets of both Nicaragua and Tunisia, police and paramilitary gangs used violence against peaceful protestors, contributing to a general security breakdown.

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Ben Ali, like Ortega, had come to power promising change, then quickly clamped down on human rights and democratic institutions. Both presidents employed similar tactics for consolidating power, including tampering with elections and amending the constitution to extend presidential term limits. By the time protests began, both men's wives had become symbols of their corrupt and autocratic regimes.

 

The popular unrest in both countries came as a surprise to many. Tunisia was experiencing economic growth under Ben Ali and had a relatively peaceful history. Nicaragua, despite its 1979 revolution that brought Ortega to power, enjoyed a reputation as one of Central America’s more peaceful countries. Under Ortega, poverty fell by almost half.

But the Nicaraguan uprising diverged from the Tunisian one when Ortega, unlike Ben Ali, refused to resign. Today, Nicaragua is at a critical juncture: the government can acknowledge citizens’ demands and engage in genuine democratic reform, or it can continue to resist, perpetuating the bloody standoff.

It is in everyone’s interest for stability to be restored in Nicaragua. If the country is overtaken by mob violence – which some see as a real possibility, – out-migration from Nicaragua could quickly approach the levels of its Central American neighbors.

To prevent further deterioration of conditions in Nicaragua and a potential migration crisis, the international community should apply lessons from the Arab Spring to help Nicaragua follow a Tunisian track rather than go the way of Libya or Egypt.

First, the Tunisians who guided the political transition immediately following Ben Ali’s departure adopted consensus-based processes. This is important because people living under dictatorships are not accustomed to open dialogue and debate. The collapse of Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia surfaced severe social and political tensions that have continued to challenge its democracy-building project. Nicaragua’s protestors, while unified in their opposition to Ortega, are still working to overcome internal divisions. Because dramatic political upheaval in any country leaves different groups vying for power and control, care must be taken now to establish processes and rules for dialogue and genuine inclusion. Rushing to elections can – as events in Libya have shown – bring disastrous consequences. Thus, despite calls for early elections the international community should continue prioritizing dialogue and inclusive decision-making.

Second, the international community can help ensure that Nicaragua’s unrest does not downspiral even if Ortega concedes power. Continued repression in Egypt shows that authoritarian rule does not necessarily end when a dictator steps down. The example of international intervention in Libya in 2011 should underscore the importance of long-term planning in a country on the brink of civil war.

As is common during political transitions, calls are already being made in Nicaragua for justice to be brought to those who committed crimes during the uprisings. Tunisia’s on-going experience with transitional justice has demonstrated the central role such processes can play in overcoming conflict. The international community can use this example to support an effective democratization process in Nicaragua by continuing to provide independent human rights monitors as well as outside expertise.

After Ben Ali’s fall, international donors poured funds into Tunisia to support its democracy-building process. While these funds have slowed, the process continues, thanks in large part due to the work of Tunisians themselves as well as continued foreign assistance.

Nicaraguan protestors are now showing the same courage as their Tunisian counterparts of seven years ago, and the international community owes them equal support. 

Sabina Henneberg received her Ph.D. and M.A. in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. Her doctoral dissertation focused on the first interim governments in Tunisia and Libya following the 2011 Arab uprisings. She has worked in Africa and the Middle East on international education and civil society development, and is currently a senior project specialist at American Institutes for Research (AIR), where she manages the USAID-funded Latin America Reading Capacity Program. She also is a visiting scholar at SAIS, where she continues to research and publish on issues relating to political transitions in North Africa.