Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali abandoned his post on Friday after 23 years, and has reportedly landed in Saudi Arabia. To retire from the position of president-for-life is an exceedingly rare move for an Arab regime chief. Indeed, no modern Arab ruler before Ben Ali has ever willingly stepped aside. Most transfers of power in the region are either through inheritance or coup, bloodless or otherwise.
Ben Ali’s accession to the presidency was a relatively peaceful affair, when he replaced Habib Borguiba whom Ben Ali, then the prime minister, deemed no longer capable of ruling. Borguiba is regarded as the father of modern, and secular, Tunisia—he’s the Tunisian Ataturk. The paradox is that the reforms that led to Tunis’s pro-Western orientation were earned through oppressive and extreme—i.e., non-democratic, non-Western—measures at the hands of the country’s security services. If in the past these intelligence agencies had done the lion’s share of their work behind closed doors (most likely torturing the Islamist opposition since the fundamentalists are always those most likely to oppose Westernizing reforms and challenge any Muslim regime’s political legitimacy), they’ve spent the last few weeks in the open daylight cracking open the skulls of protestors in the streets. Pictures and videos taken from the emergency rooms holding wounded and murdered demonstrators have been circulating the last few days, which likely helped turn the international consensus against the Tunis government and hastened Ben Ali’s downward spiral. The question is, did Washington play any role in toppling an Arab strongman?
Over the last two years the Obama administration has rightly been excoriated for ignoring human rights issues throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East. The White House gave a free pass to allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that the Bush team had pressed for reforms. The adversaries that the previous administration sought to isolate like Syria, which locked up its own dissidents while murdering Lebanese activists, Obama wanted to engage. But Thursday afternoon in Doha Secretary Clinton fired a shot across the bow of the Arab political order.
In the Middle East, Clinton said:
one in five young people is unemployed. And in some places, the percentage is far more. While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reform to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open. And all this is taking place against a backdrop of depleting resources: water tables are dropping, oil reserves are running out, and too few countries have adopted long-term plans for addressing these problems.
In taking the side of Arab individuals against their ruling regimes, Clinton was reminiscent of the most optimistic days of the Bush administration’s freedom agenda, circa 2005. It is worth wondering what Clinton’s words might have indicated to both the regime and its opponents.
Everyone in the region will want to know where the Americans stand on last week’s happenings in Tunisia. Is Obama publicly hailing the “courage and dignity of the Tunisian people,” while privately dreading how the fall of a U.S. ally might affect regional stability? Is the administration frustrated that events on the periphery of the Middle East are overtaking their policy priorities in what they perceive to be the red-hot center of the region, namely the Arab-Israeli peace process? Or does a president with seemingly little room to maneuver on domestic policy ride a wave of optimism in a part of the world to which he seems especially attached?
These questions are urgent. As if in accompaniment to the protests in Tunisia, there were demonstrations the last week in neighboring Algeria, and after a decades-long war the regime waged against a maniacally violent Islamist insurgency, Algiers has a much sturdier stomach for blood and gore than Ben Ali. Their ruling elite will want to know what Washington is thinking now and how hard they can fight to maintain their hold on power, and perhaps their lives, before they, too, may have to flee.
Everyone around the region is watching—not least of all 83-year-old Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled for almost thirty years and shows no signs yet of letting up, despite his poor health. Even if Mubarak’s 80 million subjects are still loath to go to the streets themselves, Washington can point to last week’s events in Tunis as a lesson in what happens to despots who have overstayed their welcome—if they’re lucky they get to walk away under their own power.
Still, we shouldn’t expect any sort of immediate domino effect around the region—and we don’t even know what happens next in Tunisia. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi is running the show while he consults with Arab allies, France, and Washington. We know there are thousands of brave Tunisians who’ve won something special, and would constitute the core of a future democratic government. But as we’ve seen over the last five years, liberal democracy is not necessarily what follows once the despots have been driven out.