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Tunisia at a Tipping Point?

5:00 PM, Jan 19, 2011 • By JONATHAN SCHANZER and KHAIRI ABAZA
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As the situation surrounding the flight of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali last Friday continues to develop, the battle for the future of Tunisia is just beginning. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tunis to force Ben Ali from office, and former prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has announced a unity government. But the protesters continue to call for a more democratic system.

Tunisia at a Tipping Point?

No one can yet say whether democracy is at hand. The new regime has not yet consolidated power, but neither have the protestors calling for liberal reforms. Of all the groups that have participated in this street revolution, the Islamists are clearly the most organized opposition group, as they were during the Iranian revolution in 1979.

The fear of Islamism in Tunisia is well founded. The movement has grown steadily since the 1960s, when devout Muslims lashed out at President Habib Bourguiba for drinking a glass of orange juice on television during Ramadan. In 1987, after Bourguiba arrested over 3,000 Islamists, street riots erupted and four Tunisian hotels were bombed. When Ben Ali assumed power later that year, he suppressed the Islamists, but their ideology has only grown more popular over the years.

It is now reasonable to assume that Tunisia’s Islamists may exploit the current unrest to assume power in the country. They can be expected to use the appeal of the mosque, coupled with the financial, political, and paramilitary support of their international sponsors, including Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1987, the West championed Ben Ali as a means of ensuring stability in Tunisia amid rising Islamist sentiment and economic challenge. European capitals hoped Tunisia would remain a stable and secular neighbor, and looked the other way when Ben Ali suppressed his political challengers, including Islamists. Other authoritarian regimes in the Arab world continue to enjoy Western support, which is often described as a means of preventing the rise of a new Iran-style theocracy on the Mediterranean.

In the cyclical history of modern Arab countries, however, autocracies ultimately give way to frustration and instability. The regime now could offer some small cosmetic changes to placate Tunisia’s angry masses. However, it could also simply regain control by oppression. Neither approach will solve Tunisia’s endemic problems. As such, Washington cannot afford to throw its support behind Ghannouchi, or any other representative of what now appears to be a palace coup.

Optimists posit that we are witnessing the green shoots of liberal democracy. When Ben Ali stepped down on Friday, they hailed the day as the fall of a ruthless autocrat, and a potential win for Arab reformers.

They may be right. The protests were organic, beginning in December, when the regime confiscated produce from Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed young man who was selling them without a permit. The despondent Bouazizi set himself on fire, nearly killing himself, sparking demonstrations in which protesters burned tires and chanted slogans demanding jobs. Protests soon spread to other parts of the country. Less than one month later, a spontaneous popular revolution, led by women, youth, the middle classes, and Tunisians of all political colors has brought a dictator of 23 years to his knees.  

If Tunisia fell to the Islamists, it could spark a wave of Islamism across North Africa, and produce unpleasant echoes among the Islamists north of the Mediterranean, particularly in France and Italy, where large Tunisian communities reside. It could also trigger a wave of migration to Europe, if Tunisians flee from Islamist rule.

In the coming days and weeks, as new leaders emerge from the chaos in Tunisia, the U.S. and its allies must support nothing less than a genuine liberal democratic process. They must encourage Tunisia’s new leaders to create a government that is transparent and accountable to its people – a political space where conflicting ideologies can coexist, where majority rules, and where the rights of minorities are protected. More importantly, the White House must speak out if Tunisia’s new leaders promise democracy, but fail to provide the political rights that Tunisians have earned.

This is an opportunity to ensure a political transition in the Arab world that results in neither theocracy nor autocracy. The former has been a force for instability to both Arab states and Europe. The latter creates a façade of stability, but ultimately gives way to great tumult.

Khairi Abaza is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Jonathan Schanzer is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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