On January 14, the strongman of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled in panic
to Saudi Arabia after the astonishingly spontaneous, Facebook-driven crumbling
of his corrupt regime. On January 25, Hizbullah – the terrorist strongman of
Lebanon – grabbed the reins of power in that beleaguered country. Between them,
these two events describe the present crisis and tumult in the Arab
History will record that the impetus in Tunisia was the December
17 selfimmolation of Muhammad Bouazizi, a harassed and despondent 26-year-old
fruit vendor in the country’s rough interior. Copycat suicides soon followed in
Cairo and Algiers, as well as anti-government protests in Jordan and Morocco.
Ayman Nour, the reformist Egyptian politician, wondered hopefully whether Egypt
might follow the Tunisian model; within days, mass demonstrations in that
country were raising hopes even higher.
In the West Bank, an alarmed
Palestinian Authority barred rallies in support of the Tunisian overthrow. Even
Amr Moussa, chief of the Arab League, acknowledged what events in Tunisia had
exposed: that poverty, unemployment and frustration had broken the entire “Arab
In the past days, Arabs and foreigners alike have been asking
whether the Tunisian upheaval augurs a domino-like series of Jasmine revolutions
– and, at long last, the emergence of regional democracy. By this, they do not
mean the all-too-familiar and false democracy of “one man, one vote, one time,”
à la Hamas’s lopsided victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, Hizbullah’s
2009 capture of 88 percent of the Shi’ite vote in Lebanese balloting or the 1992
elections in Algeria – won, against all expectations, by the extremist Islamic
Salvation Front. Rather, they have in mind a genuine movement of political
institution-building that will ensure pluralism, civil liberties and the rule of
IN THINKING about the current situation, however, it is well to bear
in mind that despite the Western tendency to treat Arab countries as one
undifferentiated mass, each has its own circumstances.
Tunisia, the test
case of the moment, is relatively well-off and demographically cohesive, with
notably educated elites. Although the country’s interior is depressed, the coast
has experienced sustained economic growth.
Indeed, as the consummate
foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan has emphasized, Tunisia boasts a history
of prosperity and stability, a post-colonial political culture of secularism and
a legacy of political moderation shaped by its founder Habib
In fact, Kaplan ascribes Tunisia’s current troubles to the
flip side of its comparative achievements: namely, the failure to meet the
rising expectations of a populace whose median age is 29.
the country switch from the “not free” to the “free” camp? Cautiously, Kaplan
concludes that “Despite all [its] advantages..., Tunisia’s path forward is
His caution is well taken. For one thing, there is no
coherent political opposition in Tunisia (or Egypt, for that matter), much less
one led by democrats. Moreover, it is too soon to know what role, if any, will
be played by Islamists. For now, they are not in the vanguard of the struggle,
and those who have emerged after decades of government persecution claim to
stand for a distinctively moderate strain. Things may become clearer if and when
Rachid al-Gannushi, the 70- year-old leader of the Islamist “Renaissance Party,”
returns to Tunis from his London exile, and the extent of his group’s influence
can be gauged. Gannushi, with ties to Iran, violently opposes the existence of
ELSEWHERE, THE path forward is even more treacherous. No Arab
land, even taking into account the still highly uncertain case of post-Saddam
Iraq, has become fertile ground for Western-style democracy. Everywhere, voices
calling for democratic reform and groups championing civil society are weak.
Autocratic leaders like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt have snuffed out freedom-minded
dissent, perhaps even more aggressively than they have crushed challenges from
To some seasoned observers, events in Tunisia can be seen
as sending a warning signal to Syria, Libya and (non-Arab) Iran that, in the
words of the North Africa specialist Michael Laskier, “they could be next in
But how each of those regimes reacts is very much an open
question. Will it permit evolutionary change? Will dissident movements be
hijacked by oldguard politicians or by Islamists? Will the democratic impulse
fizzle out as army generals seek to restore order? No less important – indeed,
crucially so – is whether the Western democracies, and above all the US, throw
their weight behind the reformers or the autocrats.
from afar, may nostalgically recall that Tunisia’s Bourguiba was among those who
early on favored Arab-Israel peace (though he also provided sanctuary to Yasser
Arafat after the latter’s 1982 ouster from Lebanon), and allowed his country’s
100,000 Jews to leave for France and Israel. Under Ben Ali, Israelis have been
able to travel to Tunisia on their own country’s passports.
So no nation
would be happier to see Arab democracy take root in moderate Tunisia, or for it
to serve as a beacon for the entire region.
But then, there are all the
obstacles between here and there. And there is Lebanon: a warning if ever there
was one against the tendency to indulge in wishful thinking.The writer
is a former
Jerusalem Post editorial page editor, and is now contributing editor
to Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com), where this article was first
published and is reprinted with permission.