Lion's Den: Tunisia's uncertain impact

With cruel, dull, greedy leaders overthrown, one must look ahead with trepidation to the Islamist implications of this upheaval.

The sudden yet unexplained exit of Tunisia’s strongman, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 74, after 23 years in power has potential implications for the Middle East and for Muslims worldwide. As an Egyptian commentator noted: “Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear. Every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity.”
I watch with both emotions.
During the first era of independence, until about 1970, governments in Arabic speaking countries were frequently overthrown as troops under the control of discontented colonels streamed into the capitals, seized the presidential quarters and the radio station, then announced a new regime. Syrians endured three such coups d’état in 1949 alone.
Over time, regimes learned to protect themselves via overlapping intelligence services, reliance on family and tribal members, repression and other mechanisms. Four decades of sclerotic, sterile stability followed. With only rare exceptions (Iraq in 2003, Gaza in 2007) did regimes get ousted; even more rarely (Sudan in 1985) did civilian dissent play a significant role.
ENTER FIRST Al-Jazeera, which focuses Arab-wide attention on topics of its choosing, and then the Internet. Beyond its inexpensive, detailed and timely information, the Internet also provides unprecedented secrets (e.g., the recent WikiLeaks dump of US diplomatic cables), even as it connects the like-minded (via Facebook and Twitter). These new forces converged in Tunisia in December to create an intifada that quickly ousted an entrenched tyrant.
If one exults in the power of the disenfranchised to overthrow their dull, cruel and greedy masters, one also looks ahead with trepidation to the Islamist implications of this upheaval. The first worry concerns Tunisia itself. For all his faults, Ben Ali stood stalwart as a foe of Islamism, battling not only the terrorists but also (somewhat as in pre-2002 Turkey) the soft jihadists in schoolrooms and television studios. A former interior minister, however, he underestimated Islamists, seeing them more as criminals than as committed ideologues. His not allowing alternate Islamic outlooks could now prove to be a great mistake.
Tunisian Islamists had a minimal role in overthrowing Ben Ali, but they will surely scramble to exploit the opportunity that has opened to them. Indeed, the leader of Tunisia’s main Islamist organization, Ennahda, has announced his first return to the country since 1989. Does Interim President Fouad Mebazaa, 77, have the savvy or political credibility to maintain power? Will the military keep the old guard in power? Do moderate forces have the cohesion and vision to deflect an Islamist surge?
The second worry concerns nearby Europe, already incompetent at dealing with its Islamist challenge. Were Ennahda to take power and then expand networks, provide funds and perhaps smuggle arms to allies in Europe, it could greatly exacerbate existing problems there.
The third and greatest worry concerns the possible domino effect on other Arabic- speaking countries. This fast, seemingly easy and relatively bloodless coup d’état could inspire Islamists globally to sweep away their own tyrants.
All four North African littoral states – Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt – fit this description, as do Syria, Jordan and Yemen to the east. That Ben Ali took refuge in Saudi Arabia implicates that country too. Pakistan could also fit the template. In contrast to the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, which required a charismatic leader, millions on the street and a full year’s worth of effort, events in Tunisia unfolded quickly and in a more generic, reproducible way.
What Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly said of a Latin America dictator – “He’s a bastard but he’s our bastard” – applies to Ben Ali and many other Arab strongmen, leaving US government policy in seeming disarray.
Barack Obama’s ambiguous after-the-fact declaration that he “applaud[s] the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” can conveniently be read either as a warning to assorted other bastards or as a better-late-than-never recognition of awkward facts on the ground.
AS WASHINGTON sorts out options, I urge the administration to adopt two policies. First, renew the push for democratization initiated by George W. Bush in 2003, but this time with due caution, intelligence and modesty, recognizing that his flawed implementation inadvertently helped the Islamists acquire more power. Second, focus on Islamism as the civilized world’s greatest enemy and stand with our allies, including those in Tunisia, to fight this blight.
The writer is director of the Middle East Forum, and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He lived in Tunisia in 1970.