RABAT — The crumbling of 23 years of authoritarian rule in Tunisia after only 29 days of mass protest is miraculous. In a region known for sclerotic, autocratic regimes, ex-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s forced exile prompted stunned, jubilant Tunisians to take to the streets to proclaim the victory of their “Jasmine Revolution.”
But is the euphoria justified, or is the upheaval in Tunisia likely to end in tears? And what, if anything, is Washington doing to ensure a successful transition from autocracy to political pluralism?
On Monday, State Department spokesman P.J Crowley announced that the administration had sent a senior envoy to Tunisia earlier that day to underscore American support for a peaceful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. Crowley said that the decision to send Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, to Tunis reflected Washington's desire to "consult" with the interim government to determine how the U.S. could best help interim prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi achieve his goal of staging what would be Tunisia’s "first transparent and legitimate elections since independence."
Washington’s recent expressions of enthusiasm for democracy in North Africa and other Arab states – however well received by Arab citizens and civil society groups – are not shared by Tunisia’s neighbors. In most Arab capitals, the upheaval has generated concern bordering on alarm, judging by public statements and interviews in Morocco last week.
First, several officials said it was still unclear whether the “revolution” itself was less of a popular overthrow and more of a “putsch,” or given France’s colonial rule in Tunisia until 1956, a “coup d’etat” bent on preserving the traditional ruling party’s dominance.
Second, they warn that despite the prime minister’s pledge to hold free-wheeling, inclusive elections and leave politics after Tunisians choose a new government, the revolution risks being hijacked by non-democratic forces given the weakness of the country’s political parties and its lack of experience with political pluralism.
Arab officials see two unedifying political scenarios as most plausible. The first is what a senior diplomat called an “Iranian” solution – that is, the hijacking of the political system by militant Islamists masquerading as political pluralists, similar to what occurred in Iran after a broad coalition of Islamist-led forces overthrew the Shah in 1979 and installed in power an equally repressive, enduring religious regime.
Or, alternatively, they see a potential for what one described as the “Algerian” scenario – a military takeover, as occurred in Algeria in 1992 after the military cancelled a second round of parliamentary elections that would have made Islamists the largest political party in that strife-ridden country.
In this scenario, the Tunisian military, which helped overthrow Ben Ali by refusing to fire on protesters, would eventually tire of the street protests and political chaos which prompted Ben Ali’s ouster and seize power itself to restore stability.
Concern about possible variations of the “Iranian” or “Algerian” scenarios dominated the informal corridor talk last week at the second Arab economic summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, said North African officials who asked not to be identified because of Tunisia’s delicate political situation.
Though the summit was supposed to tackle purely economic issues, most of the leaders and senior officials there discussed whether the Tunisian upheaval was likely to be contagious.
Could the region’s rising unemployment, particularly among the young, skyrocketing prices of food and other basic necessities, and the political repression which combined to trigger Ben Ali’s demise prompt similar upheavals in their own countries?
Though he did not attend the meeting, Muammar Ghadafi, the de facto ruler of sparsely-populated, oil-rich Libya since a military coup in 1969, quickly staked out his stance of hostility to the revolt, lambasting Tunisians for having gotten rid of his ally.
In a speech broadcast on Libyan TV last Monday, Col. Ghadafi called the episode “painful” and condemned Tunisians for being “impatient’ in pushing out a leader who had pledged to step down anyway in 2014. “Tunisia now lives in fear,” said Ghadafi, known for his erratic behavior and provocative, belligerent speeches. “Families can be raided and slaughtered in their bedrooms and the citizens in the street killed as if it was the Bolshevik or American revolution.”
In Morocco, which unlike most of North Africa has remained calm and without mass protests or the self-immolations that have shocked Egypt, Algeria, Mauritania, and other states, the kingdom nonetheless waited four days before reacting officially to Ben Ali’s ouster.
The statement, which expressed “great concern” about the upheaval, called upon all Tunisian factions to restore order by engaging in “fruitful national dialogue.” Deliberately low-key, the declaration of “solidarity” with the Tunisian people and simultaneous “concern” was issued by the foreign ministry, not by King Mohammed VI, who assumed power in 1999. Unlike Ben Ali, the Moroccan king, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, enjoys religious legitimacy and support among many of his 34 million people as the “commander of the faithful.”
In an interview Thursday, Dr. Taieb Fassi Fihri, Morocco’s foreign minister, said that he hoped that Tunisians would have a “productive dialogue open to all, despite the risks.” He declined to identify what he considered the greatest risks.
But other North African officials expressed concern about anarchy, or a potential hijacking of the uprising by non-democratic forces and the replacement of Tunisia’s autocratic kleptocracy with a government that would be democratic in name only.
Concern about a potential victory by Tunisia’s Islamists is particularly pronounced among secular forces. Although interim Prime Minister Ghannouchi did not appoint any Islamists to senior posts to his interim government, the Islamic movement’s flagship party, the Tunisian Islamic Party, or Nahda (Renaissance), has been regrouping. Outlawed since 1991, the exiled leader of Nahda, Rached Ghannouchi (no relation to the new prime minister) has said that he intends to return to Tunisia, but seek no role in the transitional government.
Instead, he told the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, he is working with other opposition groups to purge members of the country’s previous regime and encourage others in his party to stand for elections. He also disputed the notion that his party is a stalking horse for theocratic Islam. “We are not a religious party,” he said. “We’re a democratic party which is inspired by Muslim values.”
Many remain deeply suspicious of the 69-year-old Ghannouchi and his party. David Schenker, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted that Ghannouchi was among the first Islamists to welcome the Iranian theocratic state, had opposed the 1991 U.S. invasion of Iraq to liberate Kuwait, and had steadfastly opposed Arab-Israeli peace deals. Israeli retired Colonel Jacques Neriah warned that Ghannouchi has visited Tehran regularly in recent years and reportedly carries a Sudanese passport that the Islamic authorities in Khartoum gave him at Teheran’s request.
Larry Diamond, the director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, warned that historically, the “demise of a dictator does not guarantee the rise of a democracy in its place.” After similar upheavals, most authoritarian regimes have given way to a new (and often only slightly reconstituted) autocracy,” he recently wrote. If Tunisia were to avoid this pattern, he added, it would need a “significant period of time to reform the corrupt rules and institutions of the authoritarian regime and create an open, pluralistic society and party system that is capable of structuring democratic competition” – at least six months, rather than the 60 days currently envisioned before national elections are held.
But several French and American analysts were far more upbeat about Tunisia’s prospects. In Paris, Pierre Lellouche, a Tunisian-born French official who is the Ministry of Economy's Secretary of State for Foreign Trade, noted that thanks to Habib Bourguiba's three-decade-long rule, Tunisia's 10 million people enjoy high rates of literacy and a good educational system, relative equality for women, a strong middle class and impressive economic growth and development. Unlike other states in North Africa, or the Maghreb, “Tunisians are historically Phoenicians, traders open to the world. Islamicization came last and remained relatively weak," he said. Tunisians "speak French, watch French tv, and follow French politics."
He likened their revolt to 1989 in Europe when crises in Eastern European regimes ultimately triggered the Soviet system's demise. Tunisia’s upheaval could well trigger a similar upheaval in other parts of the Arab world, he said.
"We have seen enormous change everywhere in the world in the past 20 years -- the end of the Soviet Union, the opening up of China, the consolidation of Europe," he said. "Only the Arabs have not changed. There we have the same governments, the same dynasties, the same misery."
John Entelis, director of Fordham University’s Middle East program and a veteran analyst of North Africa, also thought that fears of an “Iranian” or “Algerian” scenario in Tunisia were unduly alarmist given the strength of Tunisia’s secular forces, the more moderate strain of Islam favored by most Tunisians, the country’s relatively strong economic performance, and the influential role played by France and the United States.
While the sudden unwinding of the Tunisian regime clearly took Washington (and other western governments) by surprise, the Obama Administration’s endorsement of the revolt, its “congratulations” to the Tunisian people for having ousted Ben Ali, and calls for political pluralism have been well received, at least by civil society groups and analysts who favor modernization and political reform in North Africa.
During my trip, sponsored by the Moroccan-government funded Moroccan-American Center for Policy, several Moroccan analysts praised section’s of Hillary Clinton’s speech two weeks ago in Doha warning that Arab regimes would “sink” into the sand if they avoided political reform as they pursued economic development. Wikileaks cables written by American diplomats scoring official corruption in Tunisia and Morocco have also been widely published by Arab bloggers and the Arabic press beyond the reach of the government-censured press.
While some pro-democracy advocates have accused the Obama Administration of rejecting democracy in favor of stability, backing authoritarian leaders for fear of Islamist governments and eschewing former President George W. Bush’s pro-democracy agenda, Tamara Cofman Wittes, the State Department’s Deputy Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, responsible for promoting democracy and human rights, argued that Washington has repeatedly sought “engagement” not just with Arab governments, but with Arab human rights groups and other components of civil society.
In 2010, the State Department spent $65 million promoting political pluralism in its Middle East Partnership Initiative, which operates out of American embassies in Tunis and Abu Dhabi.
Administration officials said that the U.S. government still did not fully understand how Ben Ali had been persuaded to flee, , but State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley denied reports in the Arab press that the U.S. had urged the Tunisian military to oust him.
“The Tunisian people have spoken,” Crowley tweeted on Sunday.
American officials said that in the days ahead, American diplomats would be listening to Tunisians about how they can best assist the transition to democracy. “"This has been and has to remain a Tunisian process," said Ms. Cofman Wittes.
Since almost no diplomats anywhere predicted the sudden unraveling of Ben Ali's autocratic regime, "the lesson of the last four weeks has got to be one of humility," said one official.
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