Robert D. Kaplan: One Small Revolution





[Robert D. Kaplan, the author of “Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia and the Peloponnese,” is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a correspondent for The Atlantic.]

THE West stands captivated by Tunisia, where a month of peaceful protests by secular working- and middle-class Arabs has toppled a dictator, raising hopes that this North African country of 10 million will set off democracy movements throughout a region of calcified dictatorships. But before we envision a new Middle East remade in the manner of Europe 1989, it is worth cataloguing the pivotal ways in which Tunisia is unique.

Start with a map of classical antiquity, which shows a concentration of settlements where Tunisia is today, juxtaposed with the relative emptiness that characterizes modern-day Algeria and Libya. Jutting out into the Mediterranean close to Sicily, Tunisia has been the hub of North Africa not only under the Carthaginians and Romans, but under the Vandals, Byzantines, medieval Arabs and Turks. Whereas Algeria and Libya were but vague geographical expressions until the coming of European colonial map makers, Tunisia is an age-old cluster of civilization.

Even today, many of the roads in the country, particularly in the north, were originally Roman ones. For 2,000 years, the closer to Carthage (roughly the site of Tunis, the capital, today), the greater the level of development. Because urbanization in Tunisia started two millenniums ago, tribal identity based on nomadism — which, as the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun says, has always disrupted political stability — is correspondingly weak.

After the Roman general Scipio defeated Hannibal in 202 B.C. outside modern-day Tunis, he dug a demarcation ditch, or fossa regia, that marked the extent of civilized territory. The fossa regia remains relevant. Still visible in places, it runs from Tabarka on Tunisia’s northwestern coast southward, and then turns directly eastward to Sfax, another Mediterranean port. The towns beyond that line have fewer Roman remains, and today tend to be poorer and less developed, with historically higher rates of unemployment....


comments powered by Disqus