Turmoil in Tunisia

News Abroad

Mr. Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, lived in Tunisia in 1970.

The sudden and as-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 sets of emotions.

Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (left) with his two neighbors, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya (middle) and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria.

During the first era of independence, until about 1970, governments in Arabic-speaking countries were frequently overthrown as troops under the control of a discontented colonel streamed into the capital, seized the presidential quarters and the radio station, then announced a new regime. Syrians endured three coups d'état in 1949 alone.

Over time, regimes learned to protect themselves through 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 have 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 U.S. diplomatic cables) even as it connects the likeminded via Facebook and Twitter. These new forces converged in Tunisia in December to create an intifada and quickly ousted an entrenched tyrant.

If one exalts in the power of the disenfranchised to overthrow their dull, cruel, and greedy master, one also looks ahead with trepidation to the Islamist implications of this upheaval.

Tanks and soldiers dot the streets of Tunisia.

The first worry concerns Tunisia itself. For all his faults, Mr. 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 school rooms and in 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 to develop could now prove a great mistake.

Tunisian Islamists had a minimal role in overthrowing Mr. 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 deeply 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 nearby Europe, it could greatly exacerbate existing problems there.

Rached Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda, Tunisia's main Islamist organization.

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 globally Islamists 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Ben Ali and many other Arab strongmen, leaving U.S. 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 facilitated the Islamists to 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.

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Fahrettin Tahir - 1/27/2011

Uncontrollable Islamism might be causing the US the greatest headaches but the bottom line issue is that most US client government are simply hated as corrupt, incompetent and tyrannic.

This is because the US uses them to serve her own interests ignoring what the natives expect of their governments.

An example is Pakistan. A sane place until the US decided to use Islam against Russia in the late 1970ies.

A dictator was encouraged to Islamize and support the Afghan resitance agains sending their daughters to infidel schools.

Afghanistan was devastated, Pakistan radicalized.

After 9-11 Pakistan was blackmailed into supporting what proved to be a senseless invasion of Afghanistan.

This made the Pak president hated.

The US and the UK then decided that he was hated because he was a dictator and forced him to leave power to the present bunch of thieves.

And so it goes on and on.

Oussama Harb - 1/19/2011

"focus on Islamism as the civilized world's greatest enemy" ??????????
you are a fucking morron! I wonder
how this site allow offending Islam. it seems to me that it's truly a crusade as Bush said in 2003 but a secret indirect one ! anyhow, you dont have the balls to attack you fucking cowards ! do you dare to ?