The recent grassroots uprising against the government in Tunisia, unprecedented in recent Arab history, has been the source of an enormous outpouring of both hope and fear throughout the region. While almost all Arab political leaders have life terms, ex-President Zein El-Abedine Ben Ali was basically chased out of his country and his office by a largely unorganized, spontaneous and diverse outpouring of outrage from a very wide segment of the population.
The wildest hopes are that “people’s power” will now spread throughout the Arab world, bringing down a series of autocrats and dictatorships. It’s certainly possible that the Tunisian experience could be, if not replicated, at least influential in some neighboring countries. Algeria, Libya, and to some extent Egypt, are all ripe for similar outpourings of popular outrage. Morocco seems somewhat more stable, and the Southwest Asian part of the Arab world seems even further removed from a potential ripple effect for the foreseeable future.
But what exactly is happening in Tunisia is not at all clear. Ben Ali has gone, probably for good. However, at the time of writing this article, many figures from the old regime have retained positions in the new transitional government, including Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, although thousands are protesting for his resignation.
The rhetoric of most of the key figures in the protests, particularly the General Union of Tunisian Workers, has suggested that their aim is neither limited to removing a few individual politicians, nor achieving a social revolution. There has been a general welcoming of the transitional government’s announcement of a “total break” with the Ben Ali era, new elections, and reforms such as the end of censorship, the legalization of political parties, and the release of political prisoners.
What the transitional government is promising is a series of wide-ranging liberal reforms and democratization – precisely what Arab liberals and centrists, and many of those who took part in the uprising, say they want. The question is whether or not they will follow through on any of this, or simply slide back into a form of modified autocracy.
It’s possible to view Ben Ali as simply an incompetent dictator, too rigid and inflexible to accommodate discontent when it started to overflow. But by most Arab standards, Tunisia actually permitted a fairly robust civil society, in spite of the dictatorship. Other Arab regimes could unfortunately conclude that Ben Ali was actually too liberal and allowed excessive space beyond government-controlled structures or the difficult-to-contain religious sphere. They might decide that more and not less repression is the proper vaccination against the Tunisian uprising virus.
Another danger is that whatever reforms the transitional regime actually follows through on, including the promised elections, these will fail to restore stability, so that the growing power vacuum might ultimately be filled by Islamists or other extremists. If this is the ultimate outcome of the Tunisian upheaval, it will probably terrify both Arab governments and mainstream societies, again increasing the likelihood of ever-greater repression in the region and strongly discouraging other Arab peoples to emulate the Tunisian experiment.
If events in Tunisia are to have a lasting, positive regional impact, it is vital that they be driven by the principles of peaceful change, pluralism and democratic inclusivity. This would prove the viability of liberal, democratic reform without violence. Such reform would also demonstrate that Arab political space can be opened up without the seizure of power by Islamists. And it should begin the development of an inclusive political system starting with an election – perhaps, as some are suggesting, in as little as 45 days – for which the country may not quite be ready, but which should pave the way for a regular transfer of power through routine voting.
The people of Tunisia, without any central leadership, rose up and asserted their status and rights as citizens. The concept of citizenship, with interlocking rights and responsibilities, is not part of contemporary Arab culture, where ordinary people are generally seen as subjects to be managed. But now Tunisians are demanding political pluralism, social inclusivity and the respect of individual rights based on citizenship.
The Tunisian rebellion appears to have been driven by principles essential for the development of a moderate, centrist Arab reform movement that replaces an old order that is moribund, if not one that is already dead, and avoids a new order controlled by religious fanatics. These principles are democratic and pluralistic political reform; inclusivity and individual rights for citizens; and the peaceful transition of power through elections and legitimate, unarmed political engagement, including nonviolent protest.
If Tunisians succeed in seizing this moment to push forward those three principles, even gradually, and ridding themselves of the old dictatorship while fending off a grab for power by Islamists, they will have finally given the Arab world a desperately-needed third way. They would prove it is possible for an Arab society to reject both autocrats and theocrats in favor of liberals, centrists and democrats.