Tunisian dominos

Liberated Tunisia has done away with its Ministry of Communications, really the Ministry of Censorship, and also seems to have dispensed with all but the most cursory immigration controls, to judge by the relaxed, wave-you-on-your-way scene at the airport. These are heady days in the Arab world’s fragile democratic bridgehead.

By Roger Cohen

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Published: Wed 26 Jan 2011, 8:55 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:48 AM

An independent “republic” was born here 54 years ago. Since then there have been just two presidents, both of whom applied an iron fist and neither of whom left office voluntarily, so a touch of Tunisian giddiness at finding themselves sans strongman and free to speak out is understandable.

I breezed from the airport to downtown in 10 minutes. Tanks stood at the entrance to Boulevard Bourguiba (known wistfully as the Champs-Elysees of Tunis) where several hundred protesters had gathered to hurl abuse at the deposed dictator’s party – the neither constitutional nor democratic Constitutional Democratic Rally party – and tell this misnomer to get the heck out of government.

Two high school teachers spoke to me, one in French, the other in English, and their message was identical: the thieves must go, blood had not been shed only for some of the same ministers to endure. A chant rose, using the French acronym for the hated party, “We’ll accept bread and water but never the RCD!”

The atmosphere was relaxed, with baton-wielding police looking on from a distance, but political tensions are sharp. The frayed interim authorities, headed by a holdover, Mohamed Ghannouchi, are scrambling for credibility, promising a “clean break” and investigations of the vast wealth of the ousted Ben Ali family. Police have shown new restraint, curfew has been pushed back and the press operates unshackled as Ghannouchi’s crew engage in the usual post-revolutionary rush to don new clothes.

Unseemly, perhaps, but a lot is at stake. If Tunisia can become the Arab world’s Turkey, a functioning democracy where Islamism is part of the electoral mosaic rather than a threat to it, the tired refrain of all the despots that they are the only bulwark against the jihadists will be seen for the self-serving lie it has become.

No wonder the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi has lost it, raving about Bolshevik and American revolutions in the streets of Tunis. No wonder anxiety is high in Egypt, where the distinguished Nobel prize winner and potential game changer, Mohamed ElBaradei, tweeted on the lesson of Tunisia: “Regime in Egypt must understand that peaceful change is only way out.”

I can’t see President Hosni Mubarak, who’s headed that regime for three decades, facing less than upheaval if he tries to hand power to his son, Gamal, in the current environment. There’s more than a touch of “We’re all Tunisians now” among the misruled right now. They’re talking Tunisian domino effect.

That’s cause for Tunisia to take great care to get this right – as I believe it can. Sure, it’s tempting to go with the baying crowd: off with all their heads! But Iraq showed the dangers of overnight dismantlement of a system – party, security forces and all. The hundreds of thousands of people affected don’t disappear; they nurse vengeance. And Tunisia, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, if with milder veneer, was a police state under Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, as subtly ferocious as Syria.

So I’d bear with Ghannouchi so long as his government works for rapid presidential and then legislative elections. As Slim Amamou, a former dissident blogger released from jail a week ago and now youth minister, put it to the BBC: “Not everybody can be a novice in politics like me.”

That’s right: chaos cannot prepare a credible vote. This is a nation where the most significant legal opposition group, the Progressive Democratic Party, boasts 1,000 members. Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of its executive committee, said, “We are walking on eggs:” the interior minister has blood on his hands, the defense minister once did sweet deals for the former first lady, the PDP underplayed its hand in joining the government with a single minister – for regional economic development. Should the party now push for more?

Tunisia has a lot going for it in this quest: high levels of education, emancipated women encouraged over decades to use birth control, manageable size, and an Islamist movement that Michael Willis, a North Africa expert at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, described as “perhaps the mildest and most pragmatic around.” Their exiled leader, Rached Ghannouchi, has been multiplying conciliatory statements. A democratic Tunisia can do the Turkish thing.

There will, in coming weeks, be agents provocateurs bent on the worst, and the usual Muslim-hating naysayers. This democracy is threatening to a host of vested interests and glib cliches. It is also the only way out of the radicalising impasse of klepto-gerontocracies and, as such, a vital American interest.

Roger Cohen writes The Globalist column for The International Herald Tribune

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