Thursday, January 27, 2011

Drama in the Maghreb

On Jan. 14 the panicked strongman of Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia after the astonishingly spontaneous Facebook-driven crumbling of his corrupt regime. History will record that the incredible impetus was the December 17 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a harassed and despondent 26-year-old fruit vendor, in the rough interior of the country.

With copycat suicides in Cairo and Algiers, and protests taking place in Jordan and Morocco, the Palestinian Authority barred West Bankers from rallying in support of the overthrow. Ayman Nour, the reformist Egyptian opposition politician, wondered aloud whether Egypt might follow the Tunisian model. And Arab League chief Amr Musa frankly acknowledged that events in Tunisia had exposed “the Arab soul" as broken by poverty, unemployment and frustration.

Though the situation remains volatile and unpredictable, Tunisians and foreigners alike have been contemplating whether the upheaval might possibly herald a Jasmine Revolution and the emergence of genuine democracy – not one man, one vote, one time – but a kind of political institution building that would ensure pluralism, civil liberties and tolerance.

Popular will among the Arab masses has found occasional, albeit, reactionary expression: Hamas's lopsided victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections; Hezbollah's capture of 88 percent of the Shi'ite vote in 2009 Lebanese balloting.
Could events in Tunisia lead to a genuinely democratic outcome that might have a domino effect on the rest of the Arab world?

Caution is in order.

For one, there is no coherent opposition much less one led by democrats in Tunisia. For another, it is still too soon to know what role, if any, Islamists will play. For now Muslim extremists are not in the vanguard of the struggle. Those who have come out into the sunshine after decades of government persecution claim feebly to stand for a distinctively moderate strain of Islamism not opposed to modernity.

We will all be wiser after Rachid El Gannushi, the 70 year-old Muslim Brotherhood chief returns to Tunis from his London exile and the extent of his group's malevolent influence can be gauged. Gannushi, with ties to Iran, is violently opposed to Israel's existence.

Each Arab country has its own unique circumstances and it's a mistake to treat them as one undifferentiated mass. Prof. Michael Laskier, a North Africa specialist at Bar-Ilan University, insists that nothing in the DNA of the Arab polity prevents democracy from eventually breaking out and that global democratic influences are filtering in. Preferring evolutionary change to revolutionary upheaval, Laskier argued that events in Tunisia send a warning signal to Iran and Syria "that they could be next in line." On the other hand, radical change in Egypt and Jordan could bring Islamist regimes to power.

So far, no Arab land has shown itself to be fertile ground for Western-style democracy. Perhaps that's because traditionalist Arab society has placed the interests of the individual lower than those of the family, clan and sect. Men and women are not free to choose who they may marry much less who will lead them, veteran journalist Danny Rubinstein has pointed out. Moreover, in so much of the Arab world, voices calling for democratic reform and groups championing civil society are weak. Autocratic leaders have snuffed out freedom-minded dissent perhaps even more aggressively than challenges from the Islamists.

Even so, could Tunisia, relatively well-off and demographically cohesive with its educated elites be the democratic exception to the Arab rule? Could it switch from the "not free" to "free" camp? True the country's interior is depressed and religiously devout, but the coast has experienced sustained economic growth and is cosmopolitan. Consummate foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan has emphasized that Tunisia has a history of prosperity and stability, a post-colonial political culture of secularism and a legacy of political moderation shaped by its founder Habib Bourguiba. Kaplan paradoxically ascribes Tunisia's current troubles to the flip side of its comparative achievements – the failure to meet rising expectations among its population (whose median age is 29). Still, Kaplan concludes that, "Despite all these advantages of history, prosperity and stability, Tunisia’s path forward is treacherous."

The Tunisian revolution – if it is that – could yet be hijacked by old guard politicians, returning Islamists or fizzle out as army generals seek to restore order. Iran and Libya, which have previously sought to shape events in Tunisia, could exploit the turmoil.

Watching from afar, Israelis cannot easily allow themselves to indulge in wishful thinking. They may nostalgically recall that Bourguiba was among those who early on favored Arab-Israel peace – though he also provided sanctuary to Yasser Arafat after his 1982 ouster from Lebanon – and that Bourguiba allowed his country's 100,000 Jews to leave for France and Israel (perhaps 1,200 remain). Under Ben Ali, Israelis have been able to travel to Tunisia on their Israeli passports. So no nation would be happier to see Arab democracy take root in moderate Tunisia and for it to serve as a beacon for the entire region.

-- Jan 25, 2011

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