There was a deeply-troubling period of about 2 days–through the past weekend–when anxious prognosticators anticipated that a military dictatorship would emerge from the chaos in Tunisia. Instead, a deal has been struck between Mohamed Ghannouchi, the Ben Ali-appointed Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament, and the several unusually low-profile leaders of Tunisia’s decentralized opposition. The result is a coalition government that will prepare elections to occur 6 months from now, and which has pledged to end all bans on opposition parties and to fully-respect freedom of speech and assembly. Apparently even the long-banned Islamists and the Communists will be allowed to participate.
The fears were plausible. Writing for The Atlantic, Max Fisher made the pertinent observation that Tunisians had deposed 2 presidents in 2 days, and there were no clear leaders–let-alone professional politicians–among the various opposition parties. To him the worst-case scenario was a French Revolution-type prospect, where the heady days in which a mob jeers at the high brought low evaporated in the face of incompetent leadership, personality conflicts, and uncontrolled and unfocused violent purges. Fisher noted that the military remains by far the most-intact among Tunisia’s institutions–a situation which, at its most-extreme, describes failing Pakistan.
But Tunisia is nothing like the late-18th century Ancien Régime, and it is nothing like Pakistan. The interim government brings both incumbents and opposition leaders together, and The New York Times reports that the military has done battle with Ben Ali regime holdouts among the police and opportunistic gun-wielding thugs, not opposition protesters. In an appalling display of unprincipled self-interest (assuming that it is true), several members of the state police loyal to Ben Ali, and even some of the deposed president’s family members, have been arrested after allegedly driving around the capital in police cars and shooting at people indiscriminately in an attempt to sow chaos. The military has taken an impressively-beneficial role in all of this, a fact that has been credited to its relatively small size in a small country without any strategic rivalries where the regime has long relied upon the police for its repressive apparatus. In spite of this past association, many of the police have worked with the military and the transitional government to calm the streets–an overcoming of established loyalties that indicates the way forward in Tunisia.
A speculative discussion has emerged over whether Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution raises the prospect of popular democratic movements in other Middle Eastern countries. So far, this speculation suggests nothing conclusive. All opinion-makers opine that dictators in many Arab countries will “get the message” that they cannot take their power for granted, but this understanding should motivate them to consolidate power. That could mean economic and political reforms and greater repression of civil society and opposition parties; in general, the Liberal Ironist expects Arab rulers to update political strategies they expect to undermine prospects for democracy.
There are also the internal conditions of Tunisia, which aren’t very portable to other Arab states. The kernel of the current revolution is one of the best-educated populations in the Middle East confronting rising poverty and unemployment. The ideational context of the anti-government riots was set by the recent revelations of the extent of the Ben Ali government’s corruption and even kleptomania. One of several remarkable things about this conflagration is that we can pinpoint the spark that set it off: It was the public self-immolation of an unemployed 26-year-old college graduate after the police took away his produce cart because he was selling fruits and vegetables without a permit. From that expression of hopelessness, events in Tunisia have perfectly resembled the proverbial snowball rolling downhill.
Michael Wahid Hanna, writing for The Atlantic, expressed confidence that Tunisia’s prevailing protests offer a more-resonant exemplar for democratic movements in Arab countries than either the US regime change in Iraq or the defeated 2009 Green movement in Iran. Others have noted the “Vanishing Immolator’s” diffusion effect, however, as protesters have lit themselves on fire in other Arab states in an extreme act of protest of their governments. The rapid diffusion of a tactic that doesn’t involve threats or violence against others is of interest; however the Liberal Ironist would prefer to see the success and tactical adoption of a repertoire of contention that didn’t require protests to do violence to anyone, including themselves. Sometimes it is most-compelling to let the regime in question do that, as demonstrated by Gandhi and the recently-commemorated Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I acknowledge the possibility that I celebrate Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution prematurely; it seems to be in the nature of non-professional opposition movements that they are full of holdouts who see no merit in deal-making. The New York Times reports that Tunis still seethes with thousands of protesters angry that presumptive opposition leaders have formed a coalition government with incumbents of the government of deposed former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In the Times article, Ahmed Bouazzi, an executive committee member of the Progressive Democratic Party, said the opposition movement currently faces “three possibilities:”
“The first choice is the complete chaos of Somalia, the second choice is a military coup after a savior comes to rescue us from the chaos and lasts for 23 years, and the third possibility is working with the people who are in charge of the state right now to prepare fair elections.”
Continuing protests are perhaps inevitable in the euphoria of such a moment, and the holdouts in aggregate likely have no idea who should run the government, other than that they should have no past association with Mr. Ben Ali. But therein lies the rub: The efficacy of Mr. Ben Ali’s past repression is such that there is probably no one else with the practical experience to take the reigns right away. The protesters still in the street include many who have been scarred by Mr. Ben Ali’s crass means of imposing order; but that crowd also includes Tunisia’s Jacobins. The pursuit of a grim justice at the expense of the peace required for the current revolution consolidate its gains is no justice at all. The challenge before the transitional government is to wait-out a crowd that has no vision–as peacefully as possible.