Tunisia: the house of cards

It took just 29 days for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee Tunisia after mass protests erupted in the country.  Twenty-three years of authoritarian rule crumbling in less than a month is rather remarkable, especially considering the relative “calm” that had prevailed in Tunisia during those two decades.

Tunisia rarely hit the headlines then. No Islamists threatening to overtake the government (the Islamist al-Nahda party was outlawed in 1991). No terrorist networks causing security concerns (the exception being the sole attack on a synagogue in 2002 which catalyzed stepped up security measures). No strategic interests for the USA to speak of. And Ben Ali’s regime succeeded in marketing Tunisia as a safe tourist haven. Cities like Hammamet allowed tourists to be parachuted into newly built all-inclusive resorts that could have been anywhere in the world. There was even a custom-built, sanitized version of a traditional medinah in Yasmine Hammamet, which reminded one more of the artificiality of the world landmarks in Las Vegas than of real North African souks.

Tunisia’s sanitized image was also due to a severe crackdown on freedom of expression, as the country had one of the highest levels of media control—especially of the internet—in the world.

But what Ben Ali’s flight showed is how fragile the foundations of his rule were. So vulnerable that, in contrast to Iran and Egypt’s leaders’ resilience in the face of mass protests, he quickly offered one concession after another before completely giving up, making it clear that he was in fear for his life.

What will happen next in Tunisia is uncertain. The Tunisian opposition is divided into groups with wildly different agendas, from the Islamists of al-Nahda to the secular reformists of the Congress for the Republic headed by Moncef Marzouki. There is no political figure who can be clearly envisaged to become the next Tunisian president, and the way the balance will tip—will there be democracy, or another authoritarian regime of a merely different kind?—is unpredictable. But the clearest lessons that have emerged from Tunisia so far are that there is a real democratic potential in the Arab world and that authoritarian regimes in the region are not always what they appear to be. Those lessons are important on two fronts:

On the foreign policy front, the Tunisian uprising seems to have catalyzed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make the US administration’s boldest verbal statement thus far on the need for reform in the Arab world. Describing the political order of some Arab countries as “stagnant”, Clinton, on a visit to Bahrain on January 13, said that “This is a critical moment and this is a test of leadership for all of us”.

The United States is continuously criticized by democracy experts for favoring stability over the risks of democracy in the Arab world, and for backing up authoritarian leaders—whether directly or indirectly—for fear of having to deal with an unfavorable alternative (namely, an Islamist government, as in Egypt or Syria). Tunisia should be a relatively easy case for the United States in this context, a litmus test of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. But it also shows how applauding stability can make countries like the United States blind to the democratic potential lurking beneath the façade of seemingly impenetrable regimes.

Western governments—including that of the United States—have mostly publicly congratulated the Tunisian people on their uprising, and France and other European countries refused Ben Ali entry on Friday when his plane was looking for a place to land. This reaction has been met with cynicism by Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, a man who, since 2006, has been working to build up his credentials as the only credible Arab leader in the present time.  In a speech on Sunday, Nasrallah was quick to point out the irony of Ben Ali’s lack of welcome in the very countries which he had “served” throughout the duration of his rule.  So, on the regional front, the case of Tunisia unveils how quickly US opponents like Nasrallah can capitalize on short-sighted foreign policy. Nasrallah’s statement paints Western support for authoritarian Arab leaders as a house of cards that can crumble with the slightest shake—a warning to the West and Arab leaders reliant on Western support alike.

It is no coincidence that the reaction to the developments in Tunisia by other Arab regimes has mostly been to lay low. And here we can find another, more important, house of cards. Ben Ali’s regime has been exposed for the decaying entity that it is, and already copycat protests in other Arab countries—Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, and even Mauritania—have started. While a blanket domino effect across the region is not likely, reformists can take heart from Tunisia’s experience: while an authoritarian regime may appear to be indestructible, it may well be a mere house of cards.