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Posted at 9:20 AM ET, 01/17/2011

Jasmine Revolution continued

By Jennifer Rubin

The Jasmine Revolution continues to play out. Yesterday, it appeared that the army was stepping into the mix. The New York Times reported:

New battle lines appeared to take shape in traumatized Tunisia on Sunday as the military backed the nascent interim government in what state media portrayed as a fight against security forces loyal to ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, blaming them for the violence and rioting that has engulfed the country since protests forced him from power 48 hours earlier.

State television reported that the military had arrested Mr. Ben Ali's former security chief, Ali Seriati, charging him with plotting against the government and inciting acts of violence. State television also said that a gunfight with Mr. Ben Ali's security forces broke out near a former presidential palace here in the capital, and that the military had called in reinforcements as it battled other security forces in the southern part of the country.

The Times further noted, "As virtually the only pillar of government left intact, the military now could play a pivotal role in determining whether a new autocrat or the first Arab democracy emerges from the tumult that brought down Mr. Ben Ali -- a question that has captivated the region."

That greatly concerns Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "If the military is the determining factor, judging from history, the odds of democracy are not good," he said.

How, in only a month of riots, did a seemingly secure regime collapse and fall into chaos? In December, Tunisian police confiscated the cart of Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit seller who had been operating illegally. In protest, Bouazizi set himself on fire. And his subsequent death triggered riots in the town of Sidi Bouzid.

"It started in one city and spread to other cities," Khairi Abaza, an expert in and proponent of Middle East democracy, told me. With the help of new media -- YouTube and Facebook -- a genuine popular revolution was set in motion. He confirms that although there were optimistic reports of an announcement of a unity government "it is likely that most key positions will be kept by Ben Ali's people despite the inclusion of the opposition in the government. Consultations are still underway. It is not clear if Islamists will be represented or what kind of Islamists. Meanwhile, shortages of basic commodities such as bread, milk and fuel started to be problematic."

Certainly, it is a perilous time. The Islamist party had been repressed under Ben Ali, but Islamists retain the ability to mobilize their forces. The uprising took them (like the government) by surprise. Khairi said that Islamists "had the impression 'We are the strongest. We create demonstrations.'" But the popular revolt apparently was carried off in large part by secular Tunisians, women and youth.

Nevertheless, the secular protesters lack any political infrastructure. So, while quick popular elections might sound attractive, the secularists will "have to level the ground first" (e.g. mount a party, designate candidates, design a platform), Khairi noted. It was, therefore, a positive sign when a tentative agreement emerged to push elections back from 60 days to six months. Ominously, however, the Times reporter observed: "Tunisian analysts following the talks said Sunday night that the new government might ultimately allow the political participation of banned parties like the Islamists as well."

Now is the time, Khairi argued, for the U.S. to make clear that an autocratic government (or an Islamist one) will not enjoy American support.

Khairi warned that other leaders in the region should take notice: "They are all sitting on gasoline. Any pretext can trigger riots." He notes that "two men have immolated themselves in Algeria and Egypt in an attempt to imitate Tunisians."

Which despots should be most nervous? "All of them," Khairi said. In short, "from the Atlantic ocean to the Persian Gulf," undemocratic regimes are suddenly quite vulnerable. The slogan of the Tunisian protesters -- "We don't live with bread only" -- is a message that could well spread like wildfire. Alternatively, should the revolution fail, it will demoralize democracy advocates and embolden the autocrats.

By Jennifer Rubin  | January 17, 2011; 9:20 AM ET
Categories:  foreign policy  
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A growing number of Americans are dismayed that "President's Day" is too vague - and throws aside the memories of two Presidents - Lincoln and Washington.

And seriously folks, this 3 day weekend is too close to the holidays.


1) Move Martin Luther King Day to April - link it to the March on Selma - or the March over the bridge - and have this holiday in April

2) there was some March - Selma or somewhere - that was cancelled - then Martin Luther King had it another day - have Martin Luther King on the day they finally got to have the march after the cancellation


Seriously, two 3-day weekends in February - who wants to fight with that?

At this point, we are losing the tributes to ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND GEORGE WASHINGTON

It is just wrong to have this happen.

"President's Day" is too vague - and it loses all its meaning - and the personalities of the two Greatest Presidents.




Posted by: RainForestRising | January 17, 2011 10:08 AM | Report abuse

The situation in Tunisia gives ground for hope. The first priority is the establishment of order. The army has intervened to to dislodge Ben Ali's police, presidential guard and other armed elements fighting a rear guard action. Tunis is calming down though the situation in wsome of the western suburbs is less clear.

A coalition government including members of the opposition will be announced imminently and preparations for new elections will get underway.

What is most important is that this Jasmine Revoltion was led by young well eduacted Tunisian men and women fed up with corruption and venality calling for freedom and democracy not Islamic fundamentalism.

Tunisians are different. Their first President Habib Bourguiba took office in 1956 promising social reform and making education for all a top priority. Women could work, vote, get a divorce and particpate in public life something that many in countries further to the east can only dream about.

Bourguiba was no democratic. He ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove. However his reforms laid the foundation for the emergence of large and growing middle class. It is the children of these people who took to the streets, organized using the social media of the 21st century and overthrew a despot and his cronies.

They are unlikely to accept anyone else in that mode.

As a former Peace Corps volunteer and diplomat in Tunisia, I am optimistic that a new and democratic Tunisia can emerge. It will take time for this to happen. The relatively apolitical army together with talented civil servants, an economy capable of generating the growth, resources and employment that will be needed in the years to come can make Tunisia the first trlu democratic state in North Africa and the Middle East.

We in the U.S. should do everything possible to encourage that process.

Posted by: lcohen1 | January 17, 2011 11:02 AM | Report abuse

"How, in only a month of riots, did a seemingly secure regime collapse and fall into chaos?"

Would not a month of riots in the United States put the government of the U.S. in serious peril?

The odds for Tunisia becoming a democracy in a desert of autocracies and dictatorships is as likely as Iraq remaining semi-democratic after the withdrawal of American troops. Tunisia will revert to an Islamic nation just as Iraq will.

Let's not be naive about the events in Tunisia, for every time an Iran or a Tunisia boils over does not imply a search for democracy by an oppressed population.

Posted by: wdriver01 | January 17, 2011 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for your insights, lcohen1. Ms. Rubin is not delving deep enough into the role of the army in, first, refusing benAli's last order to shoot with live ammo, and, since then, acting responsibly to stop Benali's presidential guard and other loyalists from continuing the violence against civilians.

While the situation is still fluid, especially whether the ban on Islamist and Communist political parties will continue, I have to believe the women of Tunisia will cast the deciding vote, assuming elections are held.

And the United States should make any "demands" private. Although i guess deployment of a carrier group in the Med is probably a contingency - the Straits of Sicily must be kept open...

Posted by: K2K2 | January 17, 2011 1:28 PM | Report abuse

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