Jasmine Revolution continued
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.
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