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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 01/16/2011

After the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia

By Jennifer Rubin

Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution is a remarkable event: a popular, secular revolt in a Muslim country. It poses an opportunity and a risk for the U.S.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a restrained statement on Friday:

The United States continues to closely monitor the rapidly evolving events in Tunisia, where earlier today President Ben Ali left his country following several weeks of demonstrations and popular unrest. We condemn the violence and urge restraint on all sides.

Clearly this is a moment of significant transition in Tunisia and through this period and beyond it is important that the Tunisian government respect the right of its people to peacefully assemble and express their views. We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia's future with economic, social, and political reforms, and call for free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.

On my trip to the Middle East this week, I heard people everywhere yearning for economic opportunity, political participation and the chance to build a better future. Young people especially need to have a meaningful role in the decisions that shape their lives. Addressing these concerns will be challenging, but the United States stands ready to help.

The United States has a long and historic relationship with Tunisia. We are committed to helping the people and government bring peace and stability to their country and we hope that they will work together to build a stronger, more democratic society that respects the rights of all people.

Considering Clinton's speech earlier last week pushing for a "stronger foundation" in the Middle East, the wishy-washy statement and the failure to clearly delineate our expectations for a new government are troubling.

A savvy senior Capitol Hill advisor had this take on the uprising: "This appears to have been a popular revolt, a revolution driven by mass discontent with the repression, corruption, and economic mismanagement of the regime. As others have pointed out, this is the first time an Arab regime has fallen in this way, which is a pretty big deal and will certainly encourage others in other Arab states, like Egypt, Jordan, etc. to try to emulate their example." He stressed, however, that Tunisia has some unique assets. "Tunisia is also a bit unusual. Highly educated, secular, geographically and culturally close to Europe -- it's a place that we've always considered a good candidate for democracy."

But the question, and the challenge, concern what comes next. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told me that "this is far from settled." In just days, we have seen power change twice -- first the prime minister grabbed the reins, next the speaker of the parliament, Fouad Mebazaa. Schanzer said that some members of the government who saw which way the wind was blowing had "some role" in assisting the demonstrators.

The real threat is that "If a power vacuum appears, the best organized group is the Islamists," Schanzer said. In 1987, when Ben Ali took power, an Islamist party gained a significant chunk of the vote. That party, along with most every other opposition group, was "crushed by Ben Ali." But the street protestors have no apparent political organization, operating as an "organic mass." Schanzer imagines that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to take advantage of the situation, for example, by opening the flow of money to local Islamists. Al-Qaeda of the Maghreb put out a statement trying to champion the revolt. It's not likely in a secularized, sophisticated country that the al-Qaeda message is going to be accepted. But as the "mobilization sub rosa" of Islamist elements proceeds, the U.S. must act forcefully.

What should the U.S. do? Schanzer said he is concerned that "this administration will let an opportunity slip through its fingers." We should, he said, be setting out our clear expectations that Tunisia should not "lapse back into authoritarianism" and must not embrace an government run by, or sympathetic to, Islamists. He said that during the Bush administration, officials on the ground and in Washington would be saying "we expect this" -- meaning democratization, free elections. Schanzer noted that we have quite a lot of leverage in Tunisia: "It is pro-West and a small country." And we don't put at risk any major asset in Tunisia by being firm in our expectations (e.g. Tunisia doesn't control the Suez Canal, as does Hosni Mubarak).

It is a truism that democracy, once planted, can be contagious. As the Wall Street Journal reported that while Arab governments had "tepid reactions," people in the region were asking a critical question: "If Tunisia, why not us?" The Journal's Charles Levinson writes:

In Arabic newspapers, on satellite news channels, in Twitter feeds, and blog posts, the region's people, liberal and conservative, secular and Islamist, praised the Tunisian people. Many hoped aloud that similar fates would befall their own governments.

"The Tunisian torch will light all the Arab world," Lebanon's As Safir Newspaper proclaimed, a common theme in popular commentary throughout the Middle East. . . .

What has happened in Tunisia is the beginning of change in the whole Arab homeland," said Ahmad al-Armouti, head of the Jordanian Physicians Union. "The Arab people will learn the Tunisian lesson and they will keep silent no more."

In Iran, where a similar popular outpouring of popular anger at the government was brutally suppressed in 2009, bloggers and activists took heart from the Tunisians' example and called on their countrymen to follow suit.

"If Tunisia can do it, so can we," one blogger wrote. "It's now our turn to overthrow our illegitimate government."

The Obama administration needs to think long and hard about how it can convert its occasional rhetorical flourishes into concrete polices that can assist democracy advocates not only in Tunisia, but in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. If Obama wants to do some more productive "Muslim Outreach," he should stop trying to ingratiate himself with despotic leaders and show that America is, and will continue to be, on the side of those yearning for freedom.

Recall when President George W. Bush talked about democracy taking hold in Iraq and then the region? Now Bush's vision seems very prescient. Shouldn't we all be in favor the freedom agenda? Criticized at the time as too Pollyannaish and too ambitious, Bush's second inaugural address is worth reading again in full. This section is particularly apt:

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty--though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

By Jennifer Rubin  | January 16, 2011; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  foreign policy  
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It is important to note that the only Arab-muslim nation with anything resembling democracy is, so far, Iraq. (Maliki did try, and so far has succeeded, in holding on as a possible future 'strong-man')

Whatever the U.S. says and does regarding Tunisia should be private. The EU, due to Tunisia's uniqueness and proximity, for once, needs to take the lead on setting expectations.

So, far, only the NYT's Shadid has managed to blame Israel for any role in the Jasmine Revolution. As if Tunisians worry more about the Palestinians than Tunisians worry about domestic inflation, high unemployment, and government corruption and repression.

Lebanon is the next place to watch. I am very glad Obama used recess appointment to get Arabic-speaking Ambassador Ford in Damascus tomorrow. The conservatives like Ms. Rubin need to stop seeing U.S. diplomacy as always a stick and carrot concept.

Posted by: K2K2 | January 16, 2011 11:35 AM | Report abuse

"One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?"
Oh stop trying to give credit to Bush for the mess.

Posted by: tqmek1 | January 16, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

"a long and historic relationship with Tunisia"

Posted by: IsraelP | January 16, 2011 1:01 PM | Report abuse

How much influence did the events in Iraq have? That's easy. None. As a Peace Corps volunteer and researcher I have worked in Tunisia for more than 20 years. I was in Tunisia when elections in Iraq were being held. Tunisians regarded them with derision. Indeed, the fact that these elections were held as examples of democracy led many Tunisians I knew to question the desirability of democracy as a concept. Many Tunisians now are holding up the events in their nation in direct contrast to Iraq, arguing that democracy must come from the people, not from the outside.

Tunisians do not hold the US as a supporter of their work toward democracy. While the US spoke of the need for democracy, the practical reality was that US presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, backed the authoritarian regime. To argue that the US has "quite a lot of leverage in Tunisia" seems bizarre. What leverage? If we state "'we expect this' -- meaning democratization, free elections," the obvious response is, Or what? The US has little moral or pragmatic leverage in this instance.

That being said, yes, the characteristics of Tunisia make it particularly well suited to emerge from this as a real democracy. And yes, this may well be a model for the rest of the region. It deserves our support, but the Tunisian people are through with being dictated to. Demands from the outside are hardly the right approach for developing true democracy.

Posted by: shawkins2 | January 16, 2011 5:57 PM | Report abuse

Interesting to see how the government of Libya has reacted to this, choosing instead to appear kind and generous to its population. I'm a British teacher living and working in Tripoli, and you can read my blog at:

Posted by: wispajones | January 17, 2011 12:16 AM | Report abuse

shawkins2: Thanks for your insights. I agree that the U.S. should stay out of this. I wonder if Tunisia's military will emerge as the 'kingmaker' as it appears decades of repressing political opposition make it difficult to see what kind of new government will emerge.

Posted by: K2K2 | January 17, 2011 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Only a lobotomized neocon would claim that our invading Iraq had any effect on Tunisia.

And unlike our neocons, Tunisians haven't gone in for mass lobotomies.

Posted by: Garak | January 17, 2011 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Oh yes please save us! Save us! Indeed Bush was a hero in the Middle East. Iraq having an effect on Tunis? Of course! I hope I was sardonic enough. Iraq was a farce; it is unstable & terrorism has increased as a REACTION to the increasing amount of US troops in the ME. So as appealing as the model of democracy is in Iraq & though I'm sure we damsels in distress (Arabs) are waiting for the knight in shining US flag embedded armour to come and implement their thoroughly planned democratic plan I think the majority just needs the US to sit this one out. Ah, but there is another point, regarding that quasi Forrest Gump Bush has stepped aside the Arabs realised they need to fend for themselves and thus a ripple effect of Tunis throughout the Just no. If any effect at all in the region Iraq has had on Tunis (and then Tunis's ripple effect) is that the people have realised that their US mouthfed puppet governments that dare not hurt US feelings, stay in line, appease US and economically serve the US are vulnerable to the latter's invation when steping out of line causing US wrath. The people want a stable government that will not take up the role of US employee. All these totalitarian dictators are not simply corrupt leaders but also serve US interests rather than their own people either by forighn policies, economic investment and other. What should US do about Tunis? Nothing. Clear out the major mess in Afghanistan and Iraq and then leave, take a holiday, even heroes ought to take a break. Like the theory which came first the chicken or the egg: Islamists, radicals, anti-west sentiments THEN US involvement and influence? OR US influence and dictation in the region THEN radicals?

Posted by: rahmazed | January 18, 2011 5:24 AM | Report abuse

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