Tunisia at the crossroads
I am told by sources in Tunisia and by other monitoring the situation there that there are hopeful signs of progress towards democracy. The Jasmine Revolution, however, is far from over.
Khairi Abaza of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies e-mails me: "Political prisoners are being freed, amnesty law regarding exiled dissidents being issues and banned parties are being legalized."
While the prospect of Islamist activity is cause for concern, Abaza says these developments "pave the way for the potential inclusion of all political factions, including the Islamists and the communists. Including all factions would give more legitimacy to the interim government and stabilize the situation." Without the inclusion of all these groups, Abaza says, it wouldn't be possible for them to accept "a democratic Tunisia and agree on the checks and balances to protect the democratic system."
Still, remnants of the Ben Ali regime remain -- and are now shifting tactics to retain a place in the post-Ben Ali government. With protestors demanding a complete break from the past, the interim president and other Ben Ali allies have left the old ruling party but not the government. This likely won't satisfy protestors still on the streets.
Police, though, are reportedly using a gentler touch. "Demonstrators defying the night curfew were allowed to sit in and spend the nights in the streets of the capital, while the police didn't use tear gas or force to stop them -- signaling to the population a break from the old ways of the old regime," Abaza tells me.
And to further demonstrate that break, the interim government has been arresting Ben Ali relatives and going after his assets. AFP reports:
Tunisian authorities arrested 33 members of toppled leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's family as protesters rallied again to demand the rooting out of the dictator's former ruling party.
The arrests were announced on state television, which showed footage of luxury watches, jewelery and credit cards seized in raids on homes of the former first family. Authorities had opened an investigation against them for plundering the nation's resources, it said.
As the story notes, it was accusations of "corruption and revelations of the Ben Ali family's lavish lifestyle helped fuel the anger of the protests against his 23-year rule which culminated in his toppling."
The U.S. would be wise to not only support the movement toward a freer and more democratic Tunisia, but to use that example to press autocrats in the region to democratize and respect human rights in their own countries. Elliott Abrams argues in a Council on Foreign Relations interview:
The administration should now be talking to a number of Arab countries, with Egypt first because of their elections this year. The way to avoid a Tunisia situation is a sensible pace of reform. In the case of Egypt, they had a parliamentary election last November, and they had one in November 2005. The November 2005 election was a much better, much fairer election than November 2010. So they're actually going backward. The [Obama] administration should be saying to Mubarak that it's time to open the political space. Because if the pressure keeps building, you can never tell when it's going to explode. The policy of the government of Egypt has been to crush moderate, centrist, liberal parties for decades, much more fiercely than it has crushed the Muslim Brotherhood. So it really is true that today the Muslim Brotherhood is probably the strongest single alternative to the government. Start opening the systems, start allowing competition.
For an administration that has aligned itself more often with autocrats than with democracy advocates, this will require quite an about-face. Obama has a choice: be on the side of the old guard or with the forces of change. Remarkable, really, that Obama, who ran on "hope and change," has yet to fully cast his lot with the latter.
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