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Posted at 11:05 AM ET, 01/21/2011

Tunisia at the crossroads

By Jennifer Rubin

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.

By Jennifer Rubin  | January 21, 2011; 11:05 AM ET
Categories:  foreign policy  
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Hmmmm, I could have sworn that Elliott Abrams was a high ranking member of the NSC for democracy and human rights during the 8 years of the Bush administration.

During that time, Russia went from a democracy to an oligarchy, Venezuela became a totalitarian goverment, the supposedly free election of Hamas in Gaza was invalidated, Mubarak not only consolidated his power in Egypt, but jailed the presidential runner-up in those same 2005 eletions. Aung San Suu Kyi was first released from house arrest in Myanmar, only to be nearly killed in a government sponsored attempt on her life, followed by a return to house arrrest, Syria assasinated the the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, which led to a Syrian troop withdrawal, followed by an Israeli invasion, followed by an Israeli withdrawal, by a new government with a more powerful Hezbollah party.

Looking at the above, you would have to conclude one of three things:

1) Elliott Abrams wasn't very good at his job

2) there's some other Elliott Abrams out there, now giving wise advice

3) maybe, just MAYBE we have less influence internationally than we believe and not every outcome is determined by the finger of Uncle Sam on the scale!

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | January 21, 2011 12:04 PM | Report abuse

More from the neoconservative echo chamber. These people could sit around quoting one another until the cows come home.

Posted by: jbritt3 | January 21, 2011 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Although the govt. reflexively maligned WikiLeaks , its revelations about corruption are a factor in the Tunisian uprising. I wonder which side our leaders are really on -- the former govt. or the people.

Posted by: Sion1 | January 21, 2011 4:57 PM | Report abuse

why should the U.S. get involved with Tunisia beyond the eventual (hopefully) acknowledgement of the new government and working with the UN if anyone in Tunisia asks for help in conducting the elections?

Egypt is not Tunisia, and Mubarak would just ignore the U.S., again.

Bush43 freedom and democracy theme did not work so well.

The best thing the U.S. could do is LEAD BY EXAMPLE. This endless media focus on the next election that starts the day aftrer an election is NOT a good example.

Posted by: K2K2 | January 22, 2011 1:18 AM | Report abuse

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