Tunisian exceptions

After the ouster of former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, I spoke to a Tunisian friend who had just returned home after two decades in exile. Elated by the events that had transpired in his country over the past few weeks, Kamal Gandoubi, an opponent of Ben Ali’s regime, underscored the need for alternative frameworks to analyze Tunisia, since traditional frameworks fail to explain what happened.

To understand Tunisia’s democratic uprising requires careful examination without rushing to draw conclusions. The uprising, which I still hesitate to call a “revolution,” is characterized by a number of exceptions when compared to previous revolutions within and outside the Arab world.

The first is the speed with which the uprising evolved from being about basic economic demands against poverty and unemployment to calling the removal of the entire regime. After Ben Ali fled the country, popular demands went as far as the refusal to appoint any regime figures or ministers in the new government. In less than four weeks, the uprising’s slogans shifted from expressing economic grievances to calls for the creation of a democratic political system in accordance with international standards.

The uprising’s new goals included the removal of all figures associated with the former autocratic regime, the establishment of a free environment for political parties, the press, trade unions, and human rights organizations, and the legalization of parties that had been banned under Ben Ali and his predecessors since Tunisia gained independence in the 1950s.

Activists across the region have tried for decades to build bridges between socio-economic protest movements fighting for wage increases, price controls, improved health care and social security, etc. and political movements demanding democratization and respect for human rights. In many countries, including Egypt, activists have found themselves incapable of building these bridges.

So how did Tunisians do it in a matter of days? While there must have been a buildup of factors, there were no solid indicators that such bridges existed before the uprising broke out on 17 December, especially over the past two years in which Tunisia has witnessed several major social protests.

The second exception is that the Tunisian uprising not only succeeded in toppling Ben Ali’s regime–one of the strongest police states in the Arab world–but it also confronted the big powers that assisted him, both economically and politically. Ben Ali was supported by the United States and the European Union, both of which described his regime as one of their best partners in the region. France was on the verge of intervening militarily a few days before the regime fell.

Ben Ali’s regime was held as a model in crushing Islamic fundamentalism, modernizing society and the economy and fighting the war on terrorism. Ben Ali was so admired that last year the European Union held negotiations with him to discuss upgrading relations with Tunisia within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy. Notably, partners in the Policy must commit to improving human rights and democratic principles.

Wherever democratization has succeeded in the second half of the twentieth century the West has always had a role to play–either one of support, instigation or, at the very least, neutrality. In many countries it has been impossible to conceive of a successful democratic transformation so long as Western powers objected to it. So how did Tunisia become the exception?

Will Tunisia be capable of moving forward on its unique path? Will it succeed in establishing a durable democratic system, despite the spontaneity of the uprising that did not derive its force from any centralized political organization? Or will the exceptional Tunisian model soon collapse? If Tunisians succeed in dismantling the old autocratic system after having ousted its dictator, this will constitute a third historic exception.

This is why the Tunisian uprising still requires deeper examination without generalizations or jumping to conclusions about what these events mean for Tunisia’s neighbors.

Bahey Eldin Hassan is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. His column appears every Monday.

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