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What's Next for Tunisia?

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Tunisia remains in a state of emergency. The 23-year rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, one of the Arab world's most ruthless and efficient autocrats, has crumbled. Few are sorry to see him and his cronies go, but it remains unclear what kind of governing system will take his place. Tunisia's new government, when it emerges, may be more representative and less repressive, but that will take time. In the meantime, Tunisia's interim rulers are faced with the immediate tasks not only of restoring order after a month of street protests, but also of shaping a new governing system. Doing so will require balancing between popular demands on the one hand and retaining the support of at least some of Tunisia's old elites on the other. How the interim government navigates this delicate balance and sets the new rules of the game will have a major impact on the future direction of Tunisia.

The Tunisian military has emerged as an important arbiter of the country's future. For the moment, the military is maintaining order and enjoys wide credibility. Its commander, General Rachid Ammar, reportedly refused orders to open fire on civilian protests and apparently facilitated Ben Ali's abdication on January 14. Military forces are controlling the streets of Tunisia, but for now the military leadership has remained out of the public spotlight. It remains unclear what the military's long-term political preferences are other than maintaining stability and order.

Unlike many other popular uprisings, no organized opposition movement or charismatic leader is waiting in the wings to take power. According to Tunisia's constitution, elections should be held within 60 days after the president leaves his position. That is a short period for a country with no record of transparent or free elections and no alternative political leadership. The current rules empower the parliament, composed almost entirely of the old ruling elite, to approve presidential candidates. This could limit the playing field of presidential candidates unless the parliament becomes amenable to allowing opposition figures to compete. A wild card is the Nahda party, Tunisia's largest Islamic movement. The party has been banned for decades, and most of its activists are either imprisoned or exiled. How the new system accommodates or represses Islamist political participation will be an important indicator of its future trajectory.

The rest of the region is watching all of this closely. The discontent that sparked the Tunisian riots is widespread throughout North Africa and other parts of the Middle East. Young people are especially frustrated by the limited social mobility and lack of representation in their countries. Neighboring Arab regimes face many of the same challenges that spiraled out of control in Tunisia. But there are significant differences as well. Ben Ali used very few political tools beyond fear and repression to maintain his rule. Neighboring Arab regimes, in contrast, tend to use a greater combination of incentives and police action to maintain control. Most importantly, these regimes allow greater space for political participation, including Islamist activism. The question neighboring leaders are surely asking is whether Ben Ali fell because he was too brutal, or because he wasn't brutal enough at the first sign of trouble.

The Obama administration has publicly called for a "genuine transition to democracy" in Tunisia. That is an important long-term goal, but the United States should tread carefully. The U.S. government has few tools at its disposal in Tunisia, which is more closely tied to Europe. Over the last decade, U.S.-Tunisian counterterrorism cooperation has been relatively positive, but broader cooperation has been limited and often frustrating. At this point, it is hard to understand who the actors will be in determining Tunisia's future, and that makes finding partners to build that future all the more difficult.

Haim Malka is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.