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Shadi Hamid

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Tunisia: The First Arab Democratic Revolution?

Posted: 01/15/11 11:41 AM ET

Yesterday, the Tunisian people toppled their leader, President Ben Ali, in a historic first for the Arab world. This is still a would-be revolution, not yet a successful one. A revolution entails a change in regime, not just in leadership. Power, today, is still in the hands of those associated with the Ancien regime. As Issandr El Amrani writes: "The next 24 hours may be as crucial as the preceding 24." Elections are to be held within 60 days. Here, US and European pressure will be critical in ensuring they are free and fair, with full participation from all political forces, including the banned Islamist party -- al-Nahda led by Rachid Ghannouchi. Any post-revolutionary government in Tunisia needs to represent the widest spectrum possible of social forces in the country -- socialist, leftist, liberal, and Islamist. Tunisians will need to reassess and redesign their constitutional and institutional setup. This is where the international community (for example democracy promotion NGOs) can play a critical supporting role. For starters, under what electoral framework will new elections be held?

No one should underestimate what happened yesterday in Tunisia. If the revolution succeeds, it may very well prove to be one of the most important moments in recent Arab history. It will alter the calculus not only for Arab regimes -- who are watching very, very nervously -- but for Western powers that have long oriented their Middle East policy around seemingly stable, autocratic governments.

Stability is often illusory. Autocracies are stable -- until they're not, and then it's too late. This will, or at least should, be one of the major lessons of the Tunisia's uprising. The new Tunisian government, elected by its own people for the first time, is likely to be less "pro-West" than its authoritarian predecessors. But if Western nations play a constructive role in the interim period, demonstrating their strong support for Tunisian democratization, then some of those concerns can be allayed (call it peaceful pre-emption if you like).

The wait-and-see approach of the United States (which I write about here) will no longer suffice. President Obama's statement last night applauding the "courage and dignity" of the Tunisian people and affirming their right to choose their own leaders was better than expected. That said, it is much easier to support the winners after they've won. In the two years leading up to the Tunisian uprising, I don't recall Obama, or any senior administration official, recognizing and supporting Tunisians' right to basic political rights and freedoms. The true test for the Obama administration comes now, when a great deal is still at stake. The U.S., sadly, does not have a history of supporting Arab democratic aspirations. And, now, with the region coming alive -- or coming apart -- it may be too little, too late. Here's hoping it isn't.

 

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