Monday, January 31, 2011

What Happened to Tunisia?

Excitement in the media over the turmoil in Egypt has preempted any and all coverage of Tunisia, which, just two weeks ago, captured the attention of the world. Though former President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali has been ousted and fled the country, matters in the small North African country are far from resolved. In fact, out of the world’s eye, the still inchoate revolution in Tunisia may be just beginning.

A curfew remains in place. Many schools and universities remain closed. Looting persists, as do clashes between protesters and police. And, Sunday, Rachid Ghannouchi, the exiled leader of the yet banned Tunisian Islamist party, Ennahda, returned to Tunisia, where thousands of supporters greeted him at the airport in Tunis.

Ghannouchi, in apparent recognition of the similarities between his return and the 1979 return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran, immediately sought to dispel such comparisons in his first interview following his return. However, in contrast to Khomeini’s return to Iran, Ghannouchi and his Ennahda party have reportedly little popular support within Tunisia. Moreover, Ghannouchi has sounded moderate tones in the two weeks since Ben Ali’s ouster. He has called for respect for democracy, women’s rights, and the development of Tunisia.

Yet, it is appropriate for Western observers to approach Ghannouchi’s return with caution. Revolutions are chaotic and unpredictable. Even the Iranian revolution existed in a state of flux from 1978 through 1982. After the Shah’s ouster and Khomeini’s return the first several governments—those established under Bakhtiar and Bazargan—were secular and moderate. Before Khomeini could consolidate power in a quasi-theocracy, he was forced to develop administrative and security functionality (the IRGC) in parallel to those which belonged to the secular state.

The longer uncertainty and insecurity persist, the greater the opportunity for individuals like Ghannouchi to consolidate power. It would be better for the people of Tunisia and for Western interest to have quick elections that would likely advantage the few currently functioning organizations in Tunisia like trade unions. These are more likely to return a moderate, Western-oriented government.

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