David Calling

Tunisia, Put in Perspective

The Tunisian revolution has raised expectations throughout the Arab and Muslim world. It takes courage to come out in those police states and welcome the demonstrations that have overthrown the Tunisian ex-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Commentators in the media are expressing hopes that other Arab and Muslim countries will follow this example, and democracy will be the happy outcome. A sense of déjà vu, however, is in order.

To start with a historical footnote: As far back as 1860, a remarkable man, Khayr Ed-Din, tried to make Tunisia the first Arab country with constitutional rule. Perceived as transplanting alien and unwanted European ideas into a Muslim society, he was removed from power and went into exile. His experimental modernizing left no trace and might as well not have happened.

Dictatorship imposes narrow patterns of behavior. Ben Ali had no inclination for European ideas. Tunisia was there for him and his family to control and plunder. Prisons were full. Hundreds of thousands of the best educated Tunisians were in exile. When protesters finally could endure no more and took to the streets, he had a simple choice: either to order his security forces to start a massacre as Saddam Hussein had done with the Shia after the first Gulf War; or go into exile like the Shah of Iran. Had he been younger than 74, Ben Ali might well have decided to shoot it out, but he had got what he wanted out of life and in any case sweetened exile by stealing a ton and a half of gold. Saddam had stolen on a similarly extravagant scale, and trucks filled with dollars were intercepted on Iraqi roads.

After the downfall of the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini remade the state of Iran to suit himself, and in the traditional fashion he and his successors have shown themselves willing and indeed eager to kill all who might be in their way. After the downfall of Saddam, a whole lot of ambitious men jostled for power in Iraq, and only the presence of large American forces ensured that some sort of orderly political process with vaguely Western political features was introduced rather than another Arab-style dictatorship. Now in Tunisia another whole lot of ambitious men are jostling for power. Mostly they are old, and compromised by years of toadying to Ben Ali. What they are calling a government of national unity is really only an elitist clique whose members are competing to replace each other. The purging of Ben Ali’s single party is the local version of de-Baathification in Iraq. And this time there are no American forces supervising the introduction of a political process for which there is no precedent. Instead a nephew of Ben Ali’s has been murdered, and there is looting of the villas and shops of the rich, incineration of cars, vigilantes, and random firing from unidentified snipers.

One of the ambitious men is Rashid Ghannouci, the head of An-Nahda, the Tunisian Islamist party. He is returning to Tunis after years in exile in London. Elie Kedourie once showed me an essay Ghannouci had written about the British in the Middle East, a compendium of errors, mistaken names, and conspiracy theory. It is a short step from ignorance like that to willingness to kill opponents in the style of the ayatollahs.

Perhaps civil society will manage to come together out of these disparate and selfish elements. Perhaps the security forces, the old Ben Ali party men, the Islamists, and the angry rioters will evolve due processes to mediate their interests and differences. But in the century and a half from Khayr Ed-Din to Ben Ali, the traditional Arab and Muslim order has been repeating and renewing itself with an energy that keeps Western ideas about democracy at bay.


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