Will Tunisia Be a Turning Point for Arab Democracy?

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It's not surprising that the world paid so little attention to the protests in Tunisia at first. This small country in North Africa has largely been removed from the major conflicts of the Middle East that have so disproportionately occupied the United States. But now that longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has fled the country and ceded power, international attention has finally focused on the historic events unfolding in Tunis. But Ben Ali's ouster could have serious implications outside this corner of the greater Middle East. The amazing scenes in Tunisia may in the end prove to be decisive for the long-term future of the Arab world, with the potential to revitalize the dispirited discourse of political change and reenergize opposition movements across the region. After decades of incremental, and mostly failed, challenges to authoritarianism, Arab activists and opposition figures now have an unexpected example of successful protest. Tunisia could become a powerful addition to the mixed legacies of two of the most important political events of recent Middle Eastern history: the formation of a struggling democracy in post-invasion Iraq and the 2009 post-election protests in Iran. If Tunisians succeed, their uprising could become more important for the Arab world than the examples of either Iran or Iraq.

The Arab world's political malaise, the repressive practices of Arab governments, and the lack of legally sanctioned channels for political expression and change have been a key factor in the rise of Islamism and its more radical and violent offshoots. While the Bush administration decried the corrosive effects of Arab authoritarianism and hailed the salutary effects of regime change, its prescriptions for achieving these ends - by outside force or threat of force - have been decidedly counterproductive.

The U.S. relationship to political reformers in the Arab world has been, to be charitable, contradictory. Following decades of steadfast support for Arab strongmen, President Bush sought to reframe U.S. policies in the region as part of a broader "freedom agenda." The Iraq war was, for him, a key component of a U.S.-led "global democratic revolution." In the wake of the invasion, the Bush administration laid out a lofty rhetorical framework for democratization. Even as the Iraq war deteriorated and recriminations about its justifications intensified, the U.S. pushed even greater emphasis on spreading democratic values and holding elections in Iraq and beyond. The administration established a new aid program, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, to fund reform efforts, and began agitating for internal reform in Syria and Iran. This period also witnessed a push for elections in the Palestinian territories and pressure on the Egyptian regime to hold free and fair elections. But the Bush administration's interventionist and somewhat missionary approach found setbacks and defeats in the region, ultimately winning little for Arab democratic movements.

In Arab eyes, the democracy agenda was inextricably associated with military intervention. The chaos and violence of Iraq became another excuse for Arab leaders to deflect calls for reform. The fickle U.S. commitment to democracy in the face of unexpected gains by Islamist parties, not to mention its ever-closer strategic relations with autocratic allies in the name of security interests, suggested to many Arabs that, for the U.S., democracy was not so much a goal but a tool to be used selectively.

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Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation, where he focuses on international security, human rights, post-conflict justice, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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