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.
If Tunisia's interim leaders respond to the demands of their people and usher in new elections, an Arab country will have toppled a tyrant through the power of its people and not the point of an American gun.
For observers throughout the Arab world, the significance of the Tunisian uprising is near-impossible to understate. During this era of retrenchment by aging descendants of revolutionary regimes, the prospect of democratic change had long-ago vanished as a believable possibility. The closest point of reference to the civil unrest in Tunisia is the protest movement that erupted in Iran following the contested presidential elections of June 2009. But the significance of Iran's post-election events has been minimal in the Arab world, reflecting the Arab-Iranian cultural chasm and the ingrained sense of Arab chauvinism that guides Arab perceptions of international affairs. The Shiite theocracy established in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution has always been something of a curiosity for the Arab world and its heavily Sunni population. While the chimerical dreams of Arabism are long gone, events within the Arabic-speaking world - such as Tunisia's protests - carry special resonance. Since Arab nationalism's heyday under the 1950s and '60s stewardship of Egyptian president Gamal 'Abd al-Nasser, that collective identity has remained, held together by shared media and culture. The role once played by the radio broadcasts of Sawt al-'Arab (Voice of the Arabs), the Egyptian-run radio station established during the Nasser era, is now filled by the saturation coverage of such Arab satellite stations as al-Jazeera and al-'Arabiyya. The networks often focus on intra-Arab issues. The protests on the streets of Tunisia were seen far and wide, in real time, by millions of Arabs, with no need for translation or cultural filtering.
With Tunisia's reputation as something of a stable but sleepy backwater, the events of recent weeks have come as a complete surprise to the world. The uprising remains in flux, its ultimate outcome unclear, and there is no certainty that the country is on its way to a democratic transition, let alone a smooth one. However, the demonstration effect of this uprising is likely not lost on the region's aging autocrats. A pilot who refused to fly Ben Ali's family out of Tunisia, interviewed on live television, explained that they were "war criminals." As the region's other autocratic rulers retire to bed, this forthright message will be a chilling reminder that their people's quiescence is not guaranteed, nor is it the same thing as legitimacy. If nothing else, the protests have demonstrated that an Arab head-of-state can be toppled from below and, for leaders as well as activists, have expanded popular notions of the possible. While the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the protests of the "green movement" in Iran have had far-ranging regional ramifications, when it comes to promoting Arab democracy, Tunisia's 2011 uprising may eclipse them both.
Photo by Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty