Back before the current frenzy in Egypt, there was another revolution where an oppressive dictator of more than 20 years was thrown out of a small Arab country by popular uprising, and democracy was said to triumph throughout the land. It sounds like a fairy tale because it is one: while Ben Ali's regime fell to widespread revolt and demonstration in Tunisia a few weeks ago, a democratic conclusion to the country's political situation is far from forgone, notes David Rieff in The New Republic. While "most outside observers believed they were witnessing a great victory of democracy over tyranny...it is a mistake to consider the democratic revolution in Tunisia as a fait accompli," he writes, adding that "nothing could be further from the truth" at the moment. He draws parallels between Tunisia of today and Romania on the eve of a coup in 1989.
"Both crises of the regime began with popular demonstrations that seem to have been spontaneous and to have taken even long-time opponents of the regime by surprise. But in both cases, the actual overthrow of the tyrant seems to have been the work of members of the governing elite—dissident members of the Party and the Securitate in Romania, the army and senior members of Ben Ali’s own government in Tunisia....In Tunisia, the transitional government set up after the head of the army, General Rachid Ammar, forced Ben Ali into exile in Saudi Arabia, initially was comprised largely of men who had faithfully served Ben Ali for years, including the dictator’s hand-picked prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, who remains in office. The popular outrage at this was so great that Prime Minister Ghannouchi was forced to secure the resignations of the most prominent of these figures, notably Ben Ali’s ministers of foreign affairs, interior, defense, and finance, all of whom had tried to hold on to their posts. And in the streets of Tunis, and the other major Tunisian cities like Sfax and Bizerte, demonstrators have begun to carry signs with slogans condemning the ‘theft’ of their so-called Jasmine Revolution."
Rieff ends by urging some general caution about jumping to quick conclusions.
The "celebrated remark that those who forget the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat it is fatuous for many reasons. Not the least of them is that the lessons we draw from events are often based as much on what we have misunderstood as on what we have correctly apprehended. To put it starkly, what may still turn out to be a false dawn for the people of Tunisia is already an inspiration to the rest of the Arab Middle East."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.