- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2011

As protests continue on the streets of Tunisia, U.S. policymakers are weighing their response to the crisis, seeking to chart a course supportive of demands for democratic reform without sacrificing other U.S. goals — or allies — in the region.

The Tunisian army fired warning shots over the heads of demonstrators outside the headquarters of the long-ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party in the capital, Tunis, on Thursday, as the Cabinet of the country’s new unity government met for the first time.

State television reported that eight ministers in the government had quit the party in an apparent attempt to distance themselves from the 23-year rule of its leader, former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia last week after the military refused to crush a weeks-old wave of protests.

U.S. officials so far have taken a low-key approach to what has been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution, welcoming — in the words of a White House statement — the “brave and determined struggle” by protesters, and condemning the use of violence against them.

But neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has personally addressed the situation in public during a week in which a crowded Washington agenda was dominated by the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao and domestic politics.

State Department officials Thursday said they would offer technical support for forthcoming elections in Tunisia and that they were monitoring the situation closely.

“The interim government is undertaking a transition and taking steps to move the country in a fundamentally new direction,” spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Washington Times in e-mail. “The United States is prepared to help, for example, with expertise regarding credible election planning. But the change will originate inside Tunisia.”

There was concern among some observers that the turmoil could spread to other countries in the region, where more is at stake for the United States.

Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said supporting the protests in “secondary ally” Tunisia is a “cost-free policy for the administration to pursue,” but “serious strategic interests” would be implicated by similar events in several neighboring states.

“Suddenly, these regimes do look unstable,” he said of key U.S. allies with authoritarian governments, such as Egypt and Jordan.

Haim Malka, a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that other Arab autocracies “tend to use a greater combination of incentives and police action to maintain control” than Mr. Ben Ali — who “used very few political tools beyond fear and repression” — had done in Tunisia.

“Most importantly, these regimes allow greater space for political participation,” he said. “The question neighboring leaders are surely asking this week is whether Ben Ali fell because he was too brutal, or because he wasn’t brutal enough at the first sign of trouble.”

Last week in Doha,Qatar, Mrs. Clinton called on Arab leaders to institute reforms.

“Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever,” she said, just one day before Mr. Ben Ali fled.

Mr. Cook warned that the United States might be missing a chance to drive home that message.

“The administration has sent signals that it is not going to take the opportunity that Tunisia presents, for example, to press the Egyptians or the Jordanians” for reform — at least in public. They may be having private conversations,” he said.

Arab-American scholar Hussein Ibish suggested that the administration should keep a low profile, saying the United States “cannot help the reform process [in Tunisia or elsewhere] by enthusiastically embracing it.”

“This is a real spontaneous, organic movement,” Mr. Ibish said of Tunisia’s protests. “To try to put the U.S. imprimatur on it will only enable its enemies to paint it as an American plot.”

In Tunisia, key portfolios in the unity government are held by long-serving members of Mr. Ben Ali’s former Cabinet, which prompted Tunisian opposition leader Nejib Chebbi to declare, “The president has fallen, but the regime is still here.”

Angry protesters said they would keep returning to the streets until all remnants of the old regime had been swept away.

Mr. Cook said the demonstrators were “obviously not satisfied with the unity government” and want “a fundamental restructuring of the Tunisian political system.”

Several observers raised the possibility that the political chaos, especially if it is prolonged, might open the door to Islamic extremists in Tunisia, even though it is considered to have one of the most modern and secular populations of any Arab state.

Tunisia has one of the stronger and more variegated and more sophisticated civil society and [nonprofit] sectors” in the region, said Mr. Ibish.

He noted that Nadha, the Islamist political party that Tunisia banned for decades and whose leaders it jailed or sent into exile, was more moderate than its counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world.

“It is Muslim Brotherhood Lite,” he said, referring to the global Islamist network committed to the vision of Islam as a political system, not just a religion.

Nadha’s exiled leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, told the Financial Times in London this week that the party is part of a umbrella group, the October 18 coalition, which is committed to pluralism, women’s rights and freedom of conscience.

“The Tunisia that we are working for [is] one in which women enjoy equality, people can establish and join any party, and they have the freedom to believe any faith,” he said.

Mr. Ibish cautioned that there is a clear historical precedent for Islamists helping to topple a government in the name of pluralism and political reform, and then seizing power for a theocratic dictatorship.

“The model is Iran” in 1979, he said. “It is possible to go from the frying pan to the fire … from an incorrigible despot to religious zealots of the worst kind.”

A website run by extremist cleric Sheik Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi - the mentor of slain al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — urged supporters to “seize the moment” in Tunisia and work for “true change,” according to a summary prepared by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

The posting called on extremists to boycott existing parties and work through “reviving mosques, opening libraries, spreading relevant propaganda, and performing [missionary work] — among the Tunisian people,” according to the summary.

In an audio message released last week before Mr. Ben Ali fled, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leader Abu Mus’ab Abdel Al-Wadoud praised the demonstrators, calling on them to intensify their efforts and spread them to other Arab and Muslim countries.

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