According to Freedom House, only 2 percent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa lives in full freedom. Of those, 100 percent are in Israel. Thus, last week’s popular uprising in Tunisia, quickly labeled the Jasmine Revolution, gained more notice than it might have otherwise. If “people power” could bring down Tunisia’s long-term dictatorship, perhaps spontaneous regime change is possible in other authoritarian states such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Palestine Authority, Algeria, Libya and Iran, among others miserable places.
Tunisia’s ousted president-for-life, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, was a typically odious Arab strongman whose family and coterie indulged their every whim. The rumor that he and his detested wife Leila skipped town with 1.5 tons of gold from the national bank had an old-fashioned ring in the days of e-commerce, but he surely felt justified to make off with whatever ill-gotten gains he could. He now languishes in Saudi Arabia, which has established itself as the last refuge of such failed autocrats.
The uprising has inspired secular liberal reformers in the Arab world, a small and underappreciated group that is the true hope for the region. This movement gets little support from the United States, which would rather not rock the boat, and the remaining police states are not taking chances. The Palestinian Authority banned a planned demonstration in Ramallah in support of the Tunisian revolution; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has close ties to Ben Ali dating back to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s exile in Tunisia in the 1980s. A few dozen activists turned out anyway and found themselves hemmed in by a police cordon and overshadowed by a mass ruling-party rally in support of “Palestinians held in Israeli jails.” Countries elsewhere in the region remain watchful lest anyone get any ideas to pursue similar reform on the home front.
Some have tried to spark similar uprisings. Over the past week, more than a dozen protesters - nine in Egypt alone - have either set themselves on fire or attempted to, emulating Mohammad Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation catalyzed his country’s uprising. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see suicidal tendencies in that region used for a worthy political cause and not aimed at taking out as many innocent people as possible in pursuit of 72 virgins in paradise. Either way, it’s safe to assume people aren’t setting themselves on fire because they’re happy in Islamist society.
London-based Arabic newspaper Dal Al-Hayat said the Tunisian uprising “is a gift to the entire Arab world” and “is the best answer to those who do not believe in the possibility of change from the inside.” Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, commented at a meeting last week that, “the Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession” and that future such revolts are possible. Tunisia, however, is one of the more economically advanced and Westernized countries in the region, and a case could be made that this was a revolution of rising expectations. “Broken souls” do not bring down governments.
Freedom hasn’t been secured in Tunisia. The new “unity” government is under attack from reformers for including members of the old regime. Islamic extremists have recognized the opportunity to hijack the revolution to their own ends in the way the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in the wake of the uprising that brought down the shah of Iran. The people of Tunisia could find themselves in the grip of a militant theocracy that would be even worse than Ben Ali’s police state. Currently in Tunisia, women aren’t chattel, polygamy is illegal and Shariah is not the law of the land. That modern state of affairs is in danger.
The United States should play an active role in nurturing the development of Western-style democracy in Tunisia. Washington also needs to step up to openly oppose and frustrate the designs of radicals who would remake the country into an Islamic republic prison like Iran.
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