We lived as a family in Tunisia for two years before accepting my current position at Arab West Report in Egypt. While there we developed a fondness for the country and its people, and as such we have been following closely the political developments. If it has not caught your attention, economic protests have been sweeping the nation, which led to the president of over twenty years fleeing the country. Since then the army has been clamping down, and it is premature to say if there will be any real change in the government, or if it will be a face lift which installs another Western-leaning authoritarian regime.
I would like to say that when the protests began developing in earnest, I was hopeful. While there are many poor people in Tunisia, the country as a whole supported a sizeable emerging middle class. Furthermore, this was built upon their industry, as the nation boasts little in the way of the natural resources which have fueled wealth-building of other Arab states, particularly in the Gulf. This is a testament to the Tunisian national character, which we found to be creative and industrious, in addition to being cultured, intelligent, and open minded.
So while I found much of the protests to be driven by the poorer sections of society, which gave them an appearance of riots, I was hopeful that it would lead to a positive transformation that demanded political change. As the president began making capitulations, it appeared it might be so.
As such, I was quite surprised when he fled. Authoritarian regimes tend to be quite adept at putting down social protest. Furthermore, though the protests were sweeping the nation, he did not appear to be in any danger, and the army would always be available to clamp down. Human rights would be trampled in the process, but eventually, these things tend to die down and life goes back to normal.
I wonder if he fled due to pressure from the army. The president was old, and his steps at placation had the appearances of yielding to the call for an opening of society and an expansion of freedoms. Perhaps fearful, the army may have decided he was a liability, made it clear he was to leave, and began asserting control.
If so, the strategy could be to make the people believe they have won, at which point the fervor will die down and preparations can be made for the government transition. This will give ample time for authorities to perfect election tricks and engineer circumstances so as to keep overall ruling power. There will likely be significant popular pressure to push forward with reforms, but that sort of success is a lot harder to achieve.
Still, I am hopeful. The Tunisian people are of a nature to get it done. Though destructive riots continue and rumors abound of American interference, with al-Qaeda trying to involve itself on the opposing flank, Tunisians are of a dogged, resilient sort. Yes, this could devolve into a Romania-type debacle. Yes, the army might reassert control as things go back to the acceptable, but oppressive status quo. But I would risk a wager on the collective cry for freedom, and trust Tunisia to emerge a stronger nation than before. I hope I’m right.