The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tunisia = Iran?

News of Tunisia’s micro-revolution and its impact across the Arab crescent has finally received attention in the Western media. The The New York Times reports:
TUNIS — Passions unleashed by the revolution in Tunisia resonated throughout the region on Monday as an Egyptian and a Mauritanian became the latest of six North Africans to set themselves on fire in an imitation of the self-immolation that set off the uprising here a month ago …

Taking aim for the first time at the newly formed unity government, the protesters raged against the domination of the new cabinet by members of ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ruling party. “Citizens and martyrs, the government is still the same,” they chanted. “We will protest, we will protest, until the government collapses!”

They called for the complete eradication of the old ruling party, while complaining that outlawed parties like the once powerful Islamist groups or the Tunisian Communists — battle-scarred stalwarts of the long dissident fight against Mr. Ben Ali’s 23-year-rule — were still barred from participating.

Much of the NYT coverage of Tunisia has an eerie similarity to the Times breathless pronouncements about young Iranians who deposed the vicious Shah in the name of democracy, human rights, and "freedom" in the late 1970s. We all know how that turned out. The “revolution” in Iran (encouraged by the Carter administration) culminated with an anti-democratic, Islamist theocracy that is certainly no less brutal than the Shah’s and unquestionably more dangerous.

But the Tunisian revolution does represent an interesting potential opening for the West, as well as a threat to other authoritarian Islamic regimes throughout the Arab crescent. It is also fraught with danger. Khairi Abaza explains:
The toppling of Tunisia’s longtime dictator, Ben Ali, recalled the last days of the Shah, when riots against poor living conditions and calls for human rights quickly turned into demands for getting rid of a dictator. The Iranian revolution did not start as an “Islamist revolution,” but rather as a genuinely anti-authoritarian uprising in which liberals, communists, independents, and Islamists all took part. For a short period, the Islamists even worked with other political forces until they consolidated their power, then turning against their erstwhile allies and destroying them violently.

In Tunisia, the Islamists could try to repeat this pattern. Indeed, it would not be surprising to see them form an alliance with secular forces in the short term. This will last only until the Islamists consolidate their power, at which time they will jettison the non-Islamist elements, turning Tunisia into another Iran.

And so, just like Iran in 1979, Tunisia now finds itself at a crossroads: Will it head down the path of democracy, or will there be a takeover by Islamists? In 1979, Europe and the United States missed an opportunity to stand with liberals at the time of the Shah’s overthrow, leaving them at the mercy of the Islamists. Now, the West must avoid repeating this mistake in Tunisia by clearly identifying with the liberals, and their demands for democracy and better governance.

In its first two years in power, the Obama administration has done little to distinguish itself in the foreign policy realm. It has, at almost every turn, been less than confrontational when faced with Islamist regimes and less than forceful in promoting U.S. interests in the region.

It has remained relatively non-committal about Tunisia. I can only hope it doesn’t follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter and indirectly support an Islamist take-over in Tunisia in the name of “democracy” or “human rights.”