In the April 4 issue of The New Yorker, Steve Coll devotes seven pages to an interesting profile of the Tunisian Revolution. Since Coll has exemplary credentials and The New Yorker is an opinion-maker, this profile should work to raise a good deal of awareness about the stakes of the Tunisian Revolution.
Coll paints a skillful picture of the diversity of protesters “students, robed lawyers, jobless men, Islamists and parents toting young children” and captures Mohammed Ghannouchi's resignation. Then, he moves into the meaty part of his report. He meets with important actors and lets them speak.
Moncef Marzouki, the veteran dissident and leader of the League for Human Rights, expressed frustration with European and American hopes for reform:
“I am extremely surprised that in the West you have a lot of people who keep thinking that you can reform Syria, you can reform Saudi Arabia. It's complete nonsense....A dictatorship is a dictatorship, and it is not something you can reform.”
So Ben Ali had to go, but who or what will take his place? Here, Coll contrasts the Tunisian approach with the Egyptian. While constitutional amendments were rushed through a referendum in Egypt, on July 24th Tunisians will elect a new constituent assembly, who will rewrite the constitution. The hope is that this will allow the constitution to reflect the wishes of the people.
In a region full of turmoil, Coll is hopeful for Tunisia:
“The conditions in Tunisia seem more favorable to a durable democracy than those in many other Arab nations. The population is well educated; there are no sectarian or tribal divides; and there is a foundation of civil society. Tunisia's success would not guarantee that its neighbors will follow, but its failure would be a dark portent.”
At the same time, Coll is far from callow in considering the obstacles facing the burgeoning democracy in Tunisia. The repeated resignations from interim cabinets feed instability within the country. A prominent secular-socialist leader, Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, expressed worry: “There is no more confidence. I am seriously fearing that Tunisia will fall into turmoil and experience violence.”
Fear and violence were both rampant in the weeks following Ben Ali's departure, as gangs roamed the countryside, smashing and burning. Most people believed this was the work of the police politique trying to create the impression that liberty was dangerous and to make the populace nostalgic for the stability they enjoyed under the vanished rais. The revolution created a power vacuum, and almost no one is prepared to fill it. Coll points out the relative weakness of the Army, despite General Rachid Ammar's refusal to shoot protestors. Since Ben Ali kept the Army weak to avoid a coup like his own that replaced Bourguiba, there is no real possibility of a military government on the current Egyptian model.
But who else might fill this vacuum? Many politicians are too tainted by their ties to Ben Ali, and since the president and his family kept a stranglehold on business, there is no commercial elite. Instead there are trade-unionists, Islamists, and young wired activists. The General Union of Labor plays an important role, but has lost prestige over recent decades. Islamists are more of an unknown factor. While the best known group, Ennahda and it's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi enjoy a level of popularity, recently there have been tensions within Tunisian society over secularism. Finally, young bloggers have been key to spreading information and to organizing sit-ins, but while important, this does not directly translate into governing.
It's still a long time until July 24th, and in the time since Coll filed this report, alarming news of police brutality has surfaced in Tunisia. Additionally, the ongoing military operations in Libya and the presence of refugees, as well as the boats heading toward Lampedusa are problems that won't just go away. While the constituent assembly and a new constitution are laudable goals, Tunisians are agitated and risk a great deal of disappointment.