The Tunisian Uprising and U.S. Relations with the Muslim World

The Tunisians uprising that began last month has already forced the country’s president out of office and lead to the formation of an interim government designed to oversee a new election. A panel discussion presented as part of American University’s “Washington Semester” program addressed such questions as:  Will this expression of people power yield the first democracy in the Arab world? Other Arabs are showing high level of interest. Tunisians are 98 percent Muslim. What do these dynamics mean for U.S. relations with the Muslim world? What should the Obama administration do?

Panelist Radwan Masmoudi, President of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy,  summarized how demonstrations started in the south but quickly spread to all areas. He remarked that Tunisia is often cited as a good student of the IMF and the World Bank, but that political reform did not match economic development and corruption was the rampant result. Tunisians are sick and tired of the promises President Ben Ali has made but not fulfilled since his inauguration. People fear Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), will “steal the revolution to stay in power.” Masmoudi, like all the panelists, expressed his opposition to banning any party. He argued that the Tunisian people should be allowed to vote on their future. He noted that Tunisia is homogeneous, all Arab and all Maliki Muslims. The main question is whether the secular elites dominating Tunisia will  recognize the Nahda party. Masmoudi feels that holding clean, free, and fair elections within six months is critical. Corruption is the main issue in every Arab country.  All panelists agreed that so far the army has sided with the people and declined to intervene. It is important also that the U.S.  should not take sides, but defend the rights of all political parties to participate.

Daniel Brumberg, Editorial Board Member of the Journal of Democracy , observed that the Arab world is “clever at liberalized autocracy” and for this reason he does not anticipate “a tsunami effect.” He is reminded of Chile and South Korea and effect of the emergence of a middle class. The downturn in the economy brings to a head the dissatisfaction with the regime. He argued that there are both structural and leadership preconditions for a revolt to turn into successful reform. A favorable factor in Tunisia, as compared to Algeria, is that there is a clear split with opposition.

Brumberg emphasized the importance of recognizing “necessary compromises,” as Nelson Mandela did in the reform of South Africa. He argued that one must begin with political pacts first within the opposition and then with the state. His opinion is that the U.S. must be really involved to facilitate the development of these pacts without tainting the process.

Noureddine Jebnoun, Adjunct Professor of the Center for Contemporary Arab studies at Georgetown University emphasized that necessity that the Tunisians themselves must feel ownership in any reforms. He also argued for an end to the “ambiguities that encourage cultural confrontation” between the West and the Arab world.

Neil Hicks, International Policy Adviser at Human Rights First, noted that for several years we have talked about an authoritarian backlash to democratization and asked if this is a backlash to the backlash. He reminded us that Ben Ali took power with a declaration the “November principles” but Tunisia is back where it was then. Tunisia was not a high priority for the U.S. It claimed to be a bastion of women’s rights and professed freedom of expression against incontestable evidence to the contrary. Corruption within the presidential family was well-known, but no one felt any urgency on this. He opines that the fact that the U.S. offered Ben Ali no assistance may reflect the low esteem in which he was held. His ilk must now feel this chill of legitimacy. He feels that this is a moment of great opportunity for us human rights efforts. He says this moment is different because it comes from the Tunisian people and not the U.S.

Masmoudi added that the significance of Wikileaks in these developments is that they showed the U.S. no longer supported Ben Ali. Brumberg warned that it is a mistake to confuse Tunisian cultural homogeneity with political homogeneity. Jabnoun pointed out that Ben Ali was the U.S.’s man in Tunisia even before he took power.

Jabnoun, who had taught at the Tunisian War College, attributed the Tunisian army’s exemplary behavior to the fact that it  is republican and liberal. He noted when Gen. Ammar refused Ben Ali’s order to fire on demonstrators, he was put under arrest, but the military remained loyal to him. He resisted his colleagues’ suggestion to take advantage of the situation to stage a coup and instead ordered his troops to comply with Ben Ali’s request to give him safe passage out of the country.

There was a consensus among the panelists that Tunisians want to trash the constitution and replace the presidential regime with a parliamentary regime. There is also a necessity to severely cut back  the security state apparatus. It is the police rather than the army that has been means of repression.  Tunisia has  180,000 police for a population ten million compared to 120,000 bobbies for England’s population of sixty million. Jabnoun suggested that the first step in cutting the security apparatus should be to put them under the justice department.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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