Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution began last month with the lonely demonstration of a frustrated vendor immolating himself on the street. Could Tunisia’s demonstration now spread elsewhere in an Arab world dominated by autocrats?
The question isn’t so outlandish after yesterday’s protests in Egypt, where thousands calling for the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule clashed with security forces across the country. At least three people were killed.
The Mubarak government is far more willful than was the tired and corrupt regime of ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt’s military is also larger and more closely integrated into the government than is Tunisia’s army, which refused to act against the protestors and now seems to be supporting elections. The military essentially installed Mr. Mubarak, a former air force officer, and his predecessor Anwar Sadat. A comparable overthrow in Cairo must be counted as unlikely.
Yet the Tunisian example does seem to have broken a psychological taboo in the famous Arab street. Arabs are typically allowed to demonstrate against America, but not against their own governments. The sight of Tunisia becoming the first Arab revolution born in the streets is liberating to other Arabs with access to Al Jazeera but little civic space or chance for democratic expression in their own countries.
This is all the more reason for America to help Tunisia succeed, especially since so much can still go wrong. Mr. Ben Ali’s sudden departure for Saudi Arabia left a vacuum no politician or party can easily fill. A couple of his cronies claimed the throne and stepped down. The cabinet includes figures from the opposition and the ruling party, who met for the first time Thursday and presented a unified front. An interim government needs to gain legitimacy to pave the way for presidential elections promised in six months.
That transition may be harder to pull off in Tunisia than it was in other popular revolutions, such as the 1986 People Power in the Philippines or Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. Those regimes were toppled after trying to steal contested elections, and opposition parties led by charismatic figures were ready to take power. Tunisia’s leaderless uprising reflected public frustration rather than faith in a democratic choice.
A fair election in the summer would nonetheless be a historic step toward representative government and a teachable moment for people who have only known strongmen. The military is playing a helpful role for now, even as Islamists of various stripes look for openings to exploit. If the civilians flounder, the generals might yet step in, which would be a failure of the uprising’s aspirations.
Tunisia’s new leaders declared an amnesty for political prisoners and legalized all political groups, including the main Islamist party Ennahdha, or Renaissance. This looks like an acceptable risk. Mr. Ben Ali banned Ennahdha in 1992, sending its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, into London exile. The party is said to be the best-organized opposition force in Tunisia today. But Tunisia is broadly secular, urban, middle class and educated, not usually fertile ground for radical Islam.
Ultimately, political and economic pluralism and durable institutions are the best defense against tyrants, secular or religious. As tempting as it is to prefer the autocrat you know over the Islamist you fear, the U.S. won’t often have the luxury of a choice. So what really matters is that whoever takes power in a fair election can’t easily deny others the same privilege.
We’ve tried the alternative for decades. America’s support for Arab tyrants made us accessories to unpopular rulers and played into Islamist hands. Denying people the right to choose their leaders, often in the name of preventing the rise of Islamist parties, often boosts support for those same Islamists as the only alternative to the corrupt powers in charge.
Not all street uprisings against tyranny succeed, and even fewer midwife democracy. The aspirations of the 2009 “green revolution” were crushed in Iran; China’s democrats haven’t recovered from Tiananmen Square. Yet these cases show that the thirst for liberty transcends geography, religion and political culture. The U.S. should let the Arabs know it is on the side of political freedom.