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Columns and Articles by Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman

January 29, 2011

Tunisia Is Not the Model For Other Arab World “Revolutions”

Tunisia, one of the more stable dictatorships in the Arab world, has erupted into what looks like a revolution. While this may remind us of the failed revolution last summer in Iran, the Tunisian dictator and his wife have left the country after a 23-year run. In Iran, the dictators are still there—barely holding on.

What makes this particular revolution significant is that it is not happening in a vacuum. Tunisia is a small country (10.6 million) in North Africa, close to southern Europe. It has been the least Islamist of any Arab states—for two good reasons: first, the dictator saw to it that Islam was suppressed over the 35 years he has been in power, and second: because the country was secular and educated. The population only doubled since the 1950s whereas most Muslim states tripled. Demographers can affirm that doubling of a populaton over a half century dcan be managed by a government. Tripling is a recipe for unrest.

Watching the street demonstrations and listening to interviews with journalists (gamely dodging tear-gas), we see a young and modern population including many young women with scarcely a head-scarf in sight. They call their departing dictator and his wife “the Ceausescus” because of their resemblance to the Romanian dictator and his wife who terrorized and robbed their country blind. When asked what they want, many in the streets say they are educated enough to rule themselves and they want the freedoms they see in Europe. No hostility to western values here—yet.

When countries modernize under a fairly competent dictatorship, they often reach a point where the population is educated enough to want to rule itself. This happened years earlier in South Korea and Taiwan, both once military dictatorships that became participatory democracies without revolutions (but with plenty of public demonstrations). We can hope that Tunisia will be one of these—and the very first in the Arab world to do it on their own. Their neighbors are watching with fascination—and perhaps with premature hope that they can do the same. Their neighbors’ governments are watching with horror.

Egypt and Jordan are both authoritarian states with populations increasingly unhappy with the repression. But if they rid themselves of their authoritarian governments, Islamists would take power through an election---held once only. This almost happened in Algeria some years ago, when the military dictatorship put down murderous and savage Islamist insurgents after an election. The US and European governments condemned them for not accepting the election, although this election would have been “one man, one vote, one time.”

Until now, the only organized force that can sow seeds of revolution against dictatorships is militant Islam. If the dictator is ruthless enough, the militants don’t have a chance. But any faltering in responses can bring down the house. The revolutionary forces that brought down the late Shah of Iran in 1979 were a coalition of Shiite clerics (with money and rent-a-mobs) and university-educated socialists and Marxists. The young intellectuals were not as organized as the clerics, nor nearly as smart. After the Shah was driven from the country, a snap referendum was held with only one choice: yes or no to an “Islamic Republic.” All other elections since then have been for show only because anything (and any candidate) were subject to veto by the religious dictatorship.

Because Islamists, rather than credible secularists, have offered the only consistent resistance to Arab military dictatorships, the public would vote for them—and live to regret it. Women beware.

Perhaps the United States government has finally learned that cheering on revolutions in oppressive states does not always give us something good. Trying to establish a democracy in a country where fanatical religion and ilitteracy prevail (such as Afghanistan) is not going to turn out as we would like. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is waiting to see what sort of orderly process Tunisia can produce. It is up to the interim government to provide that—and for the world press to look out for thugs of the old dictatorship or Islamists who will try to sow discord.

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Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and writer. You may contact her at Lfarhat102@aol.com or www.globalthink.net.