After weeks of protests against a repressive government, rising food prices, high unemployment, and escalating violence committed by government forces, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14 fled the country he ruled for 23 years, leaving a power vacuum and chaos in his wake. The day marks the unprecedented fall of an authoritarian Arab ruler caused by a popular uprising — the first effective revolution against a heavy-handed authoritarian police state since the end of the Cold War. Even if the uprising changes nothing beyond Tunisia, it will still be an extraordinary and historic event that deserves special recognition.
In marked contrast to the great American enthusiasm for revolutions in ex-Soviet republics, the so-called "Cedar revolution" in Lebanon, and the Green movement in Iran, the Tunisian revolt barely registered in the United States until Ben Ali was gone, and even then, the response was muted. That the Tunisian revolt is not at all useful for those Americans who cheered on these other movements isn’t a surprise: The Tunisian people freed themselves, and they did so at the expense of a U.S. ally.
The new interim president and parliament speaker, Fouad Mebazaa, quickly took over from Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, who had named himself as acting president after Ben Ali’s sudden flight on Friday. Though the head of the regime and his family were driven from power, many of his allies remain as the de facto political establishment, and the forthcoming presidential election will be biased in favor of members of that establishment. Under the Tunisian constitution, it will be Ben Ali’s rubber-stamp parliament that will choose the nominees for president. The protesters seem unwilling to accept any holdovers from the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, forcing Ghannouchi and Mebazza to resign from the party in a bid to appease the crowds.
Dozens of Tunisian protesters have already died in the month since Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate, set fire to himself out of desperation in the small town of Sidi Bouzid. Tunisia's uprising began as a protest against economic hardship and lack of economic opportunity for the large, educated young population, but the protest necessarily also targeted the severe repression of Ben Ali’s police state, its extensive censorship, and its denial of basic political freedoms.
The first authoritarian ruler in the region to fall to democratic protest was a pro-Western "moderate" who had good relations with France, its former Colonial power, and the United States. The government firmly supported U.S. anti-terrorist efforts. The Arab governments that most closely resemble Ben Ali’s are also aligned with America. After a decade of supporting "people power" movements against pro-Russian and pro-Syrian governments that have since faltered or failed, the United States now finds that its authoritarian allies may be the most vulnerable to revolution. As critics continue berating the Obama administration for its supposed neglect of promoting democracy, it is worth reconsidering whether more assertive advocacy is desirable for the United States — or if it is even needed.
In the days leading up to Ben Ali's flight, America took a publicly neutral stance toward the protests, and Secretary of State Clinton stated that the United States was "not taking sides." A few Western sympathizers of the Tunisian opposition were outraged by the administration’s neutral position, but it was actually an impressive example of not inserting the United States into a purely internal matter and allowing Tunisians to work out their own affairs. Indeed, withholding support for Ben Ali's government was more than anyone could have expected, especially when the survival of an allied government was on the line. Had the White House overtly endorsed the cause of the protesters, it is possible that this would have lent credibility to Ben Ali’s claims that outside forces were responsible for the uprising. It certainly would have tainted the revolt in the eyes of many other Arab publics that have found inspiration in the Tunisian example.
In the end, the lack of public American support did not doom the Tunisian revolt, and now the credit for ousting Ben Ali resides solely where it ought to be — with the Tunisian people. Tunisians have given us a reminder that the political fortunes of Arab countries do not depend on what Washington does or does not do. For most of the last decade, the United States actively promoted democracy in Arab countries, and the results from Iraq to Gaza have been largely ruinous for the nations involved. Now that the U.S. is "neglecting" the issue, the first Arab revolt against authoritarianism has prevailed. The U.S. and the region would both benefit from a great deal more benign neglect.