1-14-2011By Neil Hicks
International Policy Advisor
After more than 23 years in office, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, long seen as one of North Africa’s most efficient dictators, is gone, pushed out ignominiously by mass street protests.
From somewhere, the Tunisian people found the courage to stand up to riot police using live ammunition to overthrow a regime that has long denied them basic rights and freedoms, and was increasingly unable to meet the aspirations of unemployed, educated youth or to cope with a mounting economic crisis.
It is unclear what will happen next. In the fashion of autocratic rulers throughout the region, it has been Ben Ali’s practice to keep his political opposition weak, sometimes through harsh repression, but also by sowing divisions and co-opting the malleable. As a result, there is no single opposition party ready to take up the reins of power.
The long term denial of basic political rights means that there has been no tradition of open political debate for decades. Tunisians now face the challenge of building a new government out of few raw materials. While weakening the opposition, Ben Ali also undermined state institutions. Independent judges were hounded from the bench, parliament was a rubber stamp and elections a farce, independent civil society organizations were harassed and there was no freedom of the press.
Tunisia’s democratic infrastructure is weak, but it does have some advantages. It has a well educated and relatively prosperous population, when compared to its regional neighbors like Egypt, Algeria or Morocco. It is relatively small and homogenous, with few religious or ethnic minorities, reducing the risk of ethnic or sectarian conflict.
When President Ben Ali came to power in 1987, Tunisia’s largest opposition party was the An-Nahda Islamist group led by Rached el-Ghannouchi. An-Nahda was an interesting phenomenon, a self-described Islamist movement ostensibly committed to democratic politics. Before An-Nahda’s democratic credentials could be put to the test through observing its performance as part of a democratic system, Ben Ali destroyed the party in Tunisia through repression. There were show trials, mass arrests and torture of An-Nahda supporters. Rached el-Ghannouchi has lived in exile throughout Ben Ali’s rule and has been a leading figure in the Islamist diaspora, sometimes identifying himself with movements committed to political violence, while remaining a fierce critic of Ben Ali.
Ghannouchi and An-Nahda, or its descendants, will be a force in Tunisia’s new politics. In common with many Islamist movements in the region, divergent branches, reflecting different responses to state repression, have emerged. Some have concluded that democratic politics is a losing game and that seizing power by any means necessary is the only way to secure a just, Islamic society; others have drawn different conclusions, and remain committed to peaceful, multiparty politics. This debate within Islamism, and, since it will affect them directly, the Tunisian people as a whole, will have a major bearing on whether Tunisia can emerge with a better, more representative government, and whether the Tunisian people winll finally come to enjoy the basic rights and freedoms they have so long been denied.
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