Self-Determination in Tunisia

by Ruth Montiel:

More than twenty years of suppressed stability have come to a crashing halt in Tunisia. The tumultuous events of the last month have profound implications for Tunisia itself as it moves toward greater democracy, but also for other Arab dictator states as well as for Western states encountering an Arab bottom-up democracy movement for one of the first times in history.

Tunisian protesters (Flickr Creative Commons)

The protests began with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate who was unable to find a job and attempted to survive as a street vendor. The police seized his goods, and though he appealed to the government, they were no help. His dramatic action sparked a month-long series of protests and riots that resulted in the flight of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the formation of a new unity government.

The changes have been rapid. Most notably, press freedom, severely limited by Ben Ali’s administration, has been reinstated. Tunisians now can converse and debate openly about politics and other contentious issues in ways that have been prohibited for decades. The struggles are far from over, however. Many Tunisians are dissatisfied with the new unity government, which includes members of Ben Ali’s administration. Additionally, the Ben Ali-allied police continue to engage in brutality. Nevertheless, the progress is significant, and optimism over the anticipated elections runs high.

This dramatic awakening of the Tunisian people in their demand for human rights has profound implications not just for Tunisia itself but also for the citizens and leaders of other repressive Arab states and the United States.

The upcoming elections in Tunisia will be the long delayed test for democracy in that country. One of the most contentious issues will be the presence of the Islamist party, which was banned by Ben Ali and continues to be regarded suspiciously by many coastal elites in Tunisia. However, to prohibit the reentry of this party would undermine the entire Tunisian revolution. Any government elected under those conditions would be guilty of the neglect of human rights attributed to Ben Ali. All parties supported by the people must be given a voice and an opportunity. Additionally, the Tunisian Islamist party is one of the most liberal in the world, and supports both women’s rights and religious plurality. Their opponents should be wary of committing the fatal conflation of Islamism and Jihadist extremism. The Tunisian people must allow the Islamist party the voice that others are afforded. Selective democracy is a contradiction that a newly democratic state cannot afford to indulge in should it hope to gain international legitimacy.

Tunisia’s Arab neighbors have been deeply impacted by these events and will continue to be so as democracy progresses in Tunisia. Observers throughout the Arab world hope that the movement in Tunisia will spark similar change throughout Northern Africa, and indeed, since the protests began, at least 6 other self-immolations have occurred in other countries. A domino-effect series of revolutions toppling the repressive regimes of the region is probably unlikely. Nevertheless, I believe that the benefits to be gained from following the Tunisian example are countless. The Arab world has long been under both internal and external scrutiny. A series of democratic movements espousing freedom and equality would help to diminish the pervasive and insidious stereotypes imposed on the region by the West. The Tunisian example shows that such movements are fully possible without help from the Western world or other elites. A movement by the people for the people validates the sovereignty and dignity of a state and its citizens in a way that a foreign assisted change cannot. Thus Egyptians, Libyans, and other people suffering under repressive regimes, as well as the dictators carrying out this repression, have much to learn from the Tunisian people’s work for their own human rights. Democracy is not a Western, foreign concept. Indeed, liberation movements are strongest when they happen from within.

Even as President Obama and other American leaders praise the Tunisians’ struggle for basic freedoms, they continue to prosecute Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. The irony is deepened by the significant role Wikileaks played in making the revolution in Tunisia possible: Wikileaks published cables that revealed much of the corruption of Ben Ali and his family, which helped garner support for the protests both in Tunisia and abroad. Additionally, American foreign policy continues to value close relationships between the U.S. and repressive leaders in the region, including Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in the past the United States has praised Ben Ali himself for his country’s stability. These facts reveal the deep inconsistencies in American human rights policy. Just as Tunisians in the upcoming elections must remember that democracy is not for a few chosen parties, the U.S. must remember that we don’t get to choose to support human rights only when doing so matches our interests. Human rights and political freedom rely on constant respect. To do otherwise is to undermine their most fundamental principles.