By Michael J. Totten

Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country last week. After weeks of demonstrations and riots in this Arab North African country, during which dozens of people were shot in the streets by security forces, the president for life opted for early retirement after 23 years in power, perhaps so he might die one day in his bed instead of less pleasantly at the hands of his subjects.

A young man in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire to protest the government’s confiscation of his food cart — his sole source of income — and his fellow citizens responded in kind by setting the country on fire. They’re angry about the usual things citizens who live in police states get angry about — corruption, a dearth of political rights, media censorship, and economic stagnation. Diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks may even have played a role here by exposing just how lavishly Ben Ali and his wife Leila lived on the backs of his people..

The regime may well survive with a different man at the helm. That’s how things stand today. Foued Mebazaa, Ben Ali’s former speaker of parliament, is in charge at the moment. A different secular police state altogether might come to power. A reactionary Islamist dictatorship is always a possibility after a Muslim country’s government falls. And maybe — maybe — a democratic system of sorts might emerge.

Unlike in war-torn Afghanistan or fanatical Saudi Arabia, Tunisian democracy is a real possibility. It’s a bit unlikely as it’s only one possible option of many, but it could happen. Mebazaa himself is now promising, perhaps even sincerely, “a better political life which will include democracy, plurality and active participation for all the children of Tunis.”

I’ve spent time in more than a dozen Muslim countries, eight of them Arab, and Tunisia is — or at least was before this month when things fell apart — one of the most advanced and stable. The majority of its citizens belong to a well-educated middle class, the infrastructure seems no worse than Europe’s, and a high percentage of women in the cities have discarded the veil and the headscarf and dress like Europeans. The latter may sound like a small thing, but in a Muslim country, it visually indicates how much women’s rights have advanced. The overwhelming majority live near the coast in cosmopolitan cities that have traded and been in cultural contact with Europeans for millennia. It’s not a Western country, but it fully belongs to the Mediterranean region and is oriented more toward the West than most Arab countries.

Tunisia is wedged between Libya, which Muammar Kaddafi rules like a barking mad scientist, and Algeria, which during the 1990s suffered a vicious civil war as murderous and destructive as Lebanon’s and Iraq’s. Tunisia, though, averts its eyes and looks north. “Our reference groups are the French and the Italians,” culture minister Abdelbaki Hermassi told Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly a few months before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, “not the Algerians and Libyans.”

The fertile north, where almost everyone lives, has belonged to one urban civilization or another since the time of the Roman Empire, of which Tunisia was a central part. You might even say Tunisia itself used to be Western if the use of such a term would have made sense thousands of years ago. “For Tunisians,” Kaplan wrote, “the future leads, as it has since antiquity, to Rome.” He was impressed with what he saw there, and he almost single-handedly inspired me to take a look for myself.

The place feels pre-democratic in ways other Arab countries, with the exception of Lebanon, don’t. Political opinions are far more moderate, at least in my anecdotal experience, than what I hear elsewhere. Radical Islam either barely exists or is so ruthlessly suppressed it may as well not exist. Alcohol is widely available and seems hardly more taboo there than it is in France. I met several Tunisians who even bragged that thousands of Jews still live there and are well-treated.

I can’t say if the latter really is true, but the tone these people used suggested what they really meant was, “We aren’t bigots like some of our neighbors.” They volunteered this information. It didn’t occur to me to ask anyone what they thought of Jews. They just wanted me to know that Tunisia is different.

I am by nature an optimist, but the years I’ve spent working in the Middle East have taught me the hard way about pessimism. Every time things begin looking up — in Lebanon, Iraq, with the Palestinians, you name it — political and religious maniacs break out the rocket launchers. The Western, and especially American, concept of progress seems all but absent in the Arab world where everything instead goes ’round in circles.

But this small North African country is in so many ways the opposite kind of place that gives the United States trouble. It lacks the sectarianism that so poisons Lebanon and Iraq and is blessedly free of the ideological lunacy next door in Libya. The country is far less visibly Islamicized than Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it’s — and I’m not kidding here — a thousand years ahead of Afghanistan, and it lacks utterly the cult of suicide-murder and martyrdom that has plunged Gaza and the Hezbollah-ruled parts of Lebanon into death spirals.

Tunisia is better. I don’t know if it’s better enough, but it’s better.


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