It seems the Obama administration decided to drop Ben Ali. So far, Obama and those working for him have not pursued a policy of defending human rights: they did not raise the need for change in the Arab world until the day Ben Ali left. That said, although he was a member of the International Socialist movement, Ben Ali could be considered a « moderate » and an ally of the West: not really the kind of man the Obama administration likes to appease or support.
In Tunisia, Ben Ali's main mistake was not corruption, brutality or censorship: all this is commonplace throughout the Arab world. His main mistake was to be an ally of the weaker side: the Western world.
His other mistake was to have blocked the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda so widely used in other Arab dictatorships to create convenient scapegoats. He was also too close to capitalism to be loved by trendy intellectuals.
The period ahead is particularly perilous.
No one can know yet all the other reasons Ben Ali's regime in Tunisia collapsed; many pieces of the puzzle are still missing: Who were those who took the decisions ? What were their motives ? Were there foreign influences ? Most of the explanations currently given have the consistency of sand and wind. In dictatorships, especially in that part of the world, riots and popular discontent are not enough to topple whomever holds power firmly. It seems the army refused to obey, and some people in key positions decided that a change in the regime had to occur.
No one can know yet, either, what will happen now: one can merely see that, along with the people who return to Tunisia, there are not only women and men who love democracy, but also many leftists, communists, Arab ultra-nationalists and Islamists.
The risk of serious contagion seems limited: while dissatisfaction is brewing in other Arab countries, the conditions there are very different from what they are in Tunisia. Other Arab countries do not have a middle class; their armies are more fully integrated in the power apparatus; they do not rely essentially on tourism, except for Morocco and, partly, Egypt. If contagion really occurs, it could quickly take on the appearance of a cataclysm. Although in Tunisia, the threat represented by radical Islam exists without being intense [the teaching of Islam in Tunisia is generally secular: cf.Lafif Lakhdar, "Moving From Salafi to Rationalist Education," Meria, vol.9, March 2005], in other Arab countries, it is much bigger.
Even if the risk of serious contagion seems low, the risk of deterioration within Tunisia is high and underestimated. The chance that a democracy will be born soon are slim: over the past decade, attempts at democratization in this part of the world have not been an unqualified success, even though foreign forces, mostly American, were there to maintain some stability.
In Tunisia, the population stands alone, facing the army and a small ruling clique. The old bureaucracy is everywhere and will not be dissolved and replaced within a few weeks. The emergence of a new strongman, more open to some freedoms, and ready to make a few promises, is a more likely possibility; but it is premature to exclude a deterioration of the situation and a slide into chaos.
At first, the Tunisian population protested in the context of rising prices of food and the growing despair of young jobless graduates. The protests became a global revolt in which all the accumulated frustrations against the regime came spilling out.
Food prices will increase further over the coming months. Unemployment will increase as well, and purchasing power is likely to fall. Financial difficulties will arise : the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families have diverted huge sums of money and vast amounts of gold; the price tag for one month of riots already is more than two billions dollars. This is a lot for a small country without energy resources, and whose image of stability, so essential to attract visitors, is badly damaged.
In this context, discontent and violence could last, and all political maneuvers could become possible, especially those emanating from people preaching anger, resentment and magical solutions: leaders of En-Nahda [Rebirth] claim that they are not radical anymore, but it would be foolish to take their word for it without a high dose of skepticism. One of the provisional government's first decisions was to offer a general amnesty to all the people who were convicted of political crimes, including Islamists imprisoned for acts of terrorism. Today, Al-Jazeera in Arabic is the most watched TV channel in the country.
It would be equally foolish to rely on Europe and Europeans to give any relevant advice. In recent days, the attitude of European governments was dictated by opportunism and fear of what the « Arab street » might do on European soil; it is mainly because of this fear that European politicians who described Ben Ali a few weeks ago as the reliable leader of a relatively healthy country now depict him as the hideous incarnation of the worst corruption and the most abominable brutality. Europe is seriously afflicted by a widespread spirit of pre-emptive submission to threats. The media are essentially in the hands of « useful idiots » and zealous followers of political correctness.
If the United States acts wisely and swiftly, it could play a positive role, and again be a beacon of freedom. But the decisions of the Obama administration in this regard have not been promising . To do what is necessary, the administration would have to completely change its guidelines. If Obama decides to adopt principles close to those used by President William Jefferson Clinton in 1994 (the « doctrine of enlargement », designed to extend and protect basic human and civil rights around the world), it could not be impossible. The new Congress would have to encourage Obama to go in this direction. And the encouragements would have to be strong and unambiguous.
The price of agricultural products and energy resources is bound to rise all over the planet. Europe will be even more profoundly destabilized by the crisis of the euro. The situation in the Ivory Coast will remain tense: the idea of holding elections to reunify a country deeply split between Christian and Muslim areas areas was nonsense and can only lead to a dead; as several countries, starting with Nigeria, experience the same type of division, any armed action might engulf the region. Tensions in the Sudan have not really vanished: a vote was held in Southern Sudan, and a massacre tentatively averted (it seems the Obama administration stopped General Bashir's arm by promising to forget his crimes and easing sanctions against his regime); but the most barbaric brutality can resume anytime.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah recently strengthened its grip on the government, and continues to amass weapons.
The Iranian regime meticulously weaves its networks of Hamas and Hizballah in the region and throughout South America, and advances smoothly toward nuclear weapons.
In Iraq, the vacuum left by the United States has allowed the highly symbolic return of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Afghanistan is extremely unstable, and the Taliban are preparing an offensive for next Spring.
Many signs seems to show that Pakistan is on the verge of collapse.
In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, rulers are old and sick. Riots in several Egyptian cities in recent days will leave traces and have consequences.
Russia and China's interests are to exploit this general disorder, both to continue pushing their pawns and to make the world even safer for dictatorships.
If the chances to see a democracy emerge in Tunisia are thin, in the region that stretches from Pakistan to Morocco they are almost non-existent.
If democracy in Tunisia could lead to a victory of radical Islam, it would almost definitely mean a triumph of Jihadism in many other Arab countries.
How would you like to live in a world dominated by China, Russia, dictators and jihadists ? That is what a post-American world would look like -- it could easily become a reality.
The year 2011 seems destined to be the year of living dangerously.