The sudden and as-yet-unexplained exit of Tunisia's strongman, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 74, after 23 years in power has potential implications for the Middle East and for Muslims worldwide. As an Egyptian commentator noted, "Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear. Every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity." I watch with both sets of emotions.
Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (left) with his two neighbors, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya (middle) and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria.
Over time, regimes learned to protect themselves through overlapping intelligence services, reliance on family and tribal members, repression, and other mechanisms. Four decades of sclerotic, sterile stability followed. With only rare exceptions (Iraq in 2003, Gaza in 2007), did regimes get ousted; even more rarely (Sudan in 1985) did civilian dissent have a significant role.
Enter first Al-Jazeera, which focuses Arab-wide attention on topics of its choosing, and then the internet. Beyond its inexpensive, detailed, and timely information, the internet also provides unprecedented secrets (e.g., the recent WikiLeaks dump of U.S. diplomatic cables) even as it connects the likeminded via Facebook and Twitter. These new forces converged in Tunisia in December to create an intifada and quickly ousted an entrenched tyrant.
Tanks and soldiers dot the streets of Tunisia.
Tunisian Islamists had a minimal role in overthrowing Mr. Ben Ali but they will surely scramble to exploit the opportunity that has opened to them. Indeed, the leader of Tunisia's main Islamist organization, Ennahda, has announced his first return to the country since 1989. Does Interim President Fouad Mebazaa, 77, have the savvy or political credibility to maintain power? Will the military keep the old guard in power? Do moderate forces have the cohesion and vision to deflect an Islamist surge?
The second worry concerns nearby Europe, already deeply incompetent at dealing with its Islamist challenge. Were Ennahda to take power and then expand networks, provide funds, and perhaps smuggle arms to allies in nearby Europe, it could greatly exacerbate existing problems there.
Rached Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda, Tunisia's main Islamist organization.
What Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly said of a Latin America dictator, "He's a bastard but he's our bastard," applies to Mr. Ben Ali and many other Arab strongmen, leaving U.S. government policy in seeming disarray. Barack Obama's ambiguous after-the-fact declaration that he "applaud[s] the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people" can conveniently be read either as a warning to assorted other "bastards" or as a better-late-than-never recognition of awkward facts on the ground.
As Washington sorts out options, I urge the administration to adopt two policies. First, renew the push for democratization initiated by George W. Bush in 2003, but this time with due caution, intelligence, and modesty, recognizing that his flawed implementation inadvertently facilitated the Islamists to acquire more power. Second, focus on Islamism as the civilized world's greatest enemy and stand with our allies, including those in Tunisia, to fight this blight.
Mr. Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, lived in Tunisia in 1970.