Tunisia turmoil: Dare we hope for democracy?

This way to democracy?

A few years ago Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, both prominent American political scientists, made an interesting argument that the civilizational divide between Muslims and the West was not about democracy but sex. They had found that when it came to democracy, there was marginally more appreciation and support for it in the Muslim World and the real issues that divided us were views about homosexuality and gender roles. The survey they cited had found that Muslim support for democratic ideals was 87% and it compared well with the 86% support for the same in the West (see page 64 of this PDF link).

Similarly just over two years ago a survey conducted by Gallup Poll found that support for democracy in Muslim countries like Iran, Egypt and Indonesia was over 90%. Even though I have long advocated democracy in Muslim societies and have advanced theoretical arguments to support the compatibility of Islam and democracy, I found these statistics frustrating. So if so many cared about democracy, why was it that only a few did anything about it?

Now gradually Muslim masses are answering this question. The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon (2005), the lawyers’ and judges’ mutiny in Pakistan (2007), the Green Revolution in Iran (2009) and the current Tunisian uprising are all answers to this question: Why won’t Muslims do something about the democracy deficit in their world?

The recent sustained protests in Tunisia, triggered by the self immolation of a computer scientist, Muhammed Bouazizi, frustrated by unemployment (estimated at 40%) and lack of economic opportunities, has resulted in the collapse of one of the most enduring police states in the Arab world. Ben Ali was in power since 1987, and finally left Tunisia for Saudi Arabia this week.

The collapse of Ben Ali’s regime has fired the imagination of Arab streets. People are hopeful that a democratic regime will appear in Tunisia and will have a domino effect on the rest of the Arab World. Even outside the Arab world, Western leaders are hoping that the current crisis will engender a new democratic government in Tunisia.

Dare we hope that this will come to pass?

I am hopeful, wishful – but also skeptical. I was in Egypt during the green revolution in Iran, and I saw that the Egyptians were green with Iran envy. The youth were wishful that they too could rise up against Mubarak’s dictatorship and the intellectuals were jealous that they could not emulate the Iranians. But the green revolution of Iran did not inspire the Egyptians to take action. Perhaps the Tunisians were inspired and when Muhammad Bouazizi pulled the trigger, they took to the streets. Today Egyptian youth are chanting in Cairo, “Oh Ben Ali, tell Mr. Mubarak we have the airplane waiting for him to leave too!” We will soon learn if the desire for change can be contagious.

If in a year or two, Tunisia takes significantly positive steps towards genuine democratization and economic reforms; it will definitely become a beacon for change in the Arab world. What has happened really is that one individual has departed. His departure will not create jobs and will certainly not herald change. The regime, the infrastructure that facilitated twenty-three years of dictatorship is still in place. Unless it is dismantled and replaced, we will soon see the emergence of a new strong man who will rule Tunisia for the next two decades. It has happened too many times already in the Arab World.

Right now the revolution in Tunisia is not a revolution. It is a spontaneous uprising without cohesive leadership, vision or even purpose. It is a reflection of frustration and a collective scream that status quo is untenable. We are assuming, hoping that it is a call for democracy and will lead to one. A new strong man with measures that provide short-term economic relief to the beleaguered youth in Tunisia could mug the nation easily.

I feel that unless the following things happen in quick succession, we might witness another missed opportunity in the Arab World.

  1. A pro-democracy leadership should come forward to take ownership of the uprising and ensure that the desire for comprehensive change is nurtured and guided to prevent chaos and misdirection of public energy.
  2. Free and fair elections are held as soon as possible to ensure that the leadership transition from Ben Ali loyalists to pro-change advocates is facilitated.
  3. A new constitution is drafted that enshrines checks and balances and safeguards democratic processes. The current constitution that enabled 23 years of dictatorship and legitimized a police state is worthless.
  4. Some NGO needs to emerge that can initiate and facilitate a national dialogue about what will be the vision of a new Tunisia. To shape and articulate what Tunisians want?
  5. For decades Ben Ali had suppressed Islamists. Tunisia cannot be democratic and open without the participation of Islamists. Fortunately for Tunisia, Tunisian Islamists like the exiled Raschid Al Ghannoushi, are both pro-democracy and willing to share power with liberals and secularists. Together they have an opportunity to provide a model of Arab democracy.

Tunisians are at a very important moment in their history. They have an opportunity to move towards an enviable future. I wish them luck and pray that they make the right choices. They have already made the sacrifices; it is time to ensure that they are not wasted. Muslims and democratic advocates everywhere are rooting for them.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor at the University of Delaware. He is a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. His website is www.ijtihad.org.


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