Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ben Ali

Is It 1848 in the Arab World?

The riots that toppled Tunisia’s strong man on January 14 spread on Tuesday to Egypt, which is in its third day of rioting. Today riots have broken out in Yemen. Where next? Could the rioting spread to non-Arab parts of the Middle East, such as Iran and/or Pakistan?

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” The regimes that appear strong, with massive security forces, are suddenly revealed to be hollow. This is what happened in Tunisia. Ben Ali, in power since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia after riots started when a fruit vendor immolated himself after his wares were seized by a government agent because he lacked a license to peddle fruit. It has been, on the scale of things, a relatively bloodless revolution, at least so far.

Egypt, of course, is a much larger country, with a population of 83 million, while Tunisia has only a little over 10 million. And Egypt is among the most densely populated countries on earth when you take into account the fact that more than 90 percent of it is essentially uninhabited desert. A popular revolt there could get very messy indeed.

It is all reminiscent of Europe in 1848, when a revolution in France that toppled the regime of King Louis-Philippe spread like a wildfire to Germany, Denmark, Italy, Prussia, and the Hapsburg Empire. Even Switzerland had a brief civil war. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid for his own throne, ordered changes in the constitution that resulted in a constitutional monarchy. The Chartist movement in Britain had a meeting on Kensington Common that numbered perhaps 150,000 people. They presented a mammoth petition to Parliament, but the meeting remained peaceful.

While many regimes survived and were able to reassert autocratic power before long (France’s Second Republic lasted only four years before its president, Louis Napoleon, converted it into the Second Empire, with himself as Napoleon III), the pace of political change in Europe accelerated markedly after 1848, as the Industrial Revolution continued. (The phrase Industrial Revolution was, in fact, coined in 1848.)

Will 2011 prove to be the 1848 of the Middle East? If the doors are rotten enough, it will.

The riots that toppled Tunisia’s strong man on January 14 spread on Tuesday to Egypt, which is in its third day of rioting. Today riots have broken out in Yemen. Where next? Could the rioting spread to non-Arab parts of the Middle East, such as Iran and/or Pakistan?

John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” The regimes that appear strong, with massive security forces, are suddenly revealed to be hollow. This is what happened in Tunisia. Ben Ali, in power since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia after riots started when a fruit vendor immolated himself after his wares were seized by a government agent because he lacked a license to peddle fruit. It has been, on the scale of things, a relatively bloodless revolution, at least so far.

Egypt, of course, is a much larger country, with a population of 83 million, while Tunisia has only a little over 10 million. And Egypt is among the most densely populated countries on earth when you take into account the fact that more than 90 percent of it is essentially uninhabited desert. A popular revolt there could get very messy indeed.

It is all reminiscent of Europe in 1848, when a revolution in France that toppled the regime of King Louis-Philippe spread like a wildfire to Germany, Denmark, Italy, Prussia, and the Hapsburg Empire. Even Switzerland had a brief civil war. King William II of the Netherlands, afraid for his own throne, ordered changes in the constitution that resulted in a constitutional monarchy. The Chartist movement in Britain had a meeting on Kensington Common that numbered perhaps 150,000 people. They presented a mammoth petition to Parliament, but the meeting remained peaceful.

While many regimes survived and were able to reassert autocratic power before long (France’s Second Republic lasted only four years before its president, Louis Napoleon, converted it into the Second Empire, with himself as Napoleon III), the pace of political change in Europe accelerated markedly after 1848, as the Industrial Revolution continued. (The phrase Industrial Revolution was, in fact, coined in 1848.)

Will 2011 prove to be the 1848 of the Middle East? If the doors are rotten enough, it will.

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WEB EXCLUSIVE: America: The Left’s Dispensable Nation

It takes a world-class imagination to believe that the cause of democracy will not suffer from American neglect. Luckily for Peter Beinart, it takes only political bias to assert it. And so Beinart’s latest column at the Daily Beast attempts to rehabilitate the Obama administration’s freedom-neutral foreign policy by assuring us that “even in a post-American world, democracy has legs.”

Good to know. But in a post-American world, tyranny acquires jet engines. Beinart cites the Tunisian revolt as evidence of democracy’s global health.  One must ask: Wasn’t it liberal types like Beinart who rightly used to point out that toppling a tyrant in no way constituted the establishment of representative government? If Ben Ali’s flight from Tunis to Riyadh comprises democracy’s legs, Arab freedom is ready for a walker.

To finish reading this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

It takes a world-class imagination to believe that the cause of democracy will not suffer from American neglect. Luckily for Peter Beinart, it takes only political bias to assert it. And so Beinart’s latest column at the Daily Beast attempts to rehabilitate the Obama administration’s freedom-neutral foreign policy by assuring us that “even in a post-American world, democracy has legs.”

Good to know. But in a post-American world, tyranny acquires jet engines. Beinart cites the Tunisian revolt as evidence of democracy’s global health.  One must ask: Wasn’t it liberal types like Beinart who rightly used to point out that toppling a tyrant in no way constituted the establishment of representative government? If Ben Ali’s flight from Tunis to Riyadh comprises democracy’s legs, Arab freedom is ready for a walker.

To finish reading this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

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Morning Commentary

I’m going to guess that, for President Obama, getting praised by Dick Cheney is a whole lot worse than being criticized by him. During an interview that aired on the Today show this morning, the former vice president noted that Obama has continued many of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies (“I think he’s learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate”). Cheney also spoke about how he was perceived by the public during his last few years in office (“I was there to do a job. And if it meant I had to break some china to get the job done, I did it”).

Does Hillary Clinton’s speech on Tunisia last Thursday indicate a return of the freedom agenda? Lee Smith wonders whether her tough talk on human rights helped bring down Ben Ali: “Over the last two years the Obama administration has rightly been excoriated for ignoring human rights issues throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East. … But Thursday afternoon in Doha Secretary Clinton fired a shot across the bow of the Arab political order.”

Ahead of Saturday’s nuclear talks between P5+1 and Tehran, Iran’s nuclear negotiator has accused the U.S. of launching a “cyberattack” against the country’s facilities and claims to have documentation of U.S. involvement in Stuxnet (where would he have gotten that impression?): “‘Those who have done that could see now that they were not successful in that and we are following our success,’ he said. He added that Iran is not the only country vulnerable to cyberattacks, as evidenced by the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables. ‘They are also weak and vulnerable,’ he said of the United States.”

In an interview with Just Journalism, Dr. Avner Cohen took a swipe at Jeffrey Goldberg’s Iran article from last summer, which estimated that Israel had more than a 50 percent chance of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities by next July: “I never believed the alarmist story by Jeffrey Goldberg in July — I thought that he was speculating (or led by others to advance a highly speculative view) about issues that were not decided then, and surely much less so today.” Cohen also criticized the recent suggestion that Iran won’t be capable of building a bomb until 2015: “I think that anybody who suggests a concrete timetable is a fool. I do not take seriously any timetable.”

National Review’s Katrina Trinko explains why you should take those two new ObamaCare polls with a grain of salt: “Take the AP poll, which shows that 40 percent of adults support Obamacare and 41 percent oppose it. In November, the last time the AP polled this question, 38 percent supported Obamacare and 47 percent opposed it.  But the sample in November was very different: 38 percent Republican and 39 percent Democrat. The sample in January wasn’t so balanced, with 42 percent of the responders Democrat and 36 percent Republican.”

I’m going to guess that, for President Obama, getting praised by Dick Cheney is a whole lot worse than being criticized by him. During an interview that aired on the Today show this morning, the former vice president noted that Obama has continued many of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies (“I think he’s learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate”). Cheney also spoke about how he was perceived by the public during his last few years in office (“I was there to do a job. And if it meant I had to break some china to get the job done, I did it”).

Does Hillary Clinton’s speech on Tunisia last Thursday indicate a return of the freedom agenda? Lee Smith wonders whether her tough talk on human rights helped bring down Ben Ali: “Over the last two years the Obama administration has rightly been excoriated for ignoring human rights issues throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East. … But Thursday afternoon in Doha Secretary Clinton fired a shot across the bow of the Arab political order.”

Ahead of Saturday’s nuclear talks between P5+1 and Tehran, Iran’s nuclear negotiator has accused the U.S. of launching a “cyberattack” against the country’s facilities and claims to have documentation of U.S. involvement in Stuxnet (where would he have gotten that impression?): “‘Those who have done that could see now that they were not successful in that and we are following our success,’ he said. He added that Iran is not the only country vulnerable to cyberattacks, as evidenced by the WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables. ‘They are also weak and vulnerable,’ he said of the United States.”

In an interview with Just Journalism, Dr. Avner Cohen took a swipe at Jeffrey Goldberg’s Iran article from last summer, which estimated that Israel had more than a 50 percent chance of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities by next July: “I never believed the alarmist story by Jeffrey Goldberg in July — I thought that he was speculating (or led by others to advance a highly speculative view) about issues that were not decided then, and surely much less so today.” Cohen also criticized the recent suggestion that Iran won’t be capable of building a bomb until 2015: “I think that anybody who suggests a concrete timetable is a fool. I do not take seriously any timetable.”

National Review’s Katrina Trinko explains why you should take those two new ObamaCare polls with a grain of salt: “Take the AP poll, which shows that 40 percent of adults support Obamacare and 41 percent oppose it. In November, the last time the AP polled this question, 38 percent supported Obamacare and 47 percent opposed it.  But the sample in November was very different: 38 percent Republican and 39 percent Democrat. The sample in January wasn’t so balanced, with 42 percent of the responders Democrat and 36 percent Republican.”

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Hillary Speaks Loudly and Carries Off Big Shtick

Every once in a while, someone high up in the Obama administration says something halfway meaningful about human rights. Immediately afterward, pundits celebrate the statement, regardless of its having no connection to anything the administration actually does. In this way, America’s foundational defense of liberty is morphing into a series of symbolic nods to bygone superstition. Soon parents will explain to puzzled kids, “You see, in olden days, Americans believed they could impact freedom around the world if they did certain things, and so it’s tradition for leaders to praise ‘human rights’ when talking about oppressed people.”

Only such an explanation could make sense of the ambivalence toward human freedom displayed by Hillary Clinton this week. “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, adopting a tone reminiscent of the Bush administration, blasted Arab governments for stalled political change, warning that extremists were exploiting a lack of democracy to promote radical agendas across the Middle East,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon on Friday.

Here’s the “blast”: “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

Well and good. But here’s the secretary of state’s less-celebrated remark, made in an interview with Al Arabiya, regarding actual American policy and the revolt in Tunisia: “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.” Look who’s sinking in the sand now.

It’s one thing to note that the revolution in Tunisia, like all infant revolutions, could lead to better or worse conditions. It’s quite another not to take the side of the oppressed at the outset — especially after delivering a “blast” to corrupt Arab governments. And especially after leaked diplomatic cables show American officials describing the regime of ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali as corrupt and “sclerotic,” with “no checks in the system.”

The Obama administration feels that the U.S. has no dog in the fight between freedom and autocracy. As a country, we’ve been there before — pre-9/11, to be exact. Look how peacefully those days came to a resolution. Still, one must pay lip service to tradition. So every now and then, the secretary of state or the president talk of reforming stagnant political orders and we all applaud. It’s kind of like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. It’s a question of manners, mostly. No one really believes, as they used to, that your soul escapes through your nose. We now know it evaporates through the process of American smart power.

Every once in a while, someone high up in the Obama administration says something halfway meaningful about human rights. Immediately afterward, pundits celebrate the statement, regardless of its having no connection to anything the administration actually does. In this way, America’s foundational defense of liberty is morphing into a series of symbolic nods to bygone superstition. Soon parents will explain to puzzled kids, “You see, in olden days, Americans believed they could impact freedom around the world if they did certain things, and so it’s tradition for leaders to praise ‘human rights’ when talking about oppressed people.”

Only such an explanation could make sense of the ambivalence toward human freedom displayed by Hillary Clinton this week. “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, adopting a tone reminiscent of the Bush administration, blasted Arab governments for stalled political change, warning that extremists were exploiting a lack of democracy to promote radical agendas across the Middle East,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon on Friday.

Here’s the “blast”: “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

Well and good. But here’s the secretary of state’s less-celebrated remark, made in an interview with Al Arabiya, regarding actual American policy and the revolt in Tunisia: “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.” Look who’s sinking in the sand now.

It’s one thing to note that the revolution in Tunisia, like all infant revolutions, could lead to better or worse conditions. It’s quite another not to take the side of the oppressed at the outset — especially after delivering a “blast” to corrupt Arab governments. And especially after leaked diplomatic cables show American officials describing the regime of ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali as corrupt and “sclerotic,” with “no checks in the system.”

The Obama administration feels that the U.S. has no dog in the fight between freedom and autocracy. As a country, we’ve been there before — pre-9/11, to be exact. Look how peacefully those days came to a resolution. Still, one must pay lip service to tradition. So every now and then, the secretary of state or the president talk of reforming stagnant political orders and we all applaud. It’s kind of like saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. It’s a question of manners, mostly. No one really believes, as they used to, that your soul escapes through your nose. We now know it evaporates through the process of American smart power.

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Stay Engaged with Tunisia

As Max Boot implies, riot-torn Tunisia is not predestined for any particular future. The U.S. response will matter to the outcome. The sclerotic Ben Ali regime has been under rhetorical fire from dissidents for years due to its corrupt, repressive character, but there is no evidence of an organized opposition bent on armed revolution. No ideological red flags are waving over Tunisia; there may be groups encouraging the outbreak of unrest, but there has been no accelerating drumbeat from a well-defined radical organization like the plotters of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The riots in Tunisia mirror the fears in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Jordan over a common set of economic woes: rising food and gas prices and high unemployment.

But while Tunisia may not be experiencing a centrally directed ideological revolt, the political conditions are not quiescent there. If pluralism and consensual government are to take hold, the U.S. will have to interest itself in the process. The usual suspects — the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda — have stakes in Tunisia already. The principal opposition group, al-Nadha (“Renaissance”), is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi (not to be confused with the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who took power on Friday), is an exile in Britain, a biographical detail that echoes the history of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But Ghannouchi’s profile as a Sunni Islamist leader is more similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi; Ghannouchi endorses terrorist groups like Hamas but spends most of his time writing, lecturing, and attending conferences.

Rachid Ghannouchi has been largely silent during the past week’s unrest, giving no indication that he has specific political intentions. But he would be a natural focus of interest for regional governments — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Italy, France — that are on the alert to influence developments in Tunisia. Attempts at influence by Tehran are a given as well: Ghannouchi was an early supporter of the 1979 revolution and has maintained his ties to Iranian clerics. Tunisia severed relations with Iran in the 1980s over the Islamic Republic’s penchant for fomenting unrest, but diplomatic and economic ties have been restored over the past decade. These ties include an Iranian cultural center in Tunis (referenced here and here), an entity that in other regional nations has been a means of introducing paramilitary operatives and Islamist recruiters. Read More

As Max Boot implies, riot-torn Tunisia is not predestined for any particular future. The U.S. response will matter to the outcome. The sclerotic Ben Ali regime has been under rhetorical fire from dissidents for years due to its corrupt, repressive character, but there is no evidence of an organized opposition bent on armed revolution. No ideological red flags are waving over Tunisia; there may be groups encouraging the outbreak of unrest, but there has been no accelerating drumbeat from a well-defined radical organization like the plotters of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The riots in Tunisia mirror the fears in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Jordan over a common set of economic woes: rising food and gas prices and high unemployment.

But while Tunisia may not be experiencing a centrally directed ideological revolt, the political conditions are not quiescent there. If pluralism and consensual government are to take hold, the U.S. will have to interest itself in the process. The usual suspects — the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda — have stakes in Tunisia already. The principal opposition group, al-Nadha (“Renaissance”), is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi (not to be confused with the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who took power on Friday), is an exile in Britain, a biographical detail that echoes the history of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But Ghannouchi’s profile as a Sunni Islamist leader is more similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi; Ghannouchi endorses terrorist groups like Hamas but spends most of his time writing, lecturing, and attending conferences.

Rachid Ghannouchi has been largely silent during the past week’s unrest, giving no indication that he has specific political intentions. But he would be a natural focus of interest for regional governments — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Italy, France — that are on the alert to influence developments in Tunisia. Attempts at influence by Tehran are a given as well: Ghannouchi was an early supporter of the 1979 revolution and has maintained his ties to Iranian clerics. Tunisia severed relations with Iran in the 1980s over the Islamic Republic’s penchant for fomenting unrest, but diplomatic and economic ties have been restored over the past decade. These ties include an Iranian cultural center in Tunis (referenced here and here), an entity that in other regional nations has been a means of introducing paramilitary operatives and Islamist recruiters.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has seized on the Tunisian unrest as a pretext for issuing audio appeals and a recruiting video. There is no evidence AQIM is organized for operations on a large scale, nor is the seizure of political power an al-Qaeda method. But any period of internal disorder in Tunisia will be an invitation to AQIM to ramp up its efforts there.

Tunisia sits on a crucial geographic chokepoint — the Strait of Sicily — in the central Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. and Europe can get away with shrinking navies while the Mediterranean coast is held by well-disposed governments. But Tunisia is one of a handful of nations in the world that could single-handedly turn a maritime choke point into an oversize international security problem. A radicalized Tunisia would have even greater security implications than a radicalized Libya or Algeria; the geography of a strait is a stern taskmaster. And Iran’s history of interest in the choke points on which the West relies for commerce and naval power (see here and here) suggests that the leadership in Tehran is fully aware of those implications and will do what it can to exploit them.

The good news is that a newly liberal, consensual government in Tunisia would be the best outcome for U.S. interests as well as for Tunisians. But we will have to actively encourage that outcome if we want to see it. The forces working against it are sure to multiply.

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Stay Tuned to Tunisia

For all its reputation as the world’s most unstable region, the Middle East has actually been extremely stable in one respect — almost all of its states are ruled by dictators who tend to rule for decades. That’s why it’s very big news that a revolution has swept Tunisia, with reports that President Ben Ali has fled the country. Based on the (scant) reporting so far, it is not clear whether any political movement is behind these events. Most of the accounts describe fairly spontaneous protests and riots after a vegetable vendor set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his cart — his sole means of support — by the authorities.

Tunisians have long been fed up with the corrupt, illegitimate rule of Ben Ali and his hated wife, an Eva Peron figure. They and their family members have grown absurdly rich even as the rest of the country has stagnated. Many other peoples across the Arab world — in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other states — are fed up too. But they have scant chance to express their displeasure except covertly, because if there is one area in which Arab rulers excel, it is in building efficient police states. Now the police state in Tunisia has crumbled.

That is either good news or bad news. It all depends on what comes next. If Tunisia makes the transition to democratic rule, that would be an epochal development that could influence neighboring states in a positive way. If another dictator comes to the fore, that would not be so good. Even worse would be if that dictator emerges from the Islamist fringe. Stay tuned. It’s still early days, but certainly the end of Ben Ali’s long-lived and heavy-handed rule is not to be mourned, even if he was a reliable American ally.

For all its reputation as the world’s most unstable region, the Middle East has actually been extremely stable in one respect — almost all of its states are ruled by dictators who tend to rule for decades. That’s why it’s very big news that a revolution has swept Tunisia, with reports that President Ben Ali has fled the country. Based on the (scant) reporting so far, it is not clear whether any political movement is behind these events. Most of the accounts describe fairly spontaneous protests and riots after a vegetable vendor set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his cart — his sole means of support — by the authorities.

Tunisians have long been fed up with the corrupt, illegitimate rule of Ben Ali and his hated wife, an Eva Peron figure. They and their family members have grown absurdly rich even as the rest of the country has stagnated. Many other peoples across the Arab world — in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other states — are fed up too. But they have scant chance to express their displeasure except covertly, because if there is one area in which Arab rulers excel, it is in building efficient police states. Now the police state in Tunisia has crumbled.

That is either good news or bad news. It all depends on what comes next. If Tunisia makes the transition to democratic rule, that would be an epochal development that could influence neighboring states in a positive way. If another dictator comes to the fore, that would not be so good. Even worse would be if that dictator emerges from the Islamist fringe. Stay tuned. It’s still early days, but certainly the end of Ben Ali’s long-lived and heavy-handed rule is not to be mourned, even if he was a reliable American ally.

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