x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Where will these dreams and demands take Tunisia?

We are left to marvel and the power and bravery of the Tunisian masses and to wonder. But will their courage lead to a new day?

Tunisia is on my mind. Events unfolding there have been both dramatic and inspiring, and are dominating discussions across the Arab world. The scenes coming from Tunis have been riveting. A peaceful revolt that persisted in the face of repression and violence has brought down a dictator and a government in a marvelous display of "people power".

We have seen few instances of mass mobilisation like this before in the Arab world. Generations ago, there were the uprisings against colonial domination across North Africa. More recently, the region witnessed the first Palestinian intifada and the massive street demonstrations in Lebanon that followed the assassination of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. But these have been few and far between and, more to the point, the hopes that accompanied them have gone largely unfulfilled.

Going back a century or so, the impact of colonial domination and imperial manipulation has taken a toll. The region was occupied, deeply wounded, dismembered, and transformed, against the will of its inhabitants. Scars remain. For one, there is a gnawing sense that history is made by others, that life is "out of control". In the face of this malaise, Tunisia is strong medicine.

While I do not agree with those who assume that this movement is automatically transferable to other countries, there is no doubt that it is a transformative moment that has inspired many Arabs. But those who force parallels with the fall of the Iron Curtain are mistaken. There is no Soviet Empire or occupation army here. Each Arab country has evolved differently, has unique internal dynamics, and governments that enjoy varying degrees of legitimacy. And notions of "spontaneous combustion" - or "what caught fire here will spread there" - are, at best, apolitical fantasies with little regard to history - not unlike the neo-conservatives' notion that the fall of Saddam would unleash a democratic transformation across the region.

What is indisputable, though, is that Tunisia has captured attention and become an inspiration to many Arabs. But there is, of course, a difference between being inspired by a performance and repeating that performance.

Right now we are left to marvel at the power and bravery of the Tunisian masses and to wonder. We must wonder, for example, why and how the regime crumbled so quickly, and what internal dynamics were at work that convinced president Ben Ali to leave, the party to fall apart, the feared and omnipresent security services to lose control, and the army to pull back.

And we must wonder about the mobilisation itself. There is, no doubt, a fascinating back story yet to be told of how this movement came together, found its discipline and organisation, and sustained itself. It is clear that new media played an important role, but that alone is not sufficient to explain this effort. What was, for example, the role of the organised labour movement or Ennahda, or other forces in civil society? Was there cooperation or competition amongst these groupings, and if competition, which will emerge as the "driver" moving forward?

And because so much is still unclear, we must wonder where it will go, what leaders will emerge and what direction the "new" Tunisia will take.

As I've watched these developments unfolding, I've been thinking about a group of young Tunisians I met almost two decades ago. They were nephews of a friend of mine who lived in the Washington area. My friend knew that I was going with an American delegation to Tunis to participate in a conference on democracy that was sponsored by the ruling party on the fourth anniversary of Mr Ben Ali's assumption of power. My friend encouraged me to take some time to meet his nephews, telling me that it would give me some perspective on the problems in Tunisia and an alternative view of the country's political scene.

His nephews were, in fact, bright and politically active on their campus in a branch of the outlawed Ennahda party.  After a few hours speaking with them I was so glad I had made a detour from my conference to get to know them. They were quite challenging in their views and full of anger and idealism and demands for change. But they were also kids, and like college kids everywhere, they were drawn to the changing culture of the times and wanted to share in all its possibilities. Most of all, they wanted to know what the future had in store for them. True, they had embraced a religious ideology that was neither progressive nor open to the changing global culture to which they were also attracted, but they wanted and had the right to be taken seriously.

When I returned to the conference later that day I spoke about these young people and of the need to be open to their idealism. The justice minister of Tunisia had just spoken about the threat posed by these groups. I turned to him and said, "You must not dismiss them. They should be engaged and inspired. They are your future." I was stunned by his harsh response. He said that if they demanded and demonstrated in the streets "they would be engaged by police and a strong hand".

I have also been thinking about a group of strong and smart young Tunisian women who were at this conference. When they spoke they expressed deep concerns about whether the secularism of the current order would prevail, allowing them to continue to play an active role in their society. They understood the arguments our American contingent had been making about "Jeffersonian" democracy, but they were more concerned with the threat to their freedoms posed by intolerant fundamentalism.

I wonder where those students and women are today. The generation that followed them did engage in the streets and were met with a "strong hand". What is clear is that the "strong hand" was not the engagement that was needed, nor did it hold back the dreams and demands of the young. What is not clear is the outcome. Where it goes from here remains uncertain.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington