PARIS — By removing a despot who was the main obstacle to democracy, the Tunisian revolt has immense importance for the Arab and Islamic world. Above all, it has opened up a future that, due to the iron grip of an authoritarian political system backed by European and Arab governments, had been considered closed.
As we see from the burgeoning demonstrations in Egypt, it is not lost on others in the region that ousting corrupt autocrats is no longer just an impossible dream. Tunisia’s message to others in the region is that despotism is not a lot in life to which they must submit. That message is spreading fast because the Tunisian democratic movement is legitimately homegrown and not tied to a Western sponsor, as was the case with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
As I well know from personal experience, however, an open future includes not only the possibility of democracy, but the possibility of resurgent dictatorship.
In order to achieve democracy and diminish the prospect of a new strongman taking over, certain conditions have to be fulfilled.
First, the movement has to distance itself from the old regime and its elites. Revolutions only happen when the system is thoroughly dismantled and rebuilt. For now, the political and neoliberal economic structures that supported Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship, although shaken and fragile, are to a large extent still intact. The same elites are still in charge.
From this perspective, it was a mistake for the movement to enter into negotiations to form a coalition government with the old elites. They can be trusted only when they voluntarily resign and allow themselves to be replaced by others elected by the people.
Second, the entire structure of the despotic regime — the executive, judiciary and legislative branches — should be revolutionized. It would be a mistake to limit the objectives of the movement to simply changing personalities.
The lack of experience on the part of ordinary people should not lead the movement to import elites from the former regime into the new government. My experience of the 1979 Iranian revolution taught me that in any department and ministry there are enough patriotic experts who are not tarnished by their association with the former regime and who are willing to play a constructive role in rebuilding the country. The fact that the existing elites have the lion’s share of the seats in government indicates that there is a serious shortcoming here. This gap has to be filled as soon as possible; otherwise, the elites of the ancien régime will reconstitute their power.
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